• How is zero waste related to sustainability and peak oil issues?

Sustainability is thrown around as thought it is a magical term with hardly any meaning. But it basically refers to our planet being able to function forever, without being exhausted. So it is pretty obvious that there are two basic principles to observe. First, do not make use of resources which are finite, and will be exhausted, unless those resources are used over and over perpetually. Obviously when fossil fuels are extracted and burned, we are removing a resource from the earth that is used just once. However, if we use those complex molecules to create a reusable polymer and use that polymer perpetually, we are using that fossil fuel forever. Did you catch that? I called it a fuel. But it isn’t a fuel! It’s a rich resource of complex molecules. It never was a fuel, except that we framed its usage in that wasteful way.

Next, never design any process or product that depends on discard of any kind, at any level, in any way. Discard is the dragon that pollutes all thinking and that gobbles up resources by removing them from reuse cycles. Since the garbage industry has defined recycling to be a last ditch effort to recapture bits of materials following discard , recycling is never part of a sustainable program. Often you will see or learn of designs that attempt to escape wastefulness by invoking a terminal phase of recycling. This is not a sustainable deus ex machina. What is needed is redesign to avoid discard.

Peak oil refers to the coming end of fossil fuel oil availability in the ground. Our society has been committing a crime against nature by burning all of these molecules for so many years. But that is history now, and our society is dependent on energy that comes from that burning. When the oil is gone, everything dependent on cheap energy will suddenly become difficult to obtain. This includes not only direct fuels but everything dependent on fuel, such as metals, food, electricity, the Internet, appliances, ceramics and polymers, to name just a few. See this article on the coming loss of metals. The way to avoid the worst, wrenching ravages of this new regime is to adopt zero waste principles wholesale. Only then will the aching, constant need for new resources to be wrung from the earth be muted through reuse. Zero Waste is soon not going to be a luxury – it will be obligatory in every field.

  • Finally, how would one go about finding ZW solutions and doing a ZW analysis of a product or process?

You begin by identifying the function of the product. Ask yourself if that function can be renewed and used over again perpetually. Keep in mind that there is no place to “throw” anything away as you go. Then ask yourself how redesign of the product or process can help to reuse its function the way you want to.

Chances are, you will be able to see a few redesign changes that might be useful. Now take those to the engineers or technicians who really know that product or process and brainstorm with them, given the realities they have to deal with, to see if together you can agree on some fundamental or even simple redesign that will make the product reusable in perpetuity given repair, spare parts, robust design or etc. Allow for broken, deteriorated or obsolete parts through extensive labeling and information that will inform the reuse of the bare materials when that is finally needed. Don’t forget to redesign the materials themselves so that they conform to ZW principles, such as not mating dissimilar materials into one part.

  • Do you know where the term “Zero Waste” came from?

It was invented by Paul Palmer, the creator of this website, in the 1970’s when he named his company Zero Waste Systems Inc. That was the first public use of the term anywhere.

  • How important is this concept of waste?

Actually it is the glue that holds together all of the environmental movement. Without the easy creation of waste, and the quick disposal of it, our economy could not continue to exploit resources willy nilly as it does. Gigatons of raw materials


Now that you have learned some commonsense about how to actually conserve resources, listen to this radio talk about banning plastic bags for an example of terminal silliness in what passes for a progressive big city. (Sorry, KQED has removed that discussion). Recycling, focusing on garbage  – the media, like the recyclers, are stalled in endless thrashing over meaningless questions about garbage without ever getting to serious solutions. Tsk, tsk, tsk…