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Zero Waste: A Key Move towards a Sustainable Society


Important message from the community to the industry “if we can’t reuse it, recycle it or compost it, you shouldn’t be making it and we shouldn’t be buying it.”



Going hand in hand with reuse and repair operation is the deconstruction as opposed to demolition – of old buildings. Deconstruction takes longer but it yields more employment and valuable materials. In some cases recovered materials like doors and windows can be reused as they are, in other cases the materials (such as lumber) can be used to make new items like furniture.

Finally, after removing the recyclables and compostables, maximizing waste reduction initiatives and stimulating the reuse and repair of objects and deconstruction, we are left with the residual fraction. Today this fraction is either sent to a landfill or an incinerator, but in the zero waste strategy it is not. But before we deal with that, there is still one more step we can take to minimize the residual fraction – the pay by bag system.

Pay by bag systems

The idea here is to encourage citizens to maximize the diversion possibilities, by penalizing the production of residuals. Typically the recyclables, compostables are picked up for free, or at a flat rate (sometimes absorbed in local taxes) but an extra charge is applied to the residuals. This can be done in several ways: in some communities the residuals are weighed, in others stickers are purchased to place on each bag placed on the kurb, or special plastic bags have to be purchased. This one simple fiscal step has led to significant reductions in many jurisdictions.

The Residual Separation and Research Facilities

The residual fraction is the key difference between waste disposal (landfills and incinerators) and the zero waste strategy. The former attempts to make the residuals disappear, the latter needs to keep them very visible. The residual fraction represents our non-sustainable mistakes, either through citizens’ poor purchasing decisions or through poor industrial design. We need these residuals kept visible if we are to move towards a sustainable society. We need to study our mistakes. Thus in the Zero Waste strategy, the residuals need to be sent to a residual separation and research facility and not directly to a landfill.

Residual Separation

In Nova Scotia, the bags containing the residuals are not sent directly to a landfill but to a building located in front of the landfill. On arrival the bags are opened and the contents tipped onto conveyor belts, where well-protected and trained personnel pull out bulky items, more recyclables and more toxics. The dirty and untouched dirty organic fraction reaches the end of the conveyor belts. It is then shredded and biologically stabilized either by a second composting operation, in the case of Nova Scotia, or an anaerobic digestion system in other facilities. The point of this process is not to produce a product for sale (it is contaminated) but rather to ensure that much of the organic degradation occurs above ground in a controllable fashion before it takes place underground in an uncontrollable fashion.

However, there is more we need to do in a Zero Waste program than landfilling this nontoxic material. We need to carefully observe and study the currently non-recyclable fraction left in the residuals. This gives us our first opportunity to integrate zero waste with the educational system.

The Residual Screening and Research Facility

We need to build a research center at the Residual Screening facility. Ideally, this would be an annex of the local university or technical college. In this research center Professors and students with various interests in a sustainable future (industrial design, ethical advertising, urban and community development, economics, environmental management and global degradation) could study the non-sustainable mistakes of today’s society and propose future solutions. The simple but very important message from the community to industry: “if we can’t reuse it, recycle it or compost it, you shouldn’t be making it and we shouldn’t be buying it. We need better industrial design for the 21st Century.”

The attraction of Zero Waste as a tool to advance towards sustainability is that every human being is involved with the problem, every day. Every day we make waste we are part of a non-sustainable way of living on the planet and every day we “unmake waste” by separating our discarded materials, and by avoiding unnecessary products and packaging, we are part of a sustainable way of living on the planet.

Moreover, the Zero Waste movement can be linked to the other demands of a sustainable future. Waste is too important to be left to “waste experts.” We need to integrate those working on this issue with many other sectors in society. It is easy to see how this can be done: composting can be linked to sustainable agriculture; anaerobic digestion can be linked to sustainable energy; deconstruction can be linked to green architecture; the residual screening and research facilities are clearly linked to education and better industrial design; the reuse and repair centers can be linked to community development and the whole program can be linked to sustainable economic development and job creation.

Solving the waste problem is not going to be easy. The three alternatives of incineration, mega-landfilling and the Zero Waste strategy, all present their own set of problems. However, the difference with the Zero Waste approach is that it takes us in the right direction. Thus it makes far more sense to struggle to make this approach work because it is the only one which takes us towards a sustainable future.

Dr Paul Connett
Dr Paul Connett’s essay on “Zero Waste for Sustainability” was published as a chapter
in a book in Italy in 2009. In 2010 he made presentation on the subject to the UN
Commission and the agriculture committee of the European Parliament.

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