Zero Waste

Does it mean an end to waste?

Zero Waste
does it mean an end to waste?

Is Zero Waste a utopian ideal or a practical response
to the problem of dealing with society's escalating
mountains of rubbish? According to communities around
the world who are committing themselves to the principle
of Zero Waste - and actually setting and achieving
targets - it is an idea that can be made to work.

Warren Snow

A growing number of towns and cities around the
world are adopting Zero Waste. Places as diverse as
the small fishing village of Kovalam in South India,
and Bath and North East Somerset Council in the UK, have
adopted the Zero Waste vision. Canberra in Australia was the
first city in the world to set a Zero Waste target, now
Western Australia is aiming for Zero Waste by 2020, South
Australia is working towards a Zero Waste outcome, and a
target has been set for Eurobodalla Shire Council. British
Columbia has a Zero Waste Working Group and New
Zealand has a national strategy, with more than half its local
territorial authorities setting Zero Waste targets. Many
communities in the Philippines have official Zero Waste
goals. In the US, California has put in place a state strategy,
and individual targets have been set by San Francisco, Del
Norte County and Santa Cruz County. Seattle in Washington
has also adopted Zero Waste as a guiding principle, and
Toronto in Canada is aiming for 100% recycling by 2010.All
these communities are turning from the idea of managing
waste and are aiming instead to eliminate it.

Some see the idea of Zero Waste as preposterous, even
dishonest. Others greet it with enthusiasm and relief - at
last we have a new and inspiring way of dealing with the
intractable problem of waste. Regardless of how we view it,
Zero Waste is an emerging trend which, if successful, could
impact significantly on the way materials flow through
society and the quantity of waste that will need treating.

This poses questions for leaders in the industry that
until now has had control of the discard supply. What is
Zero Waste? Will it have a long-term impact on the waste
industry or, given time, will it run out of steam and fade away?
Who is driving it?

Zero Waste is not new - it is a process that was perfected
by nature over millions of years. Natural systems treat waste
products as resources that are used to build wealth and
increase diversity, system viability and resilience.

The beginning of waste
The industrial revolution signalled our move away from
cyclical to linear material flows but it wasn't until after
World War II, when wartime industrial capacity was moved
to domestic production, that our modern consumer society
took hold. The idea of stimulating consumption to meet
growing industrial capacity meant that people had to
acquire more of everything, almost as a duty, to help build
national economies.

' In the 1950s, The Journal of Retailing
suggested we should make consumption
our way of life, converting the buying
and use of goods into rituals that would
provide spiritual satisfaction'

Along with the growth in consumption came a growth
in waste; by the middle of the 1950s,waste was being held
up as a virtue. For example, marketing consultant Victor
Lebow called for what he called 'forced consumption' and
made the following impassioned plea in The Journal of
Retailing. 'Our enormously productive economy¿
demands that we make consumption our way of life, that
we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we
seek our spiritual satisfactions, in consumption¿ We need
things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and
discarded at an ever increasing rate.'

The success - and failure - of recycling
The rise of waste and the growth of non-returnable
packaging that took place in the 1960s and 70s led to the
phenomenal growth of recycling, which became a civic
duty for millions of people. The recycling industry owes
its existence partly to the pioneers who worked to make
recycling a part of everyday life. That level of success is clear
from a 2002 study by RW Beck Inc., for the USA National
Recycling Coalition. It shows that the US recycling industry
employs 1.1 million people and generates gross annual
revenues of US$236 billion.

In spite of the successes of recycling, waste continues to
grow and is now piling up in newly industrialized nations of
Asia and in parts of Africa. Recycling is essentially an end-of-pipe
response to waste and as such, it
has little or no influence over the whole
supply chain. This means that it is not
part of an integrated whole-system
approach to material flows and is only
marginally better than landfilling or

Increased waste disposal
capacity increases material
Landfills, incinerators and recycling are sinks for materials
and, as such, regulate and encourage upstream
wastefulness. Increased capacity results in increased
material flows - partly because it reduces friction in the
supply chain that would otherwise push responsibility for
eliminating waste back to producers, and partly because
capital-intensive facilities require consistent quantities of
material to remain viable - which in turn discourages
alternatives. This is all good for an industry predicated on
the idea that waste is a problem to be got rid of or hidden.
But it does little to address the unsustainable patterns of
production and consumption that lie at the core of the
international environmental crisis.

The former Mayor of Opotiki, New Zealand, holds up an 75-litre rubbish bag; alongside is the woman who wrote the community's Zero Waste plan, holding up the new 25-litre bag which has replaced it

Opotiki's new weekly rubbish bag and recycling bin. Residents are asked to sort recyclables into plastic bags, which maximizes space, reduces wind blowing of contents and helps with sorting at the Resource Recovery Centre. It also captures recyclable plastic bags

New Zealand Case Study 1

Leading from the front

Opotiki (population 9200)

Opotiki District Council was the first New Zealand council to
take up the Zero Waste challenge and, in September 1998, it
set a target of Zero Waste by 2010. This was the beginning
of a journey that has seen waste plummet over the course of
five years from 10,000 tonnes, to 1500 tonnes, to landfill per
annum - an 85% reduction. The driver behind Opotiki's
decision was the imminent closure of its landfill and the no-win
decision it faced of either developing a new landfill site
at a cost of over US$1,175,000, or trucking waste out of the
district at a cost of around $59 per tonne. Adopting a Zero
Waste policy enabled council st

aff to take a fresh look at the
problem and start looking for ways to eliminate waste rather
than manage it. A secondary driver was the potential to
create new, self-supporting local jobs and businesses. So
far, five full-time and four part-time unsubsidized positions
have been created within the council, and another two
positions with a private contractor.

The main reasons for Opotiki's success are that the
council took a strong leadership role, developed a whole
system approach, and invested the necessary resources to
make its programmes work. Specifically, it:

imposed charges at the landfill (1999)
established a kerbside collection of recyclables (2000)
reduced the size of
the residual rubbish
bag from 75 litres to
25 litres (2001)
established a
resource recovery
network throughout
the district, starting
with a satellite drive-through
centre in
Waihau Bay (107 km
from Opotiki), in
2001. The main
Resource Recovery Centre in Opotiki township was built in
2002, and a second satellite drive-through developed in Te
Kaha (65 km away), in 2002.

Chart on the community of Opotiki's Resource Recovery Centre which shows projected (red) and actual (green) progress since adopting Zero Waste

The cost of Opotki's Zero Waste strategy was $270,000 to
establish the three resource recovery facilities. This is
approximately $1800 more than what it would have cost to
continue to landfill waste, and for that $1800, they have
created local jobs, massively reduced waste, built new
infrastructure and purchased a number of community-owned
assets which will, in turn, enable the Opotiki to further
reduce waste. Opotiki District Council is now aiming for a
90% diversion from landfill by June 2004.

The reality is that our 'ecological footprint' has reached
the point where we have exceeded the capacity of nature
to provide resources at the rate we demand them, and to
absorb the end products of the human industrial system. In
spite of our understanding of nature's limits, we are still
addicted to the concept of
growth and expanding the world
economy. Add to this the fact
that human population is expected
to almost double before it
levels out, and that nearly half of
the world's population aspires
to move from low consumption to high consumption
lifestyles, and the sheer scale of the crisis becomes evident.
These realities are key drivers for Zero Waste advocates.

Low-tech composting system for green waste and food
waste, designed, built and operated by a partnership
between Kaikoura District Council and community
group Innovative Waste Kaikoura
The fight against waste
Over the last few years, communities around the world have
risen up against waste, fighting landfills and incinerators
and, in many cases, stopping them. Local campaign leaders
are often characterized as 'knockers' who have no viable
alternatives to propose, even if they are hard-working
community development advocates running local recycling
programmes. Many of them have grabbed the idea of Zero
Waste as a way of demonstrating a viable alternative to
existing waste technologies and the control of local
resources by the waste industry.

New Zealand Case Study 2

Community partners

Kaikoura (population 5000 - plus 1 million visitors annually)

Kaikoura District Council was the third New Zealand council
to adopt a Zero Waste policy, in March 1999. Factors
influencing the decision include a rapidly filling landfill, a
strong environmental ethos (driven by the income derived
from more than a million visitors who come to enjoy the
environment) and the need to create employment for
individuals at the bottom of the social heap.

Members of the Innovative Waste Kaikoura team

Kaikoura responded to its Zero Waste challenge by
forming a joint venture company with a local community
group, Kaikoura Wastebusters. The new venture, called
Innovative Waste Kaikoura (IWK), was given responsibility
for managing all the town's waste services and
implementing its Zero Waste policy. Kaikoura faces a
problem common to all small tourist towns - that of
stretching income from its narrow rating base to cover the
infrastructure requirements of a booming tourist trade,
including waste services. Innovation has been the key, and
Innovative Waste Kaikoura has lived up to its name,
developing low-cost solutions to drive waste diversion to
its current level of 56.8% by volume (and rising).

These include:

weekly kerbside recyclables collection for town residents
(residual waste has to be either self-hauled to the
resource recovery centre
or a bin-hire company
fortnightly recyclables pick
up for outlying areas
twice-weekly recyclables
collection for business
skip-bin hire for the
construction industry
enclosed composting units
(which were designed and built by IWK) to handle green
waste and food waste
landfill cell storage for those materials that are currently
uneconomic to recycle but could have value in the future
a thriving re-use shop
use of crushed recovered glass as a filter medium for
leachate control
compaction and baling of residual waste once recyclables
have been removed to maximize landfill space
mining of old parts of the landfill to extract recyclable
material and create more space

IWK has the support of the whole community in its drive for
Zero Waste. It has succeeded in creating nine full time jobs
through its activities - this is in contrast to the situation four
years ago when only the people who were employed at the
town's landfill site.

The power of an idea
whose time has come
Every now and then a new
idea comes along that breaks
through existing thinking and
practice to bring about radical
change. As a new vision for
society, Zero Waste is attracting
support from cities, governments,
philanthropic funds,
community groups, inventors,
entrepreneurs, and financiers -
even within the waste industry.
Major businesses who have set
their own Zero Waste targets include Bell Canada, DuPont
Inc., Hewlett Packard, Honda Motor Corp., Interface
Carpets, Kimberley Clark, Ricoh Group, Toyota and Xerox
Corp., They are beginning to understand that Zero Waste is
a driver for creating sustainable communities and presents
huge opportunities for employment and local economic
development - all by changing the way we view and deal
with waste.

'Zero Waste is a driver for creating
sustainable communities and presents
huge opportunities for employment and
local economic development'

What is Zero Waste?
Advocates promote Zero Waste as an alternative disposal
technology, in direct competition with landfill and
incineration. But whereas the latter are single and often
large-scale technologies, Zero Waste is a 'brand' for change
and a diverse, flexible range of polices, technologies and
actions, starting with 'Design For Disassembly' at the
beginning of the supply chain and embracing Industrial
Ecology, Cleaner Production, EPR (Extended Producer
Responsibility) responsible consumption, public education,
and local economic development, right through to waste
minimization and resource recovery at the end of the pipe.

Zero Waste is a whole-system approach to redesigning
the w

ay resources and materials flow through society. This
is its key competitive advantage. The thinking behind
landfills and incineration accepts that waste exists and must
be got rid of; Zero Waste says that it shouldn't exist and that
waste is a signal of design failure, representing inefficiency,
or as business puts it, 'lost profit'. It says that existing
technologies are born of the thinking that caused the
problem and, as such, will never solve it.

In many senses, the battle between community and
corporate ownership of the discard supply is the battle
between two completely different world views. Small local
community organizations and recycling companies on the
one hand, who want to create jobs and business
opportunities from waste, pitched against big national and
international companies who see it as a straight business
proposition to increase shareholder returns.

New Zealand Case Study 3

Planning for a whole system approach

Mackenzie (population 4000, plus seasonal tourism)

MacKenzie District Council was the 13th council to adopt
Zero Waste, in November 1999, and it has set a target
date of 2014. Like Kaikoura, it has a seasonal tourist influx
necessitating a waste minimization strategy that works as
well in the tourist season as in the off season.

Council staff spent a significant amount of time running
financial models to assess
its options and the financial
impact of each option. Each
option was also assessed
for how well it would deliver
on the Zero Waste goal.
The outcome of this
planning was the launch of
a range of new waste
minimization systems in
June 2002. These include:

a new, three-bag,
kerbside collection
system for household
residents, with one bag
for recyclables, one for
organics and one for
residual waste. This is
the first of its kind in
New Zealand
the construction and
in-house operation of three new Resource Recovery
Centres in each of the main townships of Twizel, Lake
Tekapo and Fairlie
a comprehensive education programme (developed by
neighbouring Mid Canterbury Wastebusters)
the installation of a vertical composting unit to process
large volumes (47% of the waste stream) of food waste
and green waste into compost. This includes a large
amount of seasonal food waste originating from the
hermitage in Mt. Cook National Park
financial incentives to separate waste

A page from MacKenzie District's promotional brochure

Vital to the success of MacKenzie's system has been its
meticulous planning and its utilization of the full range of
skills at its disposal, from the political skills of the Mayor
and the communication skills of Ashburton's Mid
Canterbury Wastebusters, to the engineering skills of the
Solid Waste manager and the financial skills of the
accountant. MacKenzie's strategy has truly been a team
effort and is already resulting in waste diversion of around
70%, just one year after implementation.

These three New Zealand case studies demonstrate that
against conventional wisdom, small rural communities
using innovation and local solutions can take control of
and rapidly reduce waste within their locality.

The start of a new Zero Waste movement
It's unclear where Zero Waste first took hold, although
'Zero' has been used by industry for many years as a target
for achieving goals that creates constant
dissatisfaction, resulting in improvements
previously thought impossible. Zero
Emissions, Zero Accidents and Zero Defects
are other examples.

In 1996, the Australian city of Canberra
was the first in the world to set a target of
'No Waste'; it is currently diverting 64% of its
waste from landfill. Canberra's ideas were
copied and popularized in New Zealand,
where over half of all local authorities now have Zero Waste
polices. The New Zealand Government has since adopted
Zero Waste as the national vision for their new waste strategy.

Can we ever get to Zero?
Critics say that achieving Zero Waste is impossible. Zero
Waste advocates say 'don't get hung up on the Zero'. In
Boulder, Colorado, USA, local buses sport signs saying 'Zero
Waste - or darn near it!' Critics say we should aim for
achievable targets. Zero waste advocates say that achievable
targets don't stretch our capabilities and that we should aim
for what is perceived as unachievable, such as Zero Waste.

Opening of a commercially designed and built vertical composting unit to deal with the green and food waste that makes up 47% of the waste stream at Twizel township in MacKenzie District, New Zealand

Incremental change and improvements based around
existing technologies - which themselves
are based on wrong assumptions - won't
bring about the change we need. A new
way of looking at the problem creates new
thinking and a new vision for a sustainable
society. Zero Waste has become the rallying
call for that vision. It's often said that when
in crisis, a breakthrough strategy is needed.
If we agree that we are in crisis, then Zero
Waste may be that breakthrough strategy.

Zero Waste is a simple idea that
everyone can understand, and if we want
an idea that is strong enough to mobilize
people into action, this is what is needed.
Regardless of the logic or impossibility of
Zero Waste, judging by the way it's catching
on around the world, it looks as if it is here to stay.


WARREN SNOW manages environmental and sustainability
planning group Envision New Zealand Ltd, an environmental
and sustainability planning consultancy. He is a founder of Zero
Waste New Zealand, initiated New Zealand's national
campaign for Zero Waste and is currently working with
colleagues from around the world to establish the Zero Waste
International Alliance.

Fax: +64 9 489 3232


For more information on Zero Waste, see