ZWI Success

Did you think that Zero Waste is just a new idea that hasn’t really caught on yet? Well think again, because Zero Waste thinking is at the heart of many designs that surround us.


Programmers need a lot to keep them going. Long nights with serial pizza, guzzling sodas and coffees, pulling down huge salaries (Hah!) to pay for their fifty dollar haircuts, celebrity threads and doublestory mansions. Not to mention the palaces they work in with the lights burning 24 hours. Yes they use up a lot of planetary resources.
So it only makes sense that once they write a program for doing some simple task (opening a file or running the clock on a toaster) they would want to save it for the world to use again. In fact they use a special kind of coding called Object Oriented Programming. Objects are codes that can be looked up in a public database and used over and over again. In the world of software, there is no such thing any more as coding some task, then discarding the coding and having to do it over again. Clearly this is a Zero Waste strategy since a mental product is made once and its function used over and over. In fact, what makes software unique, is that IT CONSISTS OF NOTHING BUT FUNCTION!

What do you think recycling theory would have to say about this? First they would look for the materials. There is a bit of paper used but that isn’t the coding. There are some tapes or CD’s used but that isn’t the coding. In fact, the coding, the product, has no materials to gather up, carry to some recycling company run by a garbage industry,  heat it and treat it and grind it and melt it into some new item. THE RECYCLING BUSINESS HAS NOTHING TO SAY!

And yet we can see that the programmers making the programs are using up all the inputs that humans use everywhere. They demand that industries that support them degrade air and water and soil, use energy and use other human labor. They drive cars, live in houses and demand education and entertainment. By reusing objects, this consumption is all reduced. There is nothing special or forced about the Zero Waste analysis – this is what that analysis is all about.

Recently, TechRepublic  website, which writes about programming, discovered Functional Programming in an article called Modularization Through Functional Programming.

Their realization was that by using standard function calls over and over,  programs could be broken up into modules that could be switched with other modules for maximum flexibility and greater efficiency in programming.

I have to applaud them for pointing out this simple truth that programmers have known about forever. But there is a major omission in their thinking. They don’t realize that standardization and modularization are not software tools but general design concepts. In the same way that programmers can use a standardized function to open a new menu or print a text, automotive designers should be using standard fasteners to hold parts together. Today there are probably 100,000 (a guess) different kinds of fasteners in use, serving five hundred different needs to hold parts together. How many kinds of fasteners can there be? Two plastic panels.  Two sheet metal pans. Two parts of a flange. A collar to a shaft. A tube on a nipple. Maybe five hundred is a good guess or not. But a design school should have a research program to identify all the kinds they can find and to find the minimum number of standard fasteners for all of those jobs. Then they could be used (in different sizes) for sewing machines and remote controls and airplanes . A manufacturer who wants to create a new design just to lock out repairmen or other brands should have to apply for permission. Proliferating, non-standard designs are too great a burden on society to be permitted for every spurious reason. In a similar way, how many kinds of solenoids need there be? They all do about the same thing, namely move a shaft when an electric current is applied. How about electric valves that open a valve when an electric signal is received? Does every vacuum system in every automobile have to have a dozen new designs? Relays? LED indicators? Gauge faceplates? How about rear car lights that now sell for many hundreds of dollars for simple formed methacrylate plastic parts? All of these should be forced to use a small number of standard designs, just the way that good software does. It is not acceptable to expect that exotic designs for simple functional parts will be irreplaceable and irrepairable and need to be tossed into a garbage bin when they fail just because they are so proprietary.


Did you read the part above thinking that software must be some kind of unique nesting place for Zero Waste applications?

Not on your life! Here is another situation, that you probably encounter every day, that is based on Zero Waste ideas.

Driving cars:
We all know there is lots of waste associated with that activity but think about how much worse it could be if traffic engineers weren’t planning it all for us. If there were no traffic lights, such as can sometimes be found out in the boonies, we could be creating lots of waste at intersections playing chicken with our bumper cars. But the lights keep us all organized. We’ve had those for so long that we just take it all for granted.

What do you suppose is the most important waste that we can eliminate? How about accelerating, then slowing down, then stopping and accelerating again. There’s something we want to avoid. And on many roads, with sequential lights, the lights are timed so that if we maintain a reasonable speed, we can hit every light when it is green. That doesn’t just happen. Traffic engineers plan that situation, using Zero Waste ideas, even if they don’t know the term.

There’s more. Are you aware of those sensors under the roadway at intersections? They sense whether someone is waiting at a red light or waiting to make a turn. There is no sense stopping traffic on the main road (acceleration and braking again) when there is no one even waiting on the side road. The sensors are another Zero Waste idea.

Amory Lovins has estimated that we spend 17% of our gasoline waiting at stoplights, just idling. That’s a huge waste. Can we eliminate it with some clever fix? Here’s one idea – I would take note that electic cars and hybrids don’t have to keep their engines turning over while they wait. They can just sit there doing nothing, wasting no energy, until it’s time to move again.

Much has already been done in traffic design. Properly designed passing and turning lanes, entry and exit ramps on highways and signs telling us how to all cooperate and get along. Now we need to use Zero Waste thinking to redesign the cars that make up the traffic.


Chemical processing: is planned very carefully. There is no other choice. Chemicals move in a choreographed dance through reactors, stills, heaters, coolers and tanks. Their molecular composition must be always under control. They are contacted by other, expensive chemicals. Their manipulation requires energy, expensive materials and, always, much human input. It is essential that the chemicals not be allowed to escape their containers but it is also essential that no planned escapes be tolerated. Let us ask what would happen to chemical processes if they were all designed with the Zero Waste constraint: THERE WILL BE NO DISCARDS AND NO DISCHARGES. Today many unnecessary discards take place merely because they are allowed and it is the easiest and laziest thing to do. When discards are no longer tolerated, we will be amazed by the changes that will take place.

It begins to appear that some continuity or commonality of activities is needed before Zero Waste thinking is worth designing in to processes. If the same product is being made day in and day out, then it is surely worthwhile to spend the time to redesign the manufacturing process along Zero Waste lines. But what happens if the process is changing all the time? Can we find a temporal commonality – a repetition of common tasks? Let us look at the quintessential non-repetitive activity, namely scientific research.

Most scientists would probably assure us that their research work changes from project to project and day to day and offers no opening for Zero Waste design. But research does have repetitive features:

Repetitive Research Features
Funding All research projects have similar requirements for seeking and securing funds.
Location Every research project needs to set up some location in which to work, such as a laboratory or a field site.
Personnel It is always necessary to hire assistants, graduate students, colleagues or employees.
Reports Most research ends with a compilation of data, the writing of a report or the publication of some kind of article.

This shows that there are common elements, pregnant sites for applying Zero Waste, in the most varied and disparate activities.


  1. Xerox – here is a company that has made rebuilding and renewing an integral part of its raison d’etre since at least the 1990’s. It shows how ZW ideas of making parts simple and standard can not only rebuild this generation of machinery but can use components for the next technological generation. Sweet! Their own website states:


In 2004 alone,


  • diverted 128 million pounds of material from entering landfills through parts recycle and parts reused.
  • From reuse alone, saved approximated 11 million therms of energy (enough energy to light more than 250,000 US homes for a year).
  • remanufactured approximately 70,000 machines
  • Over the past 15 years, this program has given new life to the equivalent of 2.5 million copiers, printers and multifunction systems.

I’m sorry they need to justify their common sense success by reference to dumping, but this is nevertheless a great success.

Read the Xerox website


These carpet companies have pioneered the use of leased carpet and carpet tiles. Instead of pushing off the responsibility onto clients for owning their own floor coverings, which would result in much waste since the clients have few resources for used carpet, these companies lease their carpets, retaining ownership. In addition, they moved to tiles, rather than bulk carpet, so that worn or soiled portions can be individually replaced. Milliken did something more. They developed a non-adhesive bonding of the tile to the floor so that tiles can be removed from the floor without leaving spots of hard adhesive behind.

That same document lists a number of other successful remanufacturing operations, notably Perkins Engines and Caterpillar, dating back decades. In many cases, the companies’ internal analyses embody zero waste thinking in so far as design is modified to support the remanufacturing feature. The reported impetus for going to a remanufacturing model is normally a financial one, as a commonsense marketing device that satisfies and keeps customers. As the reports become more contemporary, environmental justifications tend to creep in. Saving dump space and avoiding discard are adopted in keeping with the reigning rationalizations among the public. The far greater benefit of avoiding needless new manufacturing is not yet recognized as a separate and powerful argument. It is to be hoped that in time, Zero Waste analysis will be adopted and the use of dumps and trash as justifications will drop away.


When installing floor coverings such as hardwoods, it is normal today to use a heavy adhesive to glue the boards down to the underlying floor. Then the covering can’t be removed without lots of breakage. But, instead, it is possible to “float” the floor by using boards that interlock, that click together at their edges, to form a single cover that is not glued to the underlayment at all. And SURPRISE! It works. The floor stays in place. If the floor is no longer needed, the boards can be individually removed and the whole thing reassembled somewhere else.


Recently (August 2010) the NYT ran an article on a ZW project in an unexpected place- a fashion designer’s cutting room floor. And they call it Zero Waste and do a reasonable job of applying ZW principles. Read about it here.  

Also, on the Mast above, see Projects>Clothing and Textiles for more.