• Still, isn’t Zero Waste a way to send ZERO garbage into dumps?

No, that is a common misconception, frequently rendered asĀ zero waste to landfill. If all we did with zero waste strategies was to keep materials from going into dumps, we would be repeating the mistakes of recycling theory. The waste inherent in dumps reveals only a small part of the horrendous waste that permeates our society.

The failure of recycling to make a dent in the torrent of garbage going into dumps proves my point. What are the most vaunted success stories in the recycling mythos? Aluminum cans are at the top. But consider this, half of all aluminum cans go into dumps in each use cycle while only half are recycled. A typical can has a factory to disposal time of three months. So in three months, half the cans are in a dump. In six months, three-quarters are in the dump. In nine months it is 88% and in one year, 94%. As for glass, all those smashed bottles use up just as much energy and labor to remelt and refill as new bottles would. There is no savings worth mentioning. Compare this to the Zero Waste solution of making all containers resealable and refillable, by the consumer. That would save all of the investment in making new containers. Redesign for reuse is the only way to break the insanity of garbage generation.

The term Zero Waste does seem to suggest a focus on dumps. A better term might be Perpetual Reuse but, for now, we seem to be stuck with Zero Waste.

  • Then what other kinds of waste can zero waste eliminate?

The squandering of materials in dumps is only the tip of the iceberg. In our wasteful society, where products are planned to break early, to be unrepairable, to have their highest functions destroyed by an early death, the worst wasting that goes on is the squandering of all the labor and investment in remaking products repeatedly when all of that remaking would be unnecessary in a sanely designed world.

For example, imagine if all emptied bottles were designed to be endlessly refilled instead of smashed, whether they then go into dumps or into recycling bins. Can you imagine how much more conservative of materials and function that would be.

Here are a few other wastes that the movement for Zero Waste needs to think about:

  • The wasting of clean water, thoughtlessly polluting it.
  • The wasting of clean air, polluting it with contaminants including greenhouse gases.
  • The wasting of liquid fuels for spurious purposes. When vehicles get less than the absolute best mileage that they can get that is a Zero Waste issue. The proper function of fuels is not to carry a marketing program for selling huge gas guzzlers.
  • The wasting of rich, valuable soil. It is said that it takes ten thousand years to create a single inch of topsoil. We are destroying soils continually. The only way to come close to soil preservation is to close the cycle whereby nutrients that are being removed from soil in the form of food or fiber, are returned to the soil (as a compost or plowed back) after the products are consumed.
  • The wasting of human labor. This has at least two forms. When human labor is called on to make products destined to be used once and then discarded, we are wasting the human labor (and all the other inputs) that went into that product. Similarly, when educated and potentially talented or brilliant minds are held back because of poverty or racial prejudice or war or the greed of corporations that are draining resources or for similar reasons, that is a terrible waste of human potential.
  • The waste of chemical complexity and richness. Millions of years of solar absorption has resulted in the creation of a rich soup of chemical molecules called petroleum. To burn this mix without first making use of its complexity is a criminal waste. Our children will have to recreate this chemical complexity at great effort, only one solar energy year per annum, instead of having millions of years worth of complexity to draw on.

The list of unfortunate ways to waste could go on and on. What does this prove? That “waste” is a pervasive idea, a concept that runs through all of human endeavor as a negative thread. Extirpating waste everywhere is a critical need that has not been appreciated earlier because waste has been so widely accepted. This discussion shows that simply keeping some garbage out of a dump is not nearly a sufficient view of zero waste.