where there was no waste. We would not be throwing food away, product life would be extended so things didn’t break down in the space of months or a few years, and when they did break down the resources used to make them would be re-used in the most optimal way. Sounds like a bit of a utopia, right?
But this is exactly what the concept of “zero waste” promises to help us achieve. This sounds very appealing particularly since if we were all to continue consuming at the levels we currently are, we would need 1.5 planets to sustain our lifestyle¹. Our planet’s resources can’t keep up with our current models of production and consumption and we do not have the capacity to absorb ever increasing rates of waste. We are living beyond the means of our planet and with global population increasing this is further aggravating climate change and putting additional pressures on our planet’s finite resources.
In this context, the concept of a zero waste emerges almost like a silver bullet that can both help us eliminate waste and by doing so help businesses save money and grow. The key aim of a zero waste strategy is to radically change our production and consumption patterns. Our economy today is based on what is called a “linear model of growth”: we take, make and then discard. But this means that we never fully tap into one of the most growing resources that is available to us: waste. To fully take advantage of the potential of this resource, a zero waste approach suggests that we transform our growth pattern from a linear one to a circular one. So rather than discarding products at the end of their lifecycle, we would be using those again and when making new products we would design them with a view to limiting waste. A critical element to this is that a zero waste approach (or a circular economy approach as others may call it) has to be adopted in all stages of the production and consumption of a good. What is particularly appealing about the zero waste strategy is that not only does it offer to be good for the environment and future generations but it can provide savings for businesses and create new markets and jobs. Zero waste strategy proposals being currently considered at the EU level would help create 180.000 while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions, helping secure 10-40% of EU total raw material demand and reducing marine litter by up to 24% by 2030².
But what does this mean in practice?
In the first place it means that when developing a new product, we will be looking beyond its functionality and appearance. Other aspects such as what are the most appropriate materials and design will need to be taken account. A product will need to be developed to optimise its durability, and its potential to be repaired and recycled. It will also have to minimise waste generation, particularly in terms of its packaging. For example, it will be important to see how renewable materials, when sustainably sourced, can replace finite materials or if recycled materials can be used instead. Following this thinking, one company has developed a form of compostable packaging using mushrooms that can replace synthetic packaging³.
Designing our products with those principles in mind will not only lead to great innovations but it will also spur investment in recycling technologies and other services that will help companies come closer to the zero waste goal. A zero waste approach has the potential of developing new business models where consumers pay for a service rather than a good. This is already done but in a very limited way; think for instance of company cars that operate on the basis of leases. The car is not owned by the employee or the company, but rather a fee is paid for using it. Similar initiatives have cropped up as people seem to be latching on to the idea of a “leasing society” which will have the added benefit that the consumer will no longer need to worry about the right disposal of larger home appliances etc. If companies own the goods and only provide a service, then there is an incentive for them to increate a product’s durability while maintaining a high level of quality.
However, beyond human ingenuity and entrepreneurial skills, governments and local authorities will also need to incentivise a zero waste mentality. For instance, they will need to make sure that consumers are able to recycle products by providing systems for collection and recycling of waste, imposing limits on what kind of waste goes to incineration so as to divert valuable resources away from incineration and into recycling as well as limiting and eventually banning landfill.
While a truly zero waste society may be a utopia, we can come very close to it if we take the right steps to reset our production and consumption patterns on a more circular basis.