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Zero Waste: A Key Move towards a Sustainable Society


More than anything else Zero Waste is a new direction. We have to move from the back end of waste disposal to the front end of resource management and better industrial design.

The Fourth R

Most people are familiar with the 3R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) but it is the Fourth R of Responsibility, which holds the key to sustainability. We need individual, community, industrial, professional and political responsibilities. We need to integrate zero waste strategists with farmers, educators, economists, industrial workers, architects, community developers, and social activists.

Industrial responsibility at the front end

There are three important developments industry needs to pursue:
1) Design for Sustainability,
2) Clean Production and
3) Extended Producer Responsibility.

Design for Sustainability

Right from the outset Industry needs to incorporate this new ethic. It is not enough that industry can sell its products to the present, it must design its products so that the object, or at least its constituent materials, can easily be shared with the future.

Clean Production

Another important challenge in sustainable design is to eliminate as much as possible the use of toxic elements and compounds in manufacture. This includes toxic metals like lead, cadmium and mercury (which have no known biological use) as well as compounds containing the problematic elements chlorine, bromine and fluorine.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)

Manuf acturers and retailers can anticipate new laws that will force them to take back their products and packaging after the customer has finished with them. Some manufacturers are well ahead of the game and have found that by recovering and reusing either the parts or the materials in their products, that they can save money, both on disposal and production costs. A very good example is the Xerox Corporation in Europe. They are using the same trucks that take their machines to 16 different countries, to collect old machines. These are taken to huge warehouses in Venray, Netherlands, where the machines are stripped down. The company is recovering 95% of the material either as reusable parts or recyclable materials. This saved Xerox $76 million in the year 2000.

Community Responsibility at the back end

Community Responsibility begins with source separation and door-to-door collection systems. Basically, in all systems one container is used for the organic fraction (especially kitchen waste), one or more for the recyclables and a third for the residuals.

The Organics

It is the organic fraction which causes the odours when left around in cities like Naples. The organic fraction also causes methane and leachate generation in landfills. But perhaps the most important reason that we need to collect clean organic waste is that it is needed by farmers to replenish their soils of depleted nutrients. Compost also has a distinct advantage over incineration of not only reducing the global warming involved in the production of synthetic fertilizers but also sequestering the carbon in wood and other cellulosic fibers thereby delaying the release of global warming carbon dioxide. With incineration, the conversion of cellulose and other organic material to carbon dioxide is immediate. In San Fra ncisco, the kitchen and other organic waste is sent to a large composting plant located approximately 100 km from the city. The site is surrounded by farmland and local farmers use the compost to produce fruit, vegetables and wine, which is sent back to San Francisco. Instead of exporting their mixed waste to landfills and incinerators located in rural areas, which causes so much intense opposition from citizens and farmers, municipal decision makers should work with farmers to produce together (i.e. co-composting the organic fraction from the municipal discard stream with the agricultural waste from farming) a compost product that everyone can live with and benefit from.

In Italy, it was the need to generate clean organics which drove the development of porta-a-porta (door to door) collection systems. The large drop off containers traditionally used in Italy for both sorted and unsorted materials do not get a clean enough product for agricultural use. Zurich, Switzerland, which has a very dense housing situation, has encouraged “community composting”. In this program a number of households (ranging from 3-200) share the responsibility of running a simple compost system. Currently the city boasts over 1000 community composting plots, which in total are taking care of 50% of the city’s household organic waste.

The Recyclables

The recyclable materials are destined to go to Material Recovery Facilities (or MRFs) of which there are hundreds of successful examples around the world. Their function is to separate the paper, cardboard, glass, metals and plastic and prepare them to meet the specifications of the industries, which will use these secondary materials to manufacture new products. Some of these plants are built to handle a single stream of mixed recyclables (e.g. Perth, Australia) and others deal with two streams: paper products in one stream and bottles, cans etc in the other (e.g. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada).

Because of their high employment demands and the economy of scale, these plants are best located in large cities, which are also usually more conveniently located to industries which can use the secondary materials. This sets up an ideal partnership between urban and rural areas. The cities should export their organics to the rural areas and the rural areas shou ld transfer their recyclables to the cities.

The Residuals

The separation of clean organics and marketable recyclables takes us closer to a sustainable future,but the residuals do not.

Local and National Waste Reduction Initiatives

There are many unnecessary items especially packaging – which have entered our lives. As these pile up in landfills more and more governments and private enterprises are taking steps to reduce their use and production.

Reuse, Repair and Retraining Centers

Another important reduction strategy is to encourage the establishment of reuse, repair and retraining facilities. There are many successful examples of such operations running either for profit or as non-profit entities. An example of the former is Urban Ore in Berkeley, California. Run by Dr. Dan Knapp, a retired sociology professor and his wife Mary Lou Derventer. This operation has been running for over 30 years. The company accepts anything reusable and lays out the goods like a department store. They will pay for valuable items but more often than not people are only to happy to see their second hand appliances and furniture used again and not simply crushed and sent to a landfill or burned in an incinerator. A very profitable part of this operation is the section set aside for building materials (timber, bricks, bathroom fittings, doors and windows etc) which come from deconstruction or renovation of old buildings. More and more builders are dropping of their recovered materials while they are picking up reusable items for new projects.

These operations work so well because reusable items are valuable. Recyclables are high volume, low value; reusables are low volume, high value.

6840kg waste on rail tracks!
A student of IIM- Ahmedabad in a study has found that nearly 6840kg of solid waste is being generated every day in the three railway stations (Maninagar, Kalupur and Sabarmati) of Ahmedabad. The study concluded that lack of enough dustbins inside the rail compartments has resulted in people throwing garbage on the railway tracks. It has put forward 86 suggestions, including placing of dustbins in coaches, collecting manual garbage every five to six hours, emptying dustbins regularly and on-board cleaning system. The study also suggests supplies of filtered water in trains which could reduce the use of bottled water, replacing aluminum foil packages in pantry cars with steel cutleries and banning materials like Tetrapak in trains as they are difficult to recycle.

A major chunk, about 40%, of the waste generated at the railway stations is plastic matter which can be recycled and reused. Other sources of waste are paper, organic waste, aluminum foil, rubber, leather and clothes.

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