Page Contents
Bottle refilling
Fence post redesign
Chemical Reuse
Ceramic Reuse
Bar Soap
Airport Prohibitions
Clean hard drives without destruction

Business Cards and Altoids Boxes

Buildings, design and construction
    Whole building reuse
    Shipping container reuse
Fast Food Litter
Plastic water bottles
Other successful projects:
    Plastic redesign
    Car Batteries
    Weed Whacker modification


Let us apply ZW thinking to bottles and containers.

The first question we need to ask is this: What is the FUNCTION of a bottle or container.

The simple answer: they contain!

So how should we redesign the system of creating, using and reusing containers in such a way that it is the FUNCTION and not the MATERIALS that are being reused.

The answer could not be simpler: refill the containers with their original contents!

At this point, we need to consider how we could create a business that would allow consumers of the contents of containers to refill them.

One way would be the deposit route. Set up a system (already in existence in some places) to have all containers go back to a central collection location, such as the supermarket that sold them, that would ship them back to a washing and sorting and refilling facility in some distant state, after which they would be sent back to the same supermarket to be sold, repeating the whole cycle. Many people, when considering refilling mean exactly this process and cannot conceive of any other.

While this long distance refill process seems to achieve the desired result, it has many serious drawbacks. In general, it is extremely wasteful and therefore cannot be said to be a ZW proposal. First, it does not maintain an unbroken record of responsibility, substituting a collection process in which no one is actually responsible. This allows the user to abuse the container any way that she wants.
She can:

  1. Leave a residue in the bottle, which dries, hardens, molds and generally contaminates the container.
  2. Put a foreign material in the container which is an unknown hazard in the next stages, requiring extraordinary measures to be taken to wash out EVERY container since no one will know the history of any container. Keeping track of a product's history is a ZW principle .
  3. Destroy or ruin the container in some way that may not be obvious and will require extensive inspection of EVERY container at the refilling factory. This could consist of cracks, pinholes, or broken seals.

In addition, this scheme necessitates excessive transportation to and from a distant refiller. Another problem is that the collector location is not set up for collection, does not get paid enough, if at all, to motivate him to care much, and often justs opts out entirely from the system. This is all a consequence of the loss of responsibility. Another word for any product that no one is responsible for is garbage. The scheme also has the effect of reinforcing our current preoccupation with excess and unwanted packaging. All things considered, this is an entirely unworkable scheme that has no chance for any success. It is basically a garbage-based scheme with a few added greenwashing wrinkles.

Unfortunately we had to spend a lot of time analyzing this common deposit system because it has become so widespread. So what system can we propose that solves all of the above problems and conforms to the ZW principles ?

Once again, the answer is staring us in the face. Since we cannot break the chain of responsibility, it is the user (or consumer of the contents) which must take responsibility for washing out and for refilling. Thus someone with a stake in the reuse of the container is always in control of it. There is no longer any opportunity for mischief or a lapse or an unreported defect. In the vast majority of cases, the washing process will now be simple - just a rinse, since the history of the container will be known to the user. There will be no escape into irresponsibility to suggest to a wavering user that the container can be treated like garbage. In certain cases, the user may not have access to the kind of washing faciity that is needed so any proposed scheme must make some heavy duty washing available in special cases.

All of these new requirements are easily provided by a simple scheme. An additional advantage of the solution is that it shows the need to create a new business, a ZW business, which can be put in place initially without the extensive involvement of government.

All we need to do is to create a refilling center in every community. Let us abandon the marketing principle that every distributor must provide a package (and then another and another) for every product. Let us instead adopt the principle that every customer will bring in her own package and establish only a way for her to fill it.

I have in mind a store resembling a supermarket but filled with filling nozzles of many descriptions. In fact, designing the actual filling nozzles is a challenge that needs to be met in a grand paroxysm of redesign with mechanical, social, commercial and political aspects. How to acquire, store and connect the bulk sources is part of the design. In another sense, there is nothing new here. Every contemporary gas station has solved all of the problems. Every bar likewise dispenses draught beer from such a device. What is needed is not the solution to some difficult problem of design but primarily the will to do it.

The payment options are just as simple as any supermarket barcode reader. Each shopper could have a plastic card that keeps track of all her purchases as she fills her containers. The card would be inserted into a reader connected to each nozzle. Electronic scales are cheap, so each filling station could have an individiual scale beneath the nozzle. The scale could record the empty weight of each container and then record the filled weight, putting the price of the purchase on the plastic card. When the shopper finishes, she takes her card to the checkout container to pay for all her purchases and receives a detailed receipt. For a manual backup, each bottle could have a permanent label stating its empty weight.

Another payment method could resemble gas station readers for credit cards. Each bottle filling could directly debit a credit card so that there would be no need to visit a cashier afterwards.

Mention was made above of a heavy duty washing facility. The store could provide a hot water or steam spraying nozzle that a bottle could be turned over onto. Various safety features are also contemplated.

I hope this shows how relatively simple it would be to create a zero waste system for refilling containers that would involve no heavy washing, no distant transportation and no personal lessons in shucking responsibility for our buying choices.


Have you ever put a fence post in the ground or watched it done? The method is universal, global and international. Everywhere that I have been, a hole is dug in the ground, the wooden or steel or other post is placed in the hole and a bunch of concrete is poured in.

I have asked dozens of people why concrete is used. They all say that the weight is needed to hold down the post. I don't know about you, but I have never seen a post or a piece of steel pipe suddenly rise up off the ground as though an anti-gravity machine was pointed at it. So I don't know why everyone thinks the weight of the concrete is its important attribute.

Actually, the weight of the concrete is of virtually no importance. The function of the concrete is to expand the effective diameter of the post so that if it tries to fall over, it pushes against enough dirt to prevent that. The thing holding the post in place is not concrete; it is the dirt that embraces the concrete. A skinny, bare post will be able to move dirt aside if it is pushed over.

What connection does this have to do with ZW? Just this - ZW principles forbid laminating two dissimilar materials together in a manner preventing them from coming apart after use. Concrete and (wood or steel or plastic) are very dissimilar materials. After the wooden post rots or the steel post rusts or when the fence needs to be removed, getting the heavy concrete out of the ground is a major hassle so it may just be abandoned in place. If it is extracted, you are left with a concrete lollypop around a piece of wood or steel. There is no simple way to remove the concrete so the lollypop is either left on the ground for years or put into a dump.

To begin a ZW analysis, we need to go back to the ZW Principles. We ask ourselves if there is a better design for having the post push against a large quantity of dirt without using dissimilar materials? If other materials are used, can they be separated from the post after use and reused many times?

As usual, once the ZW Principles are consulted, the answer could hardly be more obvious. Let us make a steel 'cage' for the post base that can be attached to the post by some screws but that has flat ears which are securely attached to the cage but are spaced out away from the post to where they can push against a lot of dirt, thus immobilizing the post.These ears would consist of vertical flat plates, buried in the dirt around the post but attached to the central cage by struts or attachments. Some of the ears would be level with the end of the post and the others would be about a half meter higher on the post.

Now, when we install a post, concrete plays no role. We just attach the cage and ears to the bottom of the post, dig a hole wide enough for it all to fit into, place the cage and post assembly in the hole and fill the dirt back in. Naturally we must do some tamping so the dirt goes back in the hole solidly and we can also add water as we fill the dirt back to make sure the dirt compacts well around the ears. One set of ears will be near the bottom of the post and the second set will be closer to ground level, so they form a couple which prevents the post from being pushed over. Likewise, when we want to remove the post, we just dig out the cage and ears, detach the cage from the post by removing the screws, save the cage for another post and save the post if it is still in good condition. Total needless waste? - zero!

I have used this method for a chain link fence and the posts have not budged for years. There is one corner post that is being pulled hard by fencing in two directions ninety degrees apart, yet it stays firmly immobile. I have two posts used for a hammock that make use of the above principle. They are completely immobile also.

Think about it - when a buried flat surface is pushed against dirt, the dirt cannot flow around it and so it resists all movement. But when a round surface pushes against dirt (such as a round concrete plug) the dirt can flow around it. So the new design is not only conservative of materials and a zero waste design par excellence but it should also WORK BETTER! I ask myself why this new design was not universally used, even before the ZW analysis. The answer is clear. Because the FIRST design used was the concrete and first designs are never replaced until there is a crisis. See a discussion of first ideas.

Your homework, class, should you choose to accept it, is to explain how FUNCTION is being reused in this example.

Since I am a chemist, and founded the only general reuse company for industrial chemicals (Zero Waste Systems Inc.) many people would like to know what can be done with chemicals.

First of all, chemicals are among the easiest materials or commodities to find new uses for. Each chemical typically has hundreds of uses, it can be converted to vastly different kinds of other chemicals and, since most chemicals are dangerous or poisonous and also pure and valuable, they have been carefully stored under reasonably good conditions, to keep them clean and identified. Though this feature fails sometimes, it generally describes industrial chemicals, even byproducts.

Our approach is not going to differ from any other Zero Waste project. We are going to inquire as to the FUNCTION that each chemical serves, we are going to consult the ZW Principles, we will attempt to redesign the ways that each chemical is produced and used, so that reuse is built in right at the start and not added on post-discard, and we will make sure that someone has responsibility for a chemical at every instant. No discard, followed by an attempted use, will be allowed.

The first problem to solve is the desgn of the chemical use process for reuse.

  • Maybe a chemical will be used as a reactant, in which case it will be wholly or partially consumed.
  • Maybe it will be used as an incidental, such as a solvent wash during which it will become dirty or;
  • Maybe it will be incorporated into a product mixture, such as ammonia in a window washing liquid.
Some of these uses present no opportunity for reuse. A reactant which is consumed is one example. A cleaning compound that evaporates, or is mixed with water and sent away, as a detergent usually is, are two examples. But I can assure you there are literally millions of uses of chemicals which cause some or most of the chemical to remain after first use.

The number one concept to communicate to the designer is that his goal is not to simply prevent the excess chemicals from becoming garbage. Especially not by first discarding it followed by some kind of reworking including incineration and then a pretense that the expensive chemical productively replaced cheap fuels for energy. Throwing away the high value of a refined, difficult to produce chemical, is not a zero waste approach.

Some functions that chemicals serve in a reaction are: reactant (partly consumed), catalyst (not consumed), solvent (dilutes the reactants but remains afterwards) or stabilizer (a surfactant or pH control).

Chemicals that are left over in a process are frequently cleaners, including solvent cleaners. Others are lubricants, heat transfer agents, acids and bases or coating components.

Many chemicals which are meant to be consumed during use actually end up as excesses. An industry can make up a bad batch which they can't sell. This is extremely common. Or contamination may occur or an in-plant or transportation accident may ruin a product. The amounts range from small to colossal. Frequently marketing mishaps cause cases or truckloads to go awry. Or the intended user simply stops using that product or closes up shop, with some product still in inventory. Some applications may be replaced or banned, leaving unusable inventory.

I am going thru this exercise just to show what a huge variety of chemical applications there are. In my business we encountered all of the above situations, and more.

The normal attitude is to consider any excess chemical as garbage and to search for any way to get rid of it, short of dumping (which is always the backup, but expensive). Household products may go into discount stores. Solvents may be burned in incinerators or boilers. Reaction mixtures are often incinerated. If they are inorganic solids, they may be buried in dumps. Spoiled products may be auctioned off. The thinking is "just get rid of it - I don't care how!"

Once we rule out discard, and "reuse" that is not actually reuse but some low level way to get rid of something, we are left with, the one great common denominator in all of the myriad ways that chemicals can be productively reused is this: We need to find someone capable of using the excess chemical we have.

That is so important, I repeat it; we need to find someone capable of using the excess chemical! And this is the most difficult task we face.

There are hundreds of brokers for chemicals that buy and sell "surplus chemicals" or "distressed chemicals". Each one, as he works, creates a database of companies and users that he learns about the hard way, who use particular chemicals. No one ever learns more than a tiny fraction of all the users but there is no other source of this information. The very best encyclopedias and reference books are virtually useless.

There are a number of government sponsored compilations of chemical usage data. One is intended to help firefighters fight a chemical fire in a local warehouse and so has valuable information about what chemicals are in warehouses, where they are and how much are present (SARA Title III). Some are intended to tell the public where a particular emission is in their neighborhood (Toxics Release Inventory). But every single one of these databases is carefully crafted to be either inaccessible to, or totally useless to, the seeker after a user of chemicals whom he could contact to ask about reuse.

It is abundantly clear that the one innovation which would open up the floodgates of chemical reuse is a national database of usage. A mere hint, or simple list, of users would be of very little use to anyone, though this is surely the kind of database that bureaucrats would dream up. This would consist of nothing but a chemical name and a list of possible users. For many reasons, this kind of listing would be virtually useless. What is needed is a listing with detail. Each listing for a user should include:

  1. Name, address and contact information for a user.
  2. Exact mode of use (solvent, reactant, blending, mixing, catalyst)
  3. Amount used per some period (a drum per week, 100 grams per six months).
  4. Grade used (Reagent, purified, techical, any)
  5. Requirement for purity (must he pure, can be mixed into any solid, will be distilled first)
  6. Mixed with what in use (e.g. will be mixed with acetaldehyde and dimethyl sulfoxide so those can also be present in any amounts)
The above analysis allows me to finally come to a realizable and important project that even local communities can embark on. That would be the creation of a local database of chemical usage. Ultimately local listings will be combined to become regional and then state and then a national database of usage. But the local community can begin the process.

Many local activists will have the impression that no chemicals are used nearby but that is usually fanciful. Chemicals are used everywhere. From agriculture to auto repair to house cleaners, most chemical users would never be identified as part of the chemical industry. They don't produce or sell chemicals but they use them in huge quantities. Even small users are important because many excesses will come in small quantities. Consult the TRI database online (the Toxic Release Inventory) for leads to some larger chemical plants.

Here now is a valuable project i.e. local database, that communities can pursue, that will have a more salutary effect on local dumping and chemical pollution than all the richly funded projects the EPA bureaucrats have dreamed up over the last three decades.

Plastic (polyolefins)

In a recent article in Science (August 2009) there was a long discussion of new ways to polymerize olefins (ethylene, propylene etc.) using different catalysts that join the polymers in all different ways to achieve many different properties.

In that article, it was taken for granted that "...Finding the balance between performance and price is critical to commercial success, as the customer will always adopt the cheapest solution that meets the performance criteria..."

While no one can doubt the importance of price, there is no mention anywhere in the article about the ability of the polymer to be reused. This simply does not enter into the author's consciousness. If all of the polymer made by these newly developed methods is used once and then discarded into a dump, this is not seen to be of any importance. This is not considered to be part of the "greenness" equation. All that goes into greenness, according to the article, is whether the raw material comes from petroleum or sugarcane, no matter how soil is degraded or energy is squandered. In the chemical field, discussions of green chemistry have been driven by the most conventional markers (frequently only toxicity and reduced solvent usage) but are not tied in important ways to planetary preservation.

So what path should polyolefin design take to address reusability? Of course, the best way to reuse a plastic part is to reuse it in its highest, complex function. A pump housing should be used in another pump as the same kind of housing. But plastic materials are also highly complex molecular assemblies in their own right, aside from the kind of parts they are made into. It is incomparably better to maintain molecular complexity than to break down materials to carbon dioxide or other simple molecules, such as by burning them.

Plastic polymer chains are susceptible to many design parameters. Polyolefins are not necessarily made from long chains that are identical, length after length. They can be combined with other kinds of monomers so that a long run of polymerized olefins then give way to a run of a completely different kind of monomer (such as styrene or urethanes). The chains are separated into blocks. By combining blocks of different properties and different lengths, the properties of the macroscopic plastic can be fine tuned. This gives us a key way to build in one kind of reusability, as I will explain.

While polyolefin chains are very difficult to break apart chemically, that is not true of all chains. For example, polyester chains can be broken apart fairly easily (there are factories based on this easy reaction). So if we want to be able to break apart polyolefin chains so that we can purify and reuse them, we could add in even a single polyester bond in the middle of a very long polyolefin chain and break the chain apart by the same methods used to break apart polyesters.

The neat part of doing this is that the small presence of the polyester will be so diluted in all the polyolefin that it will change the polyolefin properties almost not at all. Thus we can build in a major reuse capability without changing the plastic properties. Is this a win-win situation or what?

A very important place to apply this kind of modification would be in polyvinyl chloride design. The manufacturers proudly claim that their plastic cannot be reused. Certain environmentalists have proudly repeated this claim because they think it supports their campaign to ban all PVC entirely. But reusability will certainly never be designed into anything while the dump is always welcoming. Smugness will not solve any problems. PVC research needs to be bent toward reuse in every way possible.


Ceramics are a confusing issue. Are they like glass? Actually they aren't, because they don't melt. Are they organic, so they can be composted? No again! So they end up in garbage where their sharp corners are a danger, then in dumps, which is a waste and a shame.

A ceramic is most often made from clay that has been heated to where the particles partially melt together (sinter) and stick together into a rigid mass. The way to reuse a broken ceramic mass is thus obvious. Break the particles apart and return them to the clay that they were made from. This is best done by grinding the pieces in a mill, but second best would be simply breaking the large pieces into powder with a large hammer or a flat tamping tool. The powder may not be valuable, since it is just ordinary clay, but at least it can be distributed onto soil with no ill effect and it is not filling up dumps.

Some ceramics, known as refractories, usually found in high tech or research ceramics, may be made from valuable or rare oxides, or even highly refined aluminum oxides (claylike) rather than simple clay. Recapturing the powder may be economically worthwhile.

Using a personal hammer for smashing broken teapots or flowerpots is satisfying but is not a large scale solution for society. What we need is a dedicated grinding mill that takes in all of a population's broken ceramics and puts them through a power mill. Then the amount of powder would be significant and could be reused for new ceramics. More research would be useful, since not all ceramics are the same and they often have glazes.


Many people wring their hands over excessive packaging (and it is outrageously abused and excessive) but the way to deal with packaging is not to ban it, since it serves a purpose. The Zero Waste way to deal with the excesses of packaging is to redesign packaging to be reusable over and over.

I am not going to go into great detail here, but it should be noted that any product which is reused over and over enjoys greater resource efficiency than low level recycling of just its materials after tearing or crushing it to pieces. Specifically, imagine a cardboard type box which is more robust than present designs and which can be easily separated into pieces (sides, tops etc.) and easily reassembled as needed. This is not hard to design. Not only could one box be used fifty times but a deteriorated top can be renewed with a new one.

An obvious advantage to a robust design is that the packaging can incorporate special features which might be too expensive for a throwaway design. Things like special labelling features, windows, reinforced corners etc. spring to mind. Expensive surfaces (wood, metal, plastic etc.) can replace the cardboard and the expense justified by the large number of uses that it will be put to.

When packaging is being discussed, the first and most important response is to design a new generation of packages that can be reused over and over.

Successful Zero Waste Projects
(as if the above examples were not successful enough)
Description Location
A discussion on the TED website by Richard Baraniuk of Rice University: Called: "Goodbye Textbooks", he discusses the extension of open source and the Napster model to books. An international consortium is eliminating the waste and expense of technical books and textbooks. Listen to the video
    Interface Carpet is a large carpet company. This description is from Natural Capital, p. 139: "Chairman Ray Anderson realized that not throwing more energy and money into holes in the ground (i.e. dumps) represents a major business opportunity. Interface therefore launched a transition from selling carpet to leasing floor covering services. People want to walk on and look at carpet, not own it. They can obtain those services at much lower cost if Interface owns the carpet and remains responsible for keeping it clean and fresh in return for a monthly fee under the company's Evergreen Lease."

    Note that leasing is not an end in itself. What counts is what is done with leased goods. If the lessor simply takes back his goods and discards them, what benefit does that bring? One thing that Interface did was to move from large carpets to carpet tiles. Breaking up large surfaces into manageable pieces this way is an essential step in myriad large surfaces, including walls, concrete pads, rooves etc. It allows the replacement of worn or broken pieces individually and makes it possible to disassemble rather than demolish at the end of life.

Natural Capital book
Read about Interface

Buildings and Construction
Buildings are said to use one-third of all the electricity created. They also gobble up hard materials by the millions of tons and control our living and working environment. They are so important that many organizations have devoted much thought to their design.

There are green building design organizations by the score. Search for them on the web. But the foremost organization is called the United States Green Building Council which publishes the LEED standards. Here is how Architectural Week describes them:
LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. They are a set of routes to a way to make housing more efficient for producer and end user and in maintenance over the life of the building. The target is not wasting, and using what sun and water you get naturally, instead of shunting them away. Ideally a structure adds more oxygen than the C02 it produces, even in the use of equipment and materials. The emphasis is on limiting impact on resources and maximizing beautiful design for a space that is more ergonomic to live and work in.

LEED is measured by these criteria,
    Sustainable Site
    Water Efficiency
    Energy and Atmosphere
    Materials and Resources
    Indoor Air Quality
    Innovation and Design Process

The top score for a building is 69. The score determines the ranking of Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum

The LEED rules are innovative, far reaching and effective. They are referenced in green designs over and over. They cover many principles that do not flow overtly from a Zero Waste strategy (even though the avoidance of waste is a pervasive subtext). Yet they are not based on Zero Waste principles but on recycling principles. Therefore they fail some important Zero Waste tests, because they rely on wasteful recycling methods. At the time they were developed, the creators had only the recycling perspective to make use of but now there is a need for a more advanced view.

When green building depends on the recycling of materials it accepts a low level reuse strategy. The concrete, plaster and other heavy materials are not conserved as completed forms but are viewed as basic materials to be broken, smashed up and if possible, reused for minor and wasteful applications, such as broken aggregate for roads. Their high functions (as fully formed building components) are ignored. The recycling designation of C & D (Construction and Demolition) debris is adopted.

Anytime that C & D is invoked, you know that you are dealing with a low level of reuse. This is garbage dump diversion notation and has been widely adopted by the garbage industry as well as the recycling industry. What is needed in building is to develop modular assembly of concrete and plaster parts which can be disassembled after the building is no longer useful, taken away and used for a new building. There are many ways in which this can be done and the thinking can be extended to rooves and floors and many other parts.

The federal EPA, never known for its progressive views, has already urged sidewalks to be built out of concrete squares that are joined together by fasteners and can be disassembled and reused. This is a design with obvious applications to monolithic floors, or pads.

At present, LEED emphasizes the use of recycled materials in creating the building. What it needs to do instead is set up cycles of functional reuse which will result in the availability of whole components that can be reused, rather than mere materials. Of course, for as long as the recycling paradigm rules, it is better to use those materials than to make no attempt at all.

There are also built-in features that needs to be reused whole. Kitchen cabinets are typically built in in ways that necessitate their destruction at the end of the building's life, or even during a remodel. Instead they need to be made as modular components that can easily be removed while preserving their function as cabinets. Distributed utilities (wires, plumbing) are another such feature. Tile work and closets could also use a Zero Waste analysis. Windows and doors need to be designed not to simply go to a reuse yard but to be supremely reusable when they are removed. This may require standard (and reversible) fastening methods for holding them in place and standard sizes and hardware. RFID's should label each one so that they can be scanned for inventory in their next applications (these would be useful in replacing or remodeling as well since they can be scanned for a model, size, design etc.).

REUSABLE BUILDINGS - There is one important case where the reuse in question is ultimately the entire building. Can you think of a large building that already has the practical ability to be easily dismantled and reassembled? I am referring to steel buildings, such as commercial warehouses. It is entirely possible to assemble these out of standard frames, steel panel skins and bolts or screws. However, most of these are put together with no thought at all as to how they will be reused after a first life. Welding and non-standard parts are the rule. Furthermore, we are mostly burdened by a backward, politically primitive permitting system which dictates the primacy of a demolition industry. This industry, like the garbage industry that underlies it, should one day be but a mere memory, when all construction is done by zero waste standards and is made for reuse. For now, even if a steel building is perfectly dismantlable and reusable, that won't happen. Political considerations will force a permit to be given to a demolition contractor who is therefore certified to charge a large amount of money for his work. Every contractor will tell you that he cannot afford to dismantle anything but must crush and destroy everything. They will all proudly report though, that they salvage 5% of the value by taking the steel in for recycling and concrete for crushing. The remaining 95% of the value never enters their minds. After they get their permit, and their huge fees, they may graciously allow some more ecologically minded reuse group to dismantle the building. This group will receive no fee, will be notified at the last minute, will be given a punishing schedule that may be impossible to meet, will have to deal with a design that was not made for dismantling and, worst of all in the grand scheme of things, will get no official recognition and will be barred from becoming the preferred contractor for such projects, for a variety of biases having to do with the subsidies given to dumps that destructive demolition can well take advantage of but reusers can't.

There is a crying need to reform the building permit process so that destructive demolition is barred from touching any building until a Zero Waste group or company has had adequate time and opportunity to design a plan for as close to total reuse of the building as possible or has certified that certain parts cannot presently be reused. Of course this would accompany the need to change the building permit process so that one-way-trip buildings could not be built at all except under the strenuous objections of any concerned party. A non-reusable building could well come under the Environmental Quality Act and require an environmental impact review (EIR).

MORE REUSABLE BUILDINGS - There is another situation where an entire building - or quasi building - can be reused in a startlingly effective manner. I am referring to the recent use of steel shipping containers to create housing. SG Blocks is a company doing this as is Global Portable Buildings. The shipping containers are outfitted in clever ways with utilities, bathrooms, kitchens and more, usually in highly compact forms but sometimes a number of containers are joined together to form multistory or large footprint housing. Sometimes, many more container-houses are arranged in a community to enclose a space or a field that all can share. For Mexican applications, see "Por Fin, Nuestra Casa (website on CNN at All of these outfits are proud, and rightly so, that they are using unwanted, almost discarded products in innovative ways.

So what does Zero Waste theory have to say about these efforts? Leaving aside the wonderful housing opportunities these companies are exposing, could it be done better? Of course it could! ZW theory requires that discard can never be built into any product. The shipping containers are unwanted and were it not for their obvious scrap steel value, would be discarded (melting down formed, high function steel is a form of discard). It is cheaper to build them in China and ship them one way. The Chinese, in that old familiar song, build them to be used once, for shipping, and then abandoned. They take no responsibility for their fate after their first trip. In this garbage oriented world, which takes egregious waste for granted, this kind of irresponsibility is considered normal. But what if the Chinese (or any other manufacturer) were required, by law or by the World Trade Organization, to make full arrangements for the further fate of their shipping containers after their first trip. What difference could that make?

Once again, here are just a few ideas, to show that it can be done. A detailed study would surely refine or replace these ideas with better ones.

Since we can see that the shipping containers serve well as housing units, would it be too much to ask the initial manufacturers to build in the panels that need to be removed later on, the crude way, with a torch? What if each container had a preformed front door, with the kind of reinforcement that has to go around a door frame, but with a panel that was screwed in place from the inside? Then putting in a door would not require a torch and welding but would simply be a matter of removing the door panel and fitting in the prefabbed door. Ditto for windows. And most especially, let us ask how utilities could be wired and plumbed in, in special channels, using special entryways built into the original containers. Do you want to join two containers side by side? Why not have large side panels also premanufactured for quick removal? Are legs needed to raise up these containers? Put in prefabbed supports on the corners to make attaching legs a piece of cake. Every modification that the conversion to housing requires could probably be assisted in some way in the original design, if the world were run efficiently.

As usual, if there is to be a second life, this adds value to the original shipping containers and allows them to be more robustly built, out of stronger materials if needed. The removed panels, being flat and efficiently stackable, could justify the return trip to the manufacturers. And the modifications recommended above can be paid for out of the projected sale for housing.

Also, see the discussion for packaging on this page. Shipping containers are just a heavy steel package, and the same ideas apply to them as to cardboard boxes.

This will give just a hint of how Zero Waste analysis can reduce the wastefulness inherent in even good green building today.
For a look at some great modular designs that won the 2007 Lifecycle Building Challenge, read the first summary description here and then the full description.

Also, for the second winner, a summary description and then see the drawings and read the full description.


There is a thriving industry for the destruction of computer hard drives in order to assure a worried client that no one will ever be able to read the confidential information off that drive.

In the minds of such people, resource wastage is a small price to pay for their peace of mind. And maybe that is the the way it should be. Maybe not.

Is there a better way to destroy data on a magnetic drive that doesn't involve shredding the entire drive, which is what is normally done today?

Here's a suggestion that starts, as usual, with redesign of the drive. The common method for completely removing magnetic information is degaussing, or demagnetizing. This shakes up all the bits and magnetic domains until they take up random positions, containing no information. Then the disk can be formatted from scratch and used. Physically, or mechanically, this operation causes no harm or destruction.

What if the bulk demagnetizer were built into the drive from the start, but simply sat there, doing nothing? It could be positioned exactly where it needs to be to exert its magnetic effect on the spinning disks. As a safety precaution, the demagnetizer could be made in such a way that there would exist no possibility at all of its suddenly going off and destroying data when that wasn't wanted. For example, it could have no power source, until the drive was physically removed from its computer and an external power cord was attached to the demagnetizing unit.

If the degausser is expensive, not every drive needs to have this capability. Special drives for sensitive data can be sold at a premium. The drive manufacturers might find this feature quite attractive.

In a world where waste is considered just dandy (as long as the tiny, unimportant shards of steel are recycled) shredding seems unremarkable. But in a world to come, where waste is built OUT of every product, data destruction can be a more intelligent process.


When I ran a chemical reuse website, the request I got over and over was for help with setting up a project to reuse little bars of soap from hotels. So I got to wondering what kind of redesign could be applied to soap bars.

I still don't know what to do with those tiny bars they use in hotels, That might require an industrial strength redesign of the whole practice of soap packaging since hotels are more focussed on patrons' perception of neatness and newness than with anything else. This focus leaves fewer available neglected parameters. But when it comes to bar soap used in homes, there is a neat way to increase the reuse.

As usual, it involves changing one of the neglected design parameters to increase reuse. In this case, it is the shape of the bar. What if one side of the bar had a recess in it that was made to receive the typical, small, used up former soap bar? In other words, when a bar becomes too small to use, the homeowner would open up a new bar, wet it up, and then place the wet, soapy, small residue bar into that recess. As soon as the two had a chance to dry together, they would stick. Subsequent wettings just add to the adhesion until the two are welded together.

I do this anyway, today, but with smooth or flat or curved surfaces it is difficult and most people wouldn't bother. If a pre-engineered recess were available, the tendency for the two pieces to slide apart would become less annoying and everyone could use the trick.

Of course there is a missing link. A study would be needed to determine the typical shape of a used bar of a soap and the best recess for holding it. This is a very small project. Some soap molds would need to be changed and the packaging would need to announce a new Zero Waste reuse ability. More and better advertising for Zero Waste.


It seems that every time I show up at the security line at an airport I have forgotten to check something that I am not allowed to carry on-board and so I lose it. Often it's my pocketknife. This happened to me just the other day. As soon as I felt it in my pocket, I knew I was going to lose another old friend. The smiling security man told me that he could check it (for $15) or "toss it". Of course he saw nothing wrong with discarding a perfectly useful product into a dump if it happened to be in the wrong place. His superiors belong explicitly to the world of waste and garbage uber alles.

Clearly, discarding prohibited items was the FIRST IDEA to occur to the security crowd. Why not? Isn't garbage dumping civilized and modern and proper?

As I walked away sans pocketknife, I asked myself what would be a zero waste way to handle this situation. As usual, how could we perform the same function but without allowing discard?

And as always, at least an initial redesign leaped out at me. It couldn't be more obvious how to take away knives without dumping. I am not addressing the taking away of liquids at this point.

One way would be to put the knives into a bag and put them on the plane to be redistributed at the destination. But this doesn't work very well since the security scan covers people going to hundreds of destinations.

So how about putting some responsibility onto the passengers themselves? How about storing the knives, then issuing a voucher to the passenger allowing him to pick up one replacement knife at his destination, that was left behind by some unknown passenger at that end. I wouldn't get back my own knife of course but I would have a usable knife. And the resentment I feel at having my knife taken for what I consider utterly spurious, political purposes, would be much muted.

I can already hear the objections. "Too much trouble!" "Not worth it!" "Let them buy a new knife!" First ideas are usually defended until they collapse in crisis.

Is this the only, the highest and best way to redesign the process? Of course not. My goal is merely to show that non-discard approaches can usually be found without much trouble if you care to look. Maybe a better way would be to seal the knife in a pouch that gets attached to the boarding pass and is taken by the staff as the passenger boards the plane and returned at the other end. What is your solution?


There is an annoying problem that cities must deal with consisting of wads of napkins and wrappers for fast food all being discarded on city streets, often inside of light paper bags. In other words, one persistent and annoying form of litter.

What is the source of this problem? At least partly, it arises because clerks thrust far more napkins than anyone needs into bags that fast food is served up in. But clearly that is just part of it.

Also implicated is the hidden assumption that every retailer must provide abundant packaging for everything she sells. This fairly recent idea is not a necessary assumption by any means. It would make much more sense for us to adopt the assumption that every product goes into a container (bag, plastic dish) that the customer owns. It could be a container that the customer brings with him. A cloth bag to a grocery store is an example. A covered, washable, plastic dish to a takeout place is another example.

(In case you see nothing but problems with this suggestion, may I suggest that you put the problems aside for a moment and try to figure out how to make it all work, rather than not work. You will be surprised how easy it is to find ways to make deposits and containers convenient and workable. You may find you are good at this kind of product and social design. You may even like the redesign process and want to apply it widely).

The problem is always the same. It revolves around responsibility. A disposable bag and napkin (a disposable anything) soon has no owner that cares what happens to it. The reigning assumption is that it can be put into a trash container if there happens to be one, otherwise it can go in the street BECAUSE NO OWNER HAS RESPONSIBILITY! A plastic dish, even if it just has a deposit on it, has an owner who will take it home to wash and use again. The pregnant question is what kind of society do we want to live in? One where people cause harm because they are urged to be irresponsible citizens? Or one where responsiblility for the consequences of our actions and choices is inculcated and taught to children. The Scandinavians seem to have done well with the latter choice. But Americans, living a vanished frontier dream, are still pretending that there is so much space that they can always move on and start to despoil some new ground.

That takes care of the bag. What about the napkins?

This fits in with the recommendations to install drinking water fountains everywhere (see discussion of water bottles below). However I think there may be a better design, that is very conservative of water. I am thinking of a mist that uses very little water, that can spray all over a hand, and that can be mass produced and attached to each drinking water fountain. Imagine a pair of small plastic openings just right for inserting a hand into, located in many public places. When a hand is inserted into the opening, a sensor causes a mist or light spray to immediately spray it. One of the openings sprays water with a small amount of detergent in it (one drop), just enough to feel a soapiness. The other sprays pure water. First you insert your hand into the washer, move around your (greasy) fingers, and then insert your hand into the pure water spray. A few teaspoonfuls of water is all it would take. These could become universal, accepted and expected to be found everywhere.

As always, with these Zero Waste designs, the main point is not the particular design but to show that with some creative thinking, there is no need to accept wasteful, irresponsible, garbage based thinking. Let us find the ways to solve these social, commercial and industrial problems with a blossoming of new designs that do not in any way depend on some dump and garbage can being available anywhere.


Everyone is suddenly talking about the problem of buying water in small quantities in plastic bottles. We are learning that the plastic adds chemicals to the water, that the water is often just tap water and is never really special or even tested, that tap water is more reliable because it is regulated and that the bottles are a wasteful indulgence that aren't recycled or reused but just fill up dumps. Yukkkkk!!! What a terrible product. And all because it is cold, available and thirst quenching. There must be a better way to deliver water to people.

And of course there is. We all know about water fountains but there is never one when you need it and half the time they don't work. Is it possible that our high tech society can't solve these problems. I don't believe it!

There are a number of reasons for choosing this project, as shown below:

  • A popular movement has arisen that rejects these bottles as frivolous and unnecessary and even harmful.
  • They are a major commercial presence so that replacing them is commercially and socially significant.
  • There has also arisen a popular appreciation that much of the water used in these bottles is not spring water or cleaner water at all but is simply municipal tap water. This realization is leading to a revulsion against what is seen as a deception by the water bottle companies.
  • Taste tests have been carried out which have usually shown that the much vaunted taste superiority of bottled waters to tap water disappears as soon as the labels are hidden. We can anticipate that this result will be general.

Let's imagine that we are willing to make a commitment to providing safe, clean, city water to everyone who needs it, where and when she wants it. Is this an unattainable ideal?

Let's talk about those bottles. Do we need to ban them? I think that banning should be saved for serious emergencies. Ban landmines, ban hydrogen bombs, but when it comes to water bottles, just as with garbage, the better way is to simply make them irrelevant and silly (use humor!) and let them mostly fade away.

Remember our general response to containers. If water bottles are going to continue to pollute our commercial landscape, okay, they need to be changed to refillable forms. But even then, why can't we make a simple social commitment to supply drinking water fountains EVERYWHERE!

Where is everywhere? Do you think that the dept. of Public Works officials can figure out where people get thirsty on hot days? On streets, in malls, in parks, near schools, hospitals, movie theatres and restaurants. That's a start. But here is the kicker.

We need to require that anyone who sells any bottled water is required to have a convenient drinking water fountain right nearby. Let's simply eliminate the monopoly that bottle water enjoys.

We need to design a simple fountain that can be replicated all over a city. It should be robust, with all replaceable parts so that it can last a hundred years or more. It will have a shelf to hold a refillable bottle while it is being filled and an overhead tap. Any public work this ubiquitous in a city should also be accompanied by public art work.

In addition, we need to deal with the public misunderstanding about tap and bottled water. Each drinking water fountain should have a backboard with a sign explaining that tap water is known to be clean and healthful because it is monitored and tested while bottled water is unregulated (and often just tap water).

We also need to deal with the other end of the problem - the availability of refillable bottles. It would be reasonable to require that anyone who sells pre-bottled water also needs to sell one or more models of sturdier, refillable bottles. They can be polyethylene, polycarbonate, aluminum, steel, glass or Spanish botas. But some kind! And to make them easy to keep track of, there should be some way to label them with the name and number of the buyer. Otherwise interchangeable bottles will be showing up in garbage, when people lose track of which is their bottle and which is not.

Is there anything here that is beyond the ability of a progressive city or county? I doubt it. But we are so afflicted with the defeatist notion that we can do nothing but recycle empty plastic bottles after the social and economic damage is done, that the naysayers have taken the field, to the benefit of the water bottle distributors and their multi-billion dollar market. However, after a few years of this kind of program, I think bottled water will simply vanish and fillable bottles will proliferate.


This is not strictly a Zero Waste project because it is only a one-time reuse, not a perpetual reuse. But it is cute.

I don't know if everyone reading this knows what an Altoids box is. It is a sheet steel box used to hold a mint flavored, sucking candy, widely sold where I live. It has a steel cover. By some stroke of design, the box inside is 2.5 inches by 3 inches, which is exactly the standard size of an American business card. So the obvious way to reuse it is to hold those business cards we are always accumulating.

The only problem is that the corners of the Altoids box are rounded, not square. To make it work, I immediately cut the four corners of each new business card. The corners never have printing on them. Another wrinkle I use is to spray paint each box to cover up the Altoids advertising. This can be done with many boxes at the same time. Maybe Altoids wants to make adhesive labels available in just the right size for the top of the cover.

An easy way to make this usage a standard practice would be if business cards were universally offered with rounded corners. This would also require the introduction of new, standard cutting molds, so that cards could be ordered with rounded corners without extra cost. The style could be called "The Altoids Cut". Maybe the Altoids company wants to see if they can make this happen.


Batteries today are typically collected for "recycling" and shipped off to a battery recycler. Is this the best way to handle batteries? Is there a way to reuse them for a longer time, that can be applied by an individual customer or, at least, a local rebuilder?

Batteries today are most ofen made of formed lead plates sitting inside a black, square box made of acid-resistant polypropylene. The box is filled with a weak sulfuric acid solution which bathes the plates. When the battery is charged or discharged, the lead plates react with the sulfuric acid to make lead oxide or lead sulfate. When the recycler gets a battery, he drains the acid and cuts off the top of the black box, thus destroying it. He probably sends out the plastic pieces to be ground up and re-extruded into a new box. Why, I ask you, would anyone destroy a plastic part that is perfectly usable in order to make a new part? Can we make the part "perfectly reusable"?

Today in this risk averse world, practically any chemical is considered too dangerous for ordinary people to ever encounter. Even thinking about chemicals makes Jimmy Six-Pack shrink in horror. But it wasn't long ago, let's say thru the seventies, that anyone and everyone was expected to add water and acid to the batteries in their car. I would argue that ordinary people are perfectly capable, with a little training or instruction (not the same thing as dire warnings) to handle what I propose here.

The thing that goes wrong with batteries is most often that the lead anode or cathode (the plates) loses its shape. It crumbles into powder or falls off the electrical contact to the outside so the chemical reaction that constitutes charging doesn't work any more. What is the natural repair? Why open up the box, remove the acid temporarily, replace the lead with new plates, put back the acid and close up the box.

In order to make this simple, we need to redesign the box so it is easily opened. How about making it in two parts, a deep box with a flange around the top and a cover with a matching flange? Opening up the box would then consist of opening up the fasteners holding the two flanges together and lifting up the top.

There are three major internal parts in a lead acid battery (with lots of minor variations). But if the top of the box were easily removed, and the connections from the outside posts to the plates inside were simplified and standardized, then almost anyone could rebuild a battery, or build a new one, just by buying a kit with the plates. There is one plate that is covered with solid lead dioxide. There is another plate that is made of a spongy lead. There is the liquid, or electrolyte, of weak sulfuric acid, which bathes both. Unless the electrolyte has an additive making it into a gel (so that no spillage can occur), that's all.

It would be good to redesign the plate attachments so that residual lead sulfate or oxide could easily be removed, the plates easily removed from their contacts and new plates easily reconnected. I leave that as a homework problem for battery designers. Then we need to create the position of local lead collector to collect the lead powders or plates and supply new ones. When he got a truckload together he would ship the lead to a smelter. Meanwhile he could open up a battery that was brought in, pour off the electrolyte, remove the old plates, put in new parts and hand the battery back to you, good as new (and much cheaper).

Lead-Acid batteries often fail because as they charge and discharge, the plates change from one chemical compound to another (mostly to lead sulfate) and this creates mechanical failure where some of the lead or lead compounds flake off or fall off the plates onto the bottom of the case. One way to repair a battery IF IT COULD BE OPENED would be to remove the free powder and pieces from the bottom of the case where they cause spurious short circuits. Today, this is not a conceivable repair.

Even if the battery went to a standard recycler - like we use today - he would not have to cut open any box but would be able to remanufacture the battery from the old box.

So often, expensive, wasteful methods are put into place in order to wring extra cash from customers who must then be kept in the dark as to what goes on behind closed doors. Standardization, modularization and easy repair will work for chemical processes as well as for mechanical manufacturing.


For years I have used a Ryobi electric weed whacker for the long grass I need to cut down every spring. It is light and I don't need to constantly manage a gasoline engine.

The original design comes with a rotating head that holds the plastic strings that do the cutting. The idea of the manufacturer is to design something totally convenient that will dole out new string as the operating length becomes short. You tap it on the ground and a few inches come out. The problem is that the mechanism is chancy and when it misfires you can get many feet being fed out for no reason. In fact you can go thru a whole spool of string for no reason. And the stuff isn't cheap!

I decided to come up with a better, much less wasteful way to hold the string and parcel it out. The result was a huge success, and the only wasted string is a short piece about two inches long each time. I also added two more strings to the head so that it now holds four. You could also add six or eight or more but I haven't field tested that combination.

What I did was to notice that a standard white plastic vinyl 1.5 inch end cap is just the right size to replace the rotating head that comes with the machine. I cut about 3/4 inch off the length of the cap using a band saw, put a 3/4 inch hole in the cap end for the nut assembly that came with the original head and drilled 12 small holes around the sides and bottom for the string to thread thru.

I prepared a bunch of short strings about 10 inches long and then heated one end of each in a flame to make a little ball or enlarged flat end on the string. This is to prevent them from slipping thru the holes drilled in the cap.

Now I thread one string thru a set of three small holes in the cap, ending with the string poking out the sides, to fit the holes in the sides of the cup shaped head that actually turns when the machine operates. Feed the four strings thru their corresponding holes and you are all set for an hour or two of heavy cutting. Four strings do twice as much work as two strings before needing replacement..

Don't misunderstand the point of this description. I am not trying to invent a patentable new design. I believe there are other head designs which use four strings or short pieces. I am only trying to show that it is possible to modify this one commercial design towards one that creates less waste. I'm sure I haven't found the very best design yet.

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The separator used above is a view of Kiz Kalesi (Girl's Castle), a castle on an island off the coast of southern Turkey