Andi McDaniel

Can We Create A World Without Waste?

Aside from Oscar the Grouch, few people would argue that trash is a good thing. In addition to being stinky, ugly and a pain to lug out to the curb, the detritus of modern life causes problems on a far grander scale. Landfills and incinerators have been linked to a host of human health issues, and as for the environment -- you don't have to be an ecologist to know that lingering piles of plastic, metal and toxic goo are bad news all around.

Yet, we continue to throw things away -- and how could we not? What else would we do with that annoying cellophane packaging? The to-go boxes? The packing peanuts? The after-dinner scraps that even the dog won't touch?

Part of the solution is as simple as a blue bin. Curbside recycling is still an incredibly effective way to save energy and divert tons of plastics, cans and glass away from landfills. Another answer is composting, which would address more than 60 percent of what ends up in residential dumpsters.

But in addition to getting the word out about these tried and true solutions, a new movement is taking a more holistic approach. Rather than focusing solely on what to do with existing waste, the "Zero Waste" movement looks at a product's entire life cycle -- and redirects the conversation toward usable options for every step along the way. The ultimate goal is to eliminate waste as a concept entirely -- a lofty aspiration indeed. But Zero Wasters say loftiness is part of the point -- after all, creating a trash-free world is going to take nothing short of revolution.

Starting from Zero

The idea behind Zero Waste is simple: basically, nothing with a second use should be thrown away. And if something doesn't have a second use, it shouldn't exist. The Berkeley Ecology Center, a West Coast leader in the Zero Waste movement, puts it this way, "If it can't be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production."

While Zero Waste depends on careful attention to what we do or don't toss in our home trashcans, its ultimate task is to take a bigger view of how waste is handled on an industrial level. According to the Grassroots Recycling Network (GRRN), an international Zero Waste advocacy group, "The goal applies to the whole production and consumption cycle -- raw material extraction, product design, production processes, how products are sold and delivered, how consumers choose products and more."

It's one thing to tell consumers to stop throwing banana peels in the trash bin, but quite a larger task to convince industry to adopt Zero Waste. Still, Eric Lombardi, executive director of Eco-Cycle, a Zero Waste-oriented non-profit based in Boulder, Colo., says that industry is more amenable to the concept than you'd think. "Waste is money, and industry gets that better than anyone," he explains. In addition to offering various recycling services, Eco-Cycle consults businesses on how to reduce their overall waste. That means spending time peering into the dumpster, where they'll notice trashed items that could have been avoided through smarter purchasing decisions. "We'll agree to pick up those hard-to-recycle items like computers and plastic bags and shoes," he says, "and then what's left? Mostly junk plastics. That's when we talk with the people who do the purchasing to stop buying the things that end up in the dumpster."

You Make It, You Buy It

Of course, industry interest in Zero Waste isn't generally motivated by goodness of heart. One of the principal tenets of the Zero Waste strategy is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which, although new to the United States, is already well established in Europe -- in part due to the pressing problem of limited landfill space. In an article for, Guy Crittenden explains, "True EPR connects producers with the downstream fate (and costs) of their products and packaging... [which] drives eco-efficiencies up the value chain, culminating in design for the environment."

The beginnings of an EPR policy in the US are visible in the growing number of landfill bans on toxic products, such as cathode ray tubes, large appliances, tires and electronics. In anticipation of future regulations on waste, some companies are voluntarily devising initiatives for reclaiming their waste, such as Sony's and Apple's takeback recycling programs. Of course, such programs also provide companies with that increasingly precious public relations commodity: green street cred.

At the very least, Zero Wasters are set on halting incentives to make waste. According to GRRN, "Markets today are heavily influenced by tax subsidies and incentives that favor extraction and wasteful industries." It's mainly for this reason -- and not for lack of the appropriate technology -- that waste has persisted, even in the wake of increasing environmental awareness. GRRN estimates that we have the existing technology to redirect 90 percent of what currently ends up in landfills.

Which begs the question: If we didn't send it to landfills, then where would it go? To recycling centers and municipal compost heaps, partly. But Zero Wasters say we shouldn't just be asking how to get rid of our waste. Just as fungi turn rotting logs into fertile growing material, we should be able to do better than piling up our waste and covering it with dirt.

And while it's fun to conceive of wackier and wackier recycled products -- corn husks turned into countertops! pencils made from recycled paper money! water bottles morphed into cozy fleece outerwear! -- Brenda Platt, of the DC-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), stresses the importance of finding the highest use for recyclables, to allay the energy wasted in production. In the case of glass bottles, for example, that would mean refilling them (such as with milk bottles), followed closely by turning them into new bottles, transforming them into art glass, and then maybe making "glassphalt," a material that has been used as an alternative to conventional asphalt since the '70s.

Such efforts can be facilitated by the existence of local "Resource Recovery Parks" where manufacturing and retail businesses share space, equipment and services, as well as reuse, recycling and composting facilities. In some cases, waste from one business becomes a resource for another business within such parks, creating a closed loop.

There's no doubt that Zero Waste is an idealistic -- if not near impossible -- goal. But whether or not it can be done in every instance, says Eric Lombardi, is really beside the point. "Being on the path to zero is the point," explains Lombardi. "Because once you have established zero as the goal -- you being the government, you being a CEO -- then you have a benchmark against which you can measure your future actions."

Perhaps one of those future actions will be recycling your trashcan.


Seven simple steps to trashing your trash

Let's face it -- we know better than to dispose when we should be Reusing, Reducing and Recycling. But we're busy, forgetful and, well, does it really make that big of a difference? You know the answer. So clip out these friendly reminders on how to bring your personal waste closer to zero. Just think: you'll never have to take out the trash again!

1. Feed the garden
Think like nature for a moment -- why would you throw away all those food scraps, when they could be transformed into beautiful, nourishing garden compost? Over 60 percent of municipal waste could be composted -- so find a more productive resting place for your banana peels.

2. Have bag, will shop
Of course, this one we know by heart. And it's still true. Carry canvas bags everywhere you go -- put them in your car, tie them to your bike -- and you'll have a final answer to the "paper or plastic" question.

3. Sort it out
Recycling rates have taken a downturn recently. Are we losing faith in the power of recycling? It still works! If you want your recyclables to be put to the highest possible use, sort them well. "Single stream" recyclables -- as opposed to glass bottles mixed with paper -- make for better recycled materials.

4. Think bulk
Brenda Platt of ILSR makes a point of buying groceries in bulk. Rather than buy single-serve applesauce cups for her kids, she opts for the big jar and scoops it into smaller containers herself. Simple? Yes. But simple is key.

5. Positive reinforcement
It's the same technique we use for supporting fair trade companies and organic farms. Support those companies that are making a point to reduce their waste -- and avoid the rest. Eric Lombardi, of Eco-Cycle, says we've got to "reward the recyclers. The clean companies must win the profits."

6. Shrink wrap
What better motivation to waste less than reducing the size of your trash receptacle at home? Substitute a small plastic grocery bag for your trashcan, and wiser purchasing habits will follow naturally.

7. Your Trash, Their Treasure
Repeat after me: there is no "junk," there's only useful stuff yet to find a home. Before you look to the landfill, consider giving your broken fridge or over-lounged loveseat a chance at a happier second life by posting it for giveaway on websites like or And will actually buy your spent ink-jets, conked-out laser cartridges and defunct cell phones for their recycle program, giving the money generated to charity.


Top Five Trash-free Towns

Searching for a waste-free world? Start looking for property in one of these enlightened locations. They've got big plans for creating less waste.

Berkeley, CA
In Berkeley, the birthplace of curbside recycling, the Berkeley Ecology Center's fleet of recycling trucks runs completely on biodiesel, and Urban Ore, a local for-profit "total recycling" center, rehabs and resells items that people would otherwise pay to send to the landfill.

Boulder, CO/Santa Monica, CA
You won't find trashcans at some weekly farmers' markets in these towns. Santa Monica's Main Street (Sundays only) and Boulder's Zero Waste farmers' markets offer patrons a choice between composting and recycling their waste -- an ultimatum that prompted vendors to offer compostable to-go materials and patrons to bring their own canvas bags.

Seattle, WA
The Wasteless in Seattle program includes bold new measures to reduce waste -- such as mandatory recycling with fines for violations -- and the Take-it-Back Network, which sent 600 tons of computer monitors and other components back to retail stores in 2004.

New Zealand
In 1999, the New Zealand government launched the Zero Waste New Zealand Trust, an initiative that offered $25,000 (NZ) funding to councils that adopted a Zero Waste resolution. Since then, 48 of 74 (66 percent) of all local councils have made the switch.

In response to a 1991 German packaging law requiring suppliers to take back and recycle up to 70 percent of their packaging, the Green Dot program was created, in which consumers deposit Green Dot-certified packaging refuse in specially designated bins. It then gets picked up and recycled -- all paid for by the manufacturers.