Friday, January 14, 2005

Zero Waste

By Dharmesh Shah

A better quality of life for future generations is the principal aim of a Zero Waste 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. Zero Waste is a simple goal with far-reaching implications. The goal applies to the whole production and consumption cycle – raw material extraction, product design, production practices, how products are sold and delivered, how consumers choose products, and more. Pursuing Zero Waste requires questioning the view of nature as an endless source of raw materials and an endless dumping ground for waste. In fact, Zero Waste advocates see nature as the ultimate production model – a system in which all materials are cycled back for productive reuse and nothing is wasted. 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.

Designing out waste
Zero Waste is an integral part of that new economy. While much of the focus has been at the end of a product’s lifecycle, the lion’s share of waste and associated environmental destruction happen before consumers see the product on the shelf. Zero waste 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.

Clean Production - an efficiency concept used mainly by business to reduce the impacts of production on the environment.

De-materialization - the concept of using less materials to create the same service.

Design for Disassembly – a design discipline aimed at ensuring products are designed for easy disassembly so that the parts can be reintegrated into new models and materials can be recycled.

Extended Producer Responsibility - manufacturers take responsibility for the entire life cycle of products and packaging.

Modularity - 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.

Reverse Logistics - retail chains in the west 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. It is one of a new way of doing business -- selling service rather than product (ever wondered how they can afford all those call centers that we work for – well that proves it after sales services are in to stay). As a result, the manufacturer has a vested interest in building higher quality, longer lasting products thereby helping society use fewer materials.

Remanufacturing - 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, re-machined, 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.

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?

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