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23 Apr 2018

Can "Zero Waste" be achieved?

It depends! I believe we can all achieve zero waste in some form or other, whether that be at home or within our workplace. However, can zero waste be achieved when looking at the larger picture - i.e. the full product journey end-to-end inc. the original source supplier/s, 2nd tier supplier/s, its production process, retail, consumer, disposal.

I think this is a big ask and I don't think we have either the answer, capability or infrastructure to achieve such a mammoth task. Not yet anyway (I always think pint half full).

What is zero waste? One definition is:

Zero Waste is a philosophy that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused. The goal is for no trash to be sent to landfills or incinerators. The process recommended is one similar to the way that resources are reused in nature.

HHmmm, great idea. But I'm looking for practical advice. So let's look at the Top 5 waste guzzling countries* on our one and only Planet Earth. What are they producing, and what, if anything, are they doing to reduce the volume they produce?

# 1 - The United States - As at 2006, The United States leads the world in the production of waste. It manages to produce a quarter of the world's waste despite the fact that its population of 300 million is less than 5% of the world's population, according to 2005 estimates. It produces 30% of the world's waste.

In one year alone, Americans throw away around 26,800,000 tonnes of food, 8,550,000 tonnes of furniture and furnishings, 6,330,000 tonnes of clothing and footwear, and tonnes of other waste. Food, furniture and furnishings, and clothing and footwear are discarded the most. Unfortunately, 80% of all products that are produced in the United States are used only once and then discarded, and 95% of plastic and 50% of all of the aluminium beverage cans that are thrown away never get recycled.

Solutions: If we take food waste as one example, plans are afoot to reduce food waste at the source through inventory management and offering reduced portion sizes in food service to reduce plate waste. Acceptance and integration of second-grade produce into retail settings (typically at a discount) are also under consideration.

#2 - Russia - A close runner's up with over 200 million tonnes of waste each year.

Solutions: 2017 was the 'Year of Ecology'. Landfill is a significant issue for Russia (the worlds largest landmass) so there are plans to build a facility for plastic waste in Chabarowsk (near the border to China). Due to open in 2019, the project is worth more than 30 million US-Dollar.

#3 - Japan - No surprise given the scale of growth. Japan is now the third-largest in the world by nominal GDP. It produces 52.36 million tonnes of waste, however, it is claimed to recycle 95% of its steel cans, 90% for bottles, 89% for aluminium, 60% paper and 38% paper containing liquid. 

Solutions: Japan is also having its own war against waste, possibly driven, in part, of their shortage of landfill. The 1991 revision of the Waste Management Act saw a reduction in waste volume for sure. However, with mass production, mass consumption, the Japanese Government later established the Basic Act for Establishing a Sound Material-Cycle Society (Basic Recycling Act) in 2000. Look familiar?

#4 - Germany - Now this does come as a surprise, to me at least. It produces 48.84 million tonnes each year. However, it's citizens generate on average one-third of its American counterparts.

Japans War Against Waste

Solutions: The new German Closed Cycle Management Act (Kreislaufwirtschaftsgesetz, KrWG) is aimed to turn the waste management into a resource management. The realisation that waste can be a useful source of raw materials and energy is not new; metals, glass, and textiles have been collected before and put to new use. The waste management policy, which has been adopted in Germany over the past 20 years, is based on closed cycles and assigns disposal responsibilities to manufacturers and distributors of products. This has made people even more aware of the necessity to separate waste and has led to the introduction of new disposal technologies, and increased recycling capacities. 

#5 - Us (The UK) - We are on par with Germany in it's attitudes to household waste and can only assume we create less due to our smaller population.

Whilst we are not the worlds worst, we have a lot to learn, In some cases, our approach is similar to other countries with their own (similar issues). Looking at how Germany is approaching waste reduction, education of correct waste segregation is important. Technology is helping achieve this, but the education of the masses (its citizens is as vital). And, in Japan - education plays a huge part in the way people think about waste.

But what do we have to do, to be in any chance of achieving zero waste?

We look to Sweden. Swedes recycle nearly 100% of their household waste. They even have to import waste to have something to burn, to turn waste into energy. A true recycling revolution.

Sweden sources half of its electricity from renewables and was the first nation to impose a heavy tax on fossil fuel in 1991. Sweden is even considering the proposal of a tax deduction for some product repairs. Even Sweden has not achieved zero waste, but with continued innovation, it's clear they haven't given up.

How have the swedes reduced the waste they produce

Keen to learn more?