The Ripple Effect of Zero Waste

By Michael Jessen, Toenail Environmental Services

A better quality of life for future generations is the principal aim of a sustainable development strategy. Protection of the environment, a sustainable level of economic growth and employment, and social progress which meets the needs of everyone are key elements of such a strategy. But unless we humans learn a fourth component -- more prudent use the Earth's natural resources -- it is highly doubtful that the other three can be achieved. The "take, make, and waste" mentality that has guided our economy for decades must be replaced by the desirable and visionary goal of Zero Waste. Our human economy is undeniably dependent on Nature's economy. Society cannot sensibly afford to continue wasting Nature's resources, many of which (particularly metals and oil-based materials such as plastic) are available in limited quantities in the environment, or are difficult or environmentally damaging to extract. Nature has been operating the longest running, most successful Zero Waste model of all. To achieve sustainability, humans will have to learn to "act naturally."

Recycling has been labeled the most successful environmental initiative in human history. Yet despite its success we are still making more waste. While government and private sector investment in recycling facilitated the establishment of a secondary materials economy, recycling is not sufficient to address the myriad of problems surrounding unsustainable growth in production, consumption, and waste. It is time for a radically new approach.

By adopting the goal of Zero Waste, the first thing we do is discard the idea of waste. Everything is made from resources and waste is a resource going in the wrong direction. To throw "away" resources is to be inefficient and uncompetitive. By changing the way resources flow through our society and communities, we can reap substantial environmental, economic, and social benefits. In effect, the very components of a sustainable development model. We save energy, water, resources, and landfill space. We reduce pollution of air, land, and water by using recycled materials. We find a host of new job opportunities that can benefit those in our society who face the greatest barriers to employment. Best of all, these positions are generated in local communities where livelihoods are created instead of landfills. As Joel Makower and Ron Pernick, co-founders of Clean Edge, Inc., based in Oakland, California ( have stated: "a real, and sustainable, new new economy is emerging. It is based not on ephemeral (and dubious) products and services, but on providing clean energy, clean transportation, clean water, and other goods and services that embody the principles of industrial ecology, resource productivity, and natural capitalism."

Designing Out Waste

Zero Waste is an integral part of that new new economy. It has many components. Reducing, redesigning, reusing, refilling, regenerating, recycling, repairing, reclaiming, refurbishing, restoring, recharging, remanufacturing, reselling, deconstruction, and composting are the constituents of Zero Waste -- and all provide productive employment and economic development opportunities. By aligning resource management with Zero Waste, we will also be merging with a number of international trends. One of the foremost is Design for the Environment (DfE), a new discipline initiated by designers that ensures all costs -- including the environment -- are internalized at the design stage. To get a flavor of its potential, check out the following web sites: Greener by design, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, o2-USA/A Greener World by Design, and The EcoDesign Foundation.

Cleaner Production is an efficiency concept used mainly by business to reduce the impacts of production on the environment. Find out more on the web site of The Center for Clean Products and Clean Technologies. De-materialization is an expression used by Paul Hawken, The Natural Step founder Karl Henrik Robert, and Amory and Hunter Lovins to describe the concept of using less materials to create the same service. Read about de-materialization the book "Natural Capitalism" authored by Hawken and the Lovins or visit the Natural Capitalism web site at Design for Disassembly is another design discipline aimed at ensuring products are designed for ease of disassembly so that the parts can be reintegrated into new models and materials can be recycled. One of the leading proponents of design for disassembly is Philip Crowther of the School of Architecture Interior and Industrial Design at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. Learn more about him here.

Other new trends toward Zero Waste include Extended Producer Responsibility where manufacturers take responsibility for the entire life cycle of products and packaging. Dynamic Modularity is where products are made in modules, so that only some modules need to be replaced to lengthen product life, for example the 'skin' of a product. Using Reverse Logistics, retail chains use their distribution systems in reverse to have all broken and unsaleable merchandise returned to central locations for repair, reuse, or breaking down into components for recycling. Retailers report huge economic saving from reverse logistics and it also helps in redesign as manufacturers get faster feedback about product failures. Interface, Inc. ( is one of the pioneers of a new way of doing business -- selling service rather than product -- through its Evergreen carpet lease program. Most photocopiers, some carpets, some computers, and now some washing machines are leased to clients rather than sold. As a result, the manufacturer has a vested interest in building higher quality, longer lasting products thereby helping society use fewer materials. In addition, there is a fast growing simplicity movement aimed at reducing the emphasis of materialism in return for a greater quality of life.

Remanufacturing has Proven Benefits

With some of the trends listed above, the details are still coming in about the exact contribution each will make to a Zero Waste society. Not so with Remanufacturing, the process of returning a used, worn out product to as close to new as possible. The product is completely disassembled, cleaned, inspected, remachined, reassembled, and tested to insure functional quality. Remanufacturing not only preserves the material constituents of durable products, but it also recaptures most of the energy, labour, and capital equipment contribution that went into the initial manufacture of the product. Remanufacturing can also create local jobs with livable wages, diversifying the economy, and attracting investment. One of the champions of remanufacturing is Boston University Professor Robert Lund, author of the books "The Remanufacturing Industry: Hidden Giant" and "The American Edge: Leveraging Manufacturing's Hidden Assets." Visit the web site for more information.

So just how big is the total remanufacturing industry and what are its environmental benefits? The estimated total annual sales of 73,000 remanufacturers are $53 billion. That is on par with the American steel industry. The direct employment of these 73,000 firms is 480,000. There are many more indirect jobs in core suppliers, parts manufacturers, equipment suppliers, sales, and distribution. That's the economic side of remanufacturing. On the environmental side, studies performed at the Fraunhofer Institute in Stuttgart, Germany found energy savings by remanufacturing worldwide in a year equals the electricity generated by five nuclear power plants or 10,744,000 barrels of crude oil which corresponds to a fleet of 233 oil tankers. The Fraunhofer Institute also determined that raw materials saved by remanufacturing worldwide in a year would fill 155,000 railroad cars forming a train 1,100 miles long.

As the remanufacturing industry illustrates, we can reduce resource extraction and energy consumption, two of the main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. By embracing the concept of Zero Waste and the emerging trends that are contributing to it, we can prevent the production of even more greenhouse gases. Instead of landfilling solid waste, communities need to explore ways to use these resources to create new products, thereby saving landfill space, reducing transportation related costs and pollution, protecting the environment, and helping local economies. Zero Waste will put human society in harmony with Nature. What could be more natural?