Our vision: a world without waste…
Zero Waste UK is dedicated to creating a world without waste. We envisage a world in which economies are circular, where everything that is produced or consumed is returned back to society or nature.
Generally, waste management policies are oriented around the assumption that waste is inevitable. This is reflected in the rise of waste disposal services such as incineration or landfill. Instead, zero waste is about putting waste prevention, reuse and recycling at the forefront of our relationship with resources, rather than them featuring as a secondary afterthought.
Most importantly, zero waste is a revolution in the relationship between waste and people. It is a new way of thinking that aims at transforming the way we consume and produce so that we safeguard the health and improve the lives of everyone who produces handles, works with, or is affected by waste – in other words, all of us.
Economic organisation: building a circular economy
To a large extent, the current makeup of the global economy is linear in nature. Materials are extracted, processed, distributed, consumed, and disposed of, in an ever increasing over-consumption and unsustainable pattern. In this linear model, industries such as waste incineration and landfill management have grown, making waste production and disposal a profitable industrial business. In a linear economy, waste keeps increasing, rather than thinking critically about how we can use materials more healthily and efficiently.
Zero waste is about building a circular economy where every economic “output” becomes a new economic “input”, meaning there is no leakages, inefficiency or waste. Manufacturers and retailers redesign products so as to create these circular material loops. Any products that cannot be reused or recycled need to be redesigned or should not be produced in the first place.
Benefits of zero waste
Decreased pressure on the environment
A zero waste strategy takes into account the finite nature of the planet’s resources. In this sense, the reuse of materials is maximised and consumption reduced to sustainable levels relieving the excessive extraction-intensive burden on the natural environment, conserving resources for future generations and reducing greenhouse gas and toxic emissions.
Reducing pollution and improving environmental justice
As society generates less waste, fewer waste disposal facilities (incinerators and landfills) are needed; these are a burden on local communities economically, environmentally and socially. Incinerators and landfills are the source of some of the most damaging toxins known on earth while being often located in already disadvantaged communities. Their closure prevents serious harm to current and future generations (learn more about the work of UKWIN in this regard).
Economic development and livelihoods
Zero waste involves moving away from building capital-intensive incinerators and landfills. Instead, it boosts opportunities for local businesses that repair, recycle and compost discarded materials. Consequently, this can revive domestic manufacturing sector, creating skilled, secure and well-paid jobs in local economies that encourage reuse and recycle as opposed to burying and burning.
Importantly, zero waste is not something that can simply be implemented by technical experts or politicians at a top-down level. It is multi-scalar and everyone has a role to play. Community engagement and informed participated in the design and implementation of the zero waste system empowers people and stimulates civic participation that benefits the entire community.
Real zero waste, not zero waste to landfill
Due to the compelling appeal of “zero waste”, some conventional waste management technologies have self-defined as being “zero waste”.
For example, some incinerator companies claim that their technology produces “zero waste”. This is somewhat ironic given that zero waste strategies are primarily aimed at reducing waste and therefore starve incinerators of the waste they need to function.
In addition, some companies claim to be “zero waste” in the sense of “zero waste to landfill”. But this is not true zero waste, as these same companies continue to send waste to incineration. For example, a Zero Waste Europe report suggested that districts with a “zero waste to landfill” policy had seen an overcapacity of waste to energy plants, discouraging them from taking further efforts on waste prevention, reuse or recycling. Zero waste to landfill arguably props up a linear economy; waste incineration is still permitted and thus waste reduction practices (true zero waste) are not as firmly encouraged.
Alternatively, some municipalities claim to have “zero waste” programs which mainly focus on reducing litter on streets or cleaning up parks or beaches. While these programs do help to raise awareness about the impacts of waste on the environment, they need to be complemented with measures and policies that reduce the amount of waste generated in the first place. Zero waste is about eliminating waste before it has been produced and it goes beyond eliminating the waste sent to landfill or better managing the waste on streets / beaches etc.
Zero Waste values: nothing – and no one – goes to waste
Waste is sometimes considered the responsibility of engineers or “technical” experts. But waste has direct implications for human and environmental health, equity, ethics, power, economics, gender, poverty and governance. Thus, a comprehensive zero waste programme should prioritise environmental justice, social justice and human rights. All stakeholders should be both considered and consulted during the designing and implementation of local zero waste plans.
Some core zero waste values include (though are not limited to)
- A society based on values related to corporate profit but based on human values related to community, culture, health, respect and equity
- A society that understands the value of cultural diversity, preserves and protects local culture and local knowledge and resists the dominance of global production and overconsumption
- Zero waste relies on strong community action to make decisions about the present and future of waste programs; in a zero waste society, community members assume responsibility for doing their part to make zero waste possible
- Zero waste relies on a socially-conscious government to influence and regulate industry through sound policies such as outright bans on hazardous materials and practices
- A zero waste society calls on producer responsibility to provide safe products that can readily be reused, recycled or composted, minimising the amount of materials used, using recycled content and protecting their workers and communities by avoiding the use of hazardous chemicals in products and in manufacturing
- Zero waste emphasises the efficient use of resources; safe manufacturing and recycling processes to protect workers; product durability; and design for disassembly, repair and recycling. If it cannot be reused, composted or recycled, it should not be produced in the first place
The Road to Zero Waste: many ways to get there
No two zero waste programs are the same, nor is there “one approach fits all”. Each community or municipality will have different needs and capacities. Moreover, different actors will engage in different aspects of waste reduction. Producers will redesign products and processes. Local businesses will provide recovery / recycling or repair / refurbishing services for products and compostable materials. Government will develop regulations and standards to promote the production and use of reusable and safely recyclable and will support resource recovery. People will separate recyclables, compostable and reusables. Neighbourhood groups will organise educational events and hold governments and businesses responsible for protecting public welfare.It is important that every step taken by a community is a step closer towards zero waste; communities should consider the long-term and not succumb to short-termism.