Will the UN define “zero waste”?

As consumers demand more of companies in their green practices, more companies are scrambling to embrace sustainability. One of the biggest ways to do this is by being able to boast that they’ve produced zero waste, or at least are making great strides towards achieving that goal.

The environmental group Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) have created a zero-waste resolution proposal which they hope will lead to a universally recognized definition of zero waste.

Richard Anthony, chairman of ZWIA, said the alliance hopes to get the resolution accepted by the United Nations during the upcoming Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, which begins June 20 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This conference marks the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit, which also took place in Rio.

The proposed document, which reviewed by a number of ZWIA member groups, including Zero Waste UK, Zero Waste Europe, Zero Waste Italy and Zero Waste Australia, has received unanimous support.

The 566-word resolution states that voluntary recycling goals haven´t cut waste enough.

Among its other key points are:

  • The placement of materials in waste disposal facilities such as landfills and waste-to-energy (WTE) plants causes damage to human health, wastes natural resources and/or transfers liabilities to future generations.
  • Landfills are the largest manmade source of methane in the United States and contribute significantly to global warming.
  • Reduced waste and increased reuse, recycling and composting could help reverse climate change.

In an email interview, Kellie Walters, chief executive of Zero Waste Australia, said that Australia is already on the brink of achieving zero waste.

As waste management costs soar and landfill space becomes more limited, pursuing zero waste is imperative, Walters said. Wasting things that have alternative uses is “illogical in any culture,” she added.

Michael Alexander, president of Recycle Away – a Brattleboro, Vt. recycling container company – said  the zero waste term has been hijacked by some and “used to promote dubious technologies” in the waste-to-energy field.”

“There´s a lot of people trying to use zero waste to tout their environmental commitment and, in those cases, they´re misusing the term,” Alexander said.

The zero-waste-to-landfill claim many times is, in essence, another way of saying, ´We burn the materials,´ [or], ´We don´t recycle,´ or ´We´re not able to recover.´

Other users of the term ´zero waste´ believe recovering energy from the waste stream is part of the zero waste equation.

For ZWIA, the definition of zero waste means “designing and managing products and processes to reduce the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that may be a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.”

Landfills aren’t the answer to achieving zero waste

Anthony says that even if the document doesn”t make it to the floor, the alliance will push for resource managers and local and national governments to embrace it, to prove there is “worldwide consensus on this definition.”

Because people have consumed so many resources over the past 50 years, Anthony said the resolution would serve to correct a wasteful course in human history.

But like any major shift, this one won’t happen overnight. It will require not only consensus on a definition but across-the-board cooperation and tenacity to realize a broad-based achievement of zero waste. But that’s definitely a goal worth striving for!

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for all of this information. The term “zero waste” is something we struggle with quite a bit. Is the aim “zero waste” or “zero garbage” — there is a difference. We wrote a blog post about this (http://haltonrecycles.wordpress.com/2011/11/07/garbage-waste-whats-in-a-name/) to help get the conversation going. I really hope the UN develops a strong and clear definition of this important goal.

    – John Watson, Waste Diversion Education Coordinator, Halton Region
    BLOG http://www.haltonrecycles.wordpress.com; TWITTER @HaltonRecycles

  2. Yes!! It is about time. Our best wishes to all who are behind this effort.

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