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Zero waste is a philosophy that aims to guide people in the redesign of their resource-use system with the aim of reducing waste to zero. Put simply zero waste is an idea to extend the current ideas of recycling to form a circular system where as much waste as possible is reused, similar to the way it is in nature. The best example of zero waste practiced by mankind is found in zero waste agriculture where households make optimal use of nature in the from of plants, animals, bacteria, fungi and algae, to produce biodiverse-food, energy and nutrients in a synergistic integrated cycle of profit making processes where the waste of each process becomes the feedstock for another process.
"Only industry is capable of producing things no one wants Zero waste is "simply the continuation of the drive of industry toward higher levels of productivity and away from waste. After zero defects (total quality), zero accidents (total safety), zero inventory (just-in-time), zero emissions means that all raw materials will be fully used. This model could well prove the economists and politicians wrong. They believe that in order to increase the productivity of a company, you have to reduce jobs. We are showing that when you focus on the productivity of the raw materials, you can generate more income, higher returns, and more jobs, while at the same time eliminating pollution. This is the industrial model of the future", William McDonough, dean of the University of Virginiaâ€™s school of architecture.
"Waste is too expensive; itâ€™s cheaper to do the right things", Paul Hawken.
The zero-waste strategy is to turn the outputs from every resource-use into the input for another use, or in other words outputs become inputs. An example of this might be the cycle of a glass milk bottle. The primary input (or resource) is silica-sand, which is formed into glass and formed into a bottle. The bottle is filled with milk and distributed to the consumer. At this point normal waste methods would see the bottle disposed in a landfill or similar, but with a zero-waste method the bottle can be recycled, reduced to its constituent parts and formed into a new milk bottle (or other glass product).
Zero waste actually can sometimes make financial sense as well. The bottle shape accounts for 98 percent of the value of the item, as a lump of glass the 'bottle' is worth only the final 2 percent of its value. In this sense a minimal resource (the glass) can be resold many times over at 1000 percent of its value each time.
More than recycling
Despite the similarities Zero waste is not just another form of recycling but involves changing things at the production level. Take a computer, in its constituent parts (some steel, copper, glass etc.) fairly worthless yet once built into a computer it is worth much more. However, many computers are disposed of each year, by adopting a modular design policy (eg each aspect of the computer is a separate pluggable element) old computer components can be reused in newer products.
Zero waste depends on the redesign of industrial, commercial and consumer goods. Recycling contents itself with attempts to deal with wastes as delivered, after goods have become garbage. zero waste does not accept the unthinking creation of garbage, followed by a scramble to capture mere materials.
While this is a laudable aspiration it may be difficult to see how the transition from our current consumerist society could be managed as many items have been designed for a limited lifespan. The key is not to accept the simplistic designs of today, which depend intrinsically on the always welcoming dump, but to reject design for discard and demand design for perpetual reuse. This amounts to a new, universal constraint on the design process.
The term zero waste was first used publicly in the name of a company, Zero Waste Systems Inc., which was founded by PhD chemist Paul Palmer in the mid 1970s in Oakland California. The mission of ZWS was to find new homes for most of the chemicals being excessed by the nascent electronics industry. They soon expanded their services in many other directions. For example, they accepted free of charge, large quantities of new and usable laboratory chemicals which they resold to experimenters, scientists, companies and tinkerers of every description during the 1970s. ZWS arguably had the largest inventory of laboratory chemicals in all of California, which were sold for half price. They also collected all of the solvent produced by the electronics industry called developer/rinse (a mixture of xylene and butyl acetate). This was put into small cans and sold as a lacquer thinner. ZWS collected all the "reflow oil" created by the printed circuit industry, which was filtered and resold into the "downhole" (oil well) industry. ZWS pioneered many other projects. Because they were the only ones in the world in this business, they achieved an international reputation. Many magazine articles were written about them and several television shows featured them. The California Integrated Waste Management Board produced a slide show featuring ZWS's business and the EPA published a number of studies of their business, calling them an "active waste exchange".
In 2005, Paul Palmer published a book which summarized and drew from his experiences with ZWS called Getting To Zero Waste. This is not primarily a study of chemical reuse but applies the lessons learned there to the theory of universal reuse of all goods.
The movement gained publicity and reached a peak in 1998-2002, and since then has been moving from "theory into action" by focusing on how a "zero waste community" is structured and behaves. The website of the Zero Waste International Alliance has a listing of communities across the globe that have created public policy to promote zero-waste practices. See also the Eco-Cycle website for examples of how this large nonprofit is leading Boulder County, Colorado on a Zero-Waste path and watch a 6-minute video about the zero-waste big picture. Finally, there is a USA zero-waste organization named the GrassRoots Recycling Network that puts on workshops and conferences about zero-waste activities.
The tension between zero waste, viewed as post-discard total recycling of materials, and zero waste as the reuse of all high level function remains a serious one today. It is probably the defining difference between established recyclers and emerging zero-wasters. The tension between the literal application of natural processes and the creation of industry-specific more efficient reuse modalities is another tension. By way of example, one may argue that the creation of biodegradable plastics is wasteful, not environmentally beneficial, because biodegradation means the destruction of the low entropy molecules of plastic, along with all of the expensive inputs needed to create them. The alternative is to create pathways which reuse those molecules over and over. And finally, there is a tension between those who expect instant answers to even difficult questions of design and those who see progress toward real zero waste in the creation of extensive research establishments. The latter are not dismayed by the difficulties of achieving zero waste but see those difficulties as the natural accompaniments of any significant industrial redesign program.
Adoption of zero waste policies
Several large companies, agencies and events have begun to adopt Zero waste policies - either in full or in part. One high profile example is the London 2012 Olympics whose organisers have promised to avoid sending waste to landfills as well as providing educational and recycling facilities at every venue (as part of their wider ranging green policy). Other good examples are car manufacturer Toyota (who have already reached their target of sending zero waste to landfills) and Bath and East Somerset Council (who have introduced a zero waste policy.
In January 2007, Professional Convention Management Association hosted a convention at Metro Toronto Convention Centre. They have successfully completed a zero-waste international convention. They encourage participants to use real dishes for lunch and dinner. Food scraps were composted and the leftover food were delivered to local charities for less fortunate people.
In 2005 Doncaster Metropoitan Borough Council was the first UK Local Authority to adopt a Zero Waste strategy. When introducing the Zero Waste Strategy, Mayor Martin Winter publicy stated that "Doncaster has taken on the challenge that everything Doncaster consumes is, or eventually will be, repaired, reused or recycled. To achieve this, government, the Council, industry and the community need to work together to find ways to turn waste into a profitable resource - or get it out of the system altogether." 
References and notes
- A prime example might be the Dung beetle which feeds on the faeces of other animals
- see gettingtozerowaste.com
- As outlined on this section of the London 2012 website (part of the London 2012 Candidate File Theme 5: Environment and meteorology)
- Noted on the BITC website article about Toyota's Environmental Action plan
- The Bath and East Somerset Council webiste contains an overview of their zero waste policies.
- Toronto Star, Jan. 10, 2007, pg. C03.
- zerowaste.org - Zero Waste Alliance
- Southwest Network for Zero Waste
- Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA)
- GrassRoots Recycling Network (GRRN)
- Big Picture TV Free video of zero waste expert Paul Connett
- Thanal(zero waste group in Kovalam, Kerala, India)
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