10 Steps Towards Becoming A Zero Waste Community
Note: these 10 steps are outlined in full in Chapter 2 of Paul Connett’s Zero Waste Solution – a highly recommended book on our Further Reading page.
Zero waste may seem a utopian goal but many zero waste municipalities have demonstrated it’s not an impossible one. There is no one road to zero waste. No two zero waste programs are the same, nor is there “one approach fits all”. Each community or municipality will have different needs and capacities. However, here are ten steps that municipalities can take towards becoming a zero waste community.
1) Source Separation
Waste consists of mixed discards. To avoid producing ‘waste’, discarded materials can be kept separate and organised in terms of categories. More categories provide more opportunities for recycling meaning that less material is wasted in processing. However, more categories increase the importance of an effective communications strategy to ensure that these categories are easily understood. See our blog post on strategies to encourage source separation.
2) Door-to-door collection systems
If a municipality is fully committed to zero waste, door-to-door collection systems can involve three or four color-coded containers or bags. However, collection rates vary, as does the degree of curbside waste separation. To allow for greater source separation, some communities collect specific materials on different days of the week. Communities that have successfully implemented door-to-door collect systems have managed to achieve recycling rates of between 80 and 90 per cent.
Essentially, in more comprehensive door-to-door systems, there are three main container types. Firstly, there is a container for kitchen waste. Secondly, there is a container for recyclables (often there are divisions between recyclable paper, plastic, cans etc.). Finally, there is a container for the residual fraction. Garden waste collection is more varied and less frequently collected due to its seasonality. Communities can collect kitchen waste and gardening waste together. However, this requires much larger containers thus increasing the size and expense of vehicles used for pickup.
Organic matter (particularly kitchen waste) is a huge burden on cities if not managed properly. Not only does it cause unpleasant odours, it can generate methane and leachate in landfills. However, the main benefit of collecting clean organic waste is that it can be used by farmers to replenish their soils of nutrients and help protect from erosion by improving soil moisture.
Compost contributes towards the mitigation of global warming for many reasons.Compost reduces the need to produce fertilisers and topsoils (greenhouse gas are emitted during their production). Compost also supports plant growth which in turn leads to carbon sequestration.
Though not most desirable (see our blog post on the zero waste hierarchy), recycling is an important component of a zero waste strategy. In large communities, recycled are sent to material recovery facilities (MRFs). These separate discards to meet the specifications of the industries that then use these secondary materials to manufacture new products. The companies that use these secondary materials prioritise three things: quality, quantity and regularity. The best location for these plans is large cities due to the presence of a large local labour force and the fact that these industries that then use these secondary materials tend to be located nearby (or at least there are good nearby transport links). In the case of Nova Scotia, Canada, the presence of a local recycling plant has created thousands of jobs (both directly and indirectly). In Manchester, Fairfield Environmental Services are entirely responsible for the waste management of New Smithfield Market. In the market, the vast majority of waste is organic e.g. food waste. They work with Fairshare, a “food supply organisation for the vulnerable and needy”. Alternatively, food that is unfit for human consumption is sent to Pig Inn Heaven, “a safe haven for pigs in need of rehoming”. Committed to implementing waste reduction practices in accordance with the zero waste hierarchy, recycling rates have increased to 85% overall as a result.
5) Reuse, Repair And Deconstruction
Reuse and repair centres can be run either as a for-profit or not-for-profit organisation. An example would be the Repair Cafe in Manchester. This free event runs the 3rd Saturday of every month. It is a chance for people to have their products repaired and to be taught new skills so they can fix them themselves in the future.
These facilities thrive quite simply because people love a bargain. UK high streets are littered (if you’ll pardon the pun) with charity shops where people can buy and reuse products such as books CD, toys and furniture. These stores also increasingly handle large products such as appliances, furniture or building materials.
However, reuse and repair centres are important to used to collect hard-to-recycle and toxic discards (batteries, old paint, solvent, fluorescent light bulbs etc.).
6) Waste Reduction Initiatives
Waste prevention remains the first option in the waste hierarchy and the primary aim of a zero waste strategy. – moving away from end-of-pipe waste management towards reducing waste at source. Ireland introduced a 15 per cent tax on plastic bags which is reported to have led to a 92 per cent reduction in the usage of plastic bags. Similarly, the UK has introduced a 5p plastic bag charge. Again, this has reduced plastic bag usage (though one should be careful about extrapolating cause and effect due to the complexity of societies). That being said, even cities as large as San Francisco now have bans on plastic bags.
Across the world, there are stores opening up with dispensing systems. In these stories, customers can either bring their own containers or use ones provided and fill them with food / non-food stuff. There are bulk-locate apps where people can type in their postcode and find out what local stores there are in their area – sometimes these make not be known such as cooperatives or farmer’s markets.
Another easy way to eliminate waste is to turn back the clocks culturally in eating in offices, schools and hospitals etc. Plastic disposals should be ditched in favour of stainless steel etc. This has will have the added benefit of saving these institutions money too.
Alternatively, parents can be encouraged to reuse their diapers. Again, this will both reduce waste and save money.
7) Economic incentives
One example might include a pay-as-you-throw system which penalises the production of residuals. This would arguably be just and progressive as it’s based on the “polluter pays principle”; the more you produce, the more you pay (and vice versa). This can kind of system can operate in terms of residual weight or residual size.
Example case study: Contarina’s pay-as-you-throw system
In order to incentivise waste reduction, Contarina developed as “pay-as-you-throw” system. The principle of the scheme is simple: the cost of the service to the user is proportional to the amount of waste produced. Waste generation is separated into two separate categories: fixed and variable. The fixed fee makes up 60% of the pay-as-you-throw fee: based on the number of household members (domestic users) and the amount related to the class of the user area and volume of supplied bins (non-domestic users). For domestic users, the variable fee is based on the number of residual waste bin removals. Households that do home-composting receive a 30% reduction on the variable fee. Both domestic and non-domestic users receive an increased variable fee based on the fixed quota for garden waste. In 2013, the percentage of separate waste collection in the municipalities managed by Contarina reached almost 85%, much higher than the national average of 42%.
8) Residual Separation and Research Facilities
Firstly, residuals need to be made more visible so they can be studied and mistakes corrected. Residuals should be sent to a residual separation and zero waste research facility and not directly to landfill.
Residual separation facility
The important concept here is that residual waste is screened, sorted and processed before any materials enters the landfill. On arrival, bags of residual waste are opened and contents tipped onto conveyor belts. Magnets pull out items made of steel or ironic. The rest is passed along the conveyor belts to well-protected and trained personnel who pull out bulky items, more valuable recyclables and toxics. The dirty organic fraction reaches the end of the conveyor belts untouched. This is then shredded and biologically stabilised either by a second composting operation or an anaerobic digestion system in other mechanical and biological stabilisation facilities. The point of this process is not to produce an organic product for sale but rather to ensure that much of the organic degradation occurs above ground in a controllable fashion before it takes place underground in an uncontrollable fashion.
Zero Waste Research Centre
These centres could be run by schools or technical colleges, allowing for the integration of zero waste with the higher educational system. Professors and students could study residual waste and subsequently propose alternative so as to eliminate the waste from being produced in the first place. This could involve monitoring, evaluating and improving the capture rate of reusable and recyclables in door-to-door collection systems, as well as the reuse and repair centres.
To a large extent, a zero waste research centre would function like a doctor – assessing symptoms, making a diagnosis and subsequently offering potential remedies in relation to the specific circumstances. This is also a great opportunity to facilitate interaction between communities and industrial responsibility; if products cannot be redesigned so as to eliminate waste, industry shouldn’t be making them.
Case study: zero waste research centre of Capannori
In 2010, Capannori set up the first zero waste research centre in Europe. At the centre, waste experts identify what is still being thrown in the grey residual waste bags and come up with solutions. For example, the centre found that items such as coffee capsules were among the most commonly discarded items. Thus, they held meetings with coffee manufacturers such as Nespresso and Illy to work on biodegradable or recyclable alternatives. Alternatively, high volume of disposable nappies in residual waste led the municipality to offer subsidised washable nappies to local parents.
9) Better industrial design
Design for Sustainability
Businesses should sell products not just for the present but the future also. Products should be made for a prolonged life, easy to re-assemble and repair. Packaging must be designed for reuse. Overall, businesses should follow the 3Ps: profit, people and the planet.
Eliminate the use of toxic elements and compounds in manufacturing products.
A Zero Waste Europe report argues that “the European Union (EU) is maintaining a political double standard within circular economy policies. On the one hand, the EU promotes the concept of circular economy and presents itself as a world leader on resource-efficiency. However, on the other hand, the EU has assumed a counterproductive role on product and toxics policy, shuffling to ban well-known toxics such as decaBDEs at the production stage and advocating for the continued recycling of products containing the same hazardous substances through EU policy level and the international Stockholm Convention.”
Extended Producer Responsibility
Laws should be introduced whereby manufacturers and retailers take back their products and packaging after the customer has finished with them; the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is already a European law applying this philosophy to electronic equipment. This legislation requires producers of electrical and electronic equipment to pay for the collection, treatment and recovery of this equipment after the customer has finished with it. This law also requires Main Street shops and Internet retailers to allow consumers to return their waste equipment free of charge. Not only does this keep toxic materials out of the environment, companies capture cost-benefits through the recovery of gold and other valuable materials.
Solid waste is the visible face of inefficiency. Those progressive companies that work on achieving zero waste save money both on production and disposal costs.
In relation to this, a new study by the Reloop Platform and Zero Waste Europe, and produced by Rezero, suggested that existing economic instruments can bring Europe to the next stage of the Circular Economy. The study examines existing measures and incentive schemes, which have been used successfully for products such as beverage containers, and identifies additional key waste streams that could benefit from such measures.
10) Interim Landfills
The conventional approach towards tackling the issues posed by landfills is to apply more sophisticated technology to contain and capture both gaseous emissions and liquid effluents. This has involved daily cover, methane capture and lining and leachate collection systems. The key goal has been to control what comes out of landfills, not what is put into them. However, all landfills eventually leak. If we cannot control what comes out of a landfill, we much control what goes in. Residual separation and zero waste research facility would help to regulate what goes into landfills. The term interim is used because a zero waste strategy would involve eliminating landfills altogether.