What Does Zero Waste Mean? Zero is Zero

The Zero Waste Business Principles and Zero Waste Community Principles included the concept of Zero Waste or Darn Close.  Those principles recognized that nothing can be perfect and that a mature industrial economy could not reach literal Zero Waste. Those principles said that businesses and communities that divert 90% of all their discarded materials from landfills, incinerators and the environment would be considered Zero Waste businesses and communities.

Since the mid 1990’s, international and US organizations have used 90% or more diversion from incineration and landfill as the equivalent of Zero Waste.  This is considered Zero Waste even if some materials — 10% or less – would still be wasted; even as the Zero Waste concept includes a no burn no bury epithet.

Yet theoretical and practical issues remain to be sorted out.

If several jurisdictions within one region reached the 90% goal, there could be enough materials to feed an incinerator. Would these communities be considered Zero Waste communities?

Similarly, if a company reached 90% diversion and sent its remaining waste to an incinerator, would that company be eligible for Zero Waste recognition and certification? In fact ‘zero waste to landfill’ has been heralded as Zero Waste with companies burning 50% or more of their materials, therefore not complying with the ZWIA Definition and Principles. A March Social Impact report from the Wharton School of Business adopted this zero waste interpretation.

Finally, how can ‘zero waste to landfill’ claims be justified when any thermal technology used must have a landfill for fly ash, bottom ash and bypass waste? According to the Energy Justice Network, from 20-30% by weight of feedstock to a garbage incinerator winds up in a landfill; thus violating the 90% diversion principle.

Proposed Policy Suggestions

Zero Waste businesses should still be certified if the firm reached 90% diversion and sent no more than 10% to an incinerator for no more than 10 more years from the point of sending original data for certification, with the proviso that the company continues to reduce the materials going to burning each year. Businesses should not sign put or pay contracts with incinerators or landfills. This would satisfy the need for companies to achieve Zero Waste certification from government and independent agencies in acknowledgement of its efforts to meet green marketing guidelines. At the same time Zero Waste advocates would be satisfied that there will be continued progress toward waste elimination. Zero Waste businesses should also adhere to the guidelines for the ZWIA Zero Waste Business Recognition Program, which include the following commitments:

  1. Adopted corporate policy of Zero Waste that uses ZWIA definition of Zero Waste as summarized here:
    1. All discarded materials are resources
    2. Resources should not be burned or buried
    3. Goal is Zero Air, Water and Land Emissions
  2. Achieved 90% or more diversion of all discarded resources from landfills or incinerators as defined in ZWIA Principles for one facility, for a geographic area, or corporate-wide.
  3. There are four levels of recognition for businesses that achieve different levels of diversion of all discarded materials. All levels require diversion from landfills and incinerators, and that materials are reduced, reused, recycled, composted or recovered for productive use in nature or the economy at biological temperatures and pressures:
    1. Achieved 90% Diversion from landfills and incinerators
    2. No Burn & Diverted 90% from landfills
    3. No Burn & Diverted 90% from landfills; and all remaining discarded materials (residues after reuse, recycling, composting or recovery) must be pre-processed before going to a double-lined landfill that meets EU standards or equivalent
    4. No Burn and No Bury of 100% of all discarded materials.
  4. Commit in writing to continuous improvement to reduce the remaining residue that goes to landfills or incinerators by at least 1% of baseline disposal each year and/or to address other Zero Waste Business Principles over time. Commit in writing to phase out of all burning in next contract with service providers or when alternative facilities are available. Until all materials are diverted, use of upgraded landfills that meet European Union Landfill Directive or equivalent is preferable to any form of incineration.

Zero Waste communities should be certified according to the guidelines for the ZWIA Zero Waste Communities Recognition Program, which include the following commitments:

  1. Communities Working Towards Zero Waste

To be recognized as a community working towards Zero Waste, the community must:

  • Oppose any kind of incineration, both those already operating (“legacy incinerators”) and those in planning or development in their jurisdiction or region. Communities with existing incinerators must commit in writing to phase out of all burning in next contract with service providers or when alternative facilities are available.
  1. Zero Waste Best Practice Communities

These are communities that follow the guidelines for communities working towards Zero Waste and that demonstrate best practices and actual achievements on the road to Zero Waste. There are 4 levels of recognition for communities that achieve different levels of diversion of all discarded materials:

  1. Achieved 50% diversion from landfills and incinerators
  2. Achieved 70%% diversion from landfills and incinerators
  3. Achieved 90% diversion from landfills and incinerators
  4. No Burn & Diverted 90% from landfills

For transparency, all communities must indicate in public pronouncements regarding their Zero Waste recognition what their current levels of diversion are, and what percentage of remaining discarded materials go to landfills or incinerators.  These should be summarized as in the following example:

  • Zero Waste Community (D50/L40/B10) = 50% current diversion rate, 40% going to landfill and 10% burned).

Zero Waste Best Practice Communities must commit in writing to continuous improvement to reduce the remaining residue that goes to landfills or incinerators until: All materials are diverted, use of upgraded landfills that meet European Union Landfill Directive or equivalent is preferable to any form of incineration. Communities are not eligible to be recognized as Zero Waste Communities by ZWIA or its National Affiliates if they are participating in expanding or developing a new incinerator for 10% or more of their discarded materials.

This would satisfy the need for companies and communities to achieve Zero Waste certification from government and independent agencies in acknowledgement of their efforts to meet green marketing guidelines. At the same time Zero Waste advocates would be satisfied that there will be continued progress toward waste elimination and no support for incineration in any form.

— Prepared for ZWIA by Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Washington, DC (ILSR). ILSR is a founding organization of ZWIA, September 25, 2014.