Beyond Recycling: Zero Waste


Dr Niamh Clune


A couple of weeks ago, I attended a conference, which was named “Beyond Recycling, Zero Waste.”  This conference was held at the University of Sussex and attended by over 200 people from across the UK. Guildford was well represented by Sue Doughty MP, Cllr. Tom Sharp, Ian Westgate Recycling Officer for Guildford Borough Council, John Bannister from the Guildford Environmental Forum and four members of the Guildford Anti-Incinerator Network (GAIN).


Speakers from the USA including Professor Paul Connett, Dr Daniel Knapp and Dr Jeffrey Morris inspired us all with examples of how communities and governments around the world are embracing the concept of Zero Waste.  


However, the first and most obvious question is What is Zero Waste and Can it be achieved?


The concept of Zero Waste is a huge and complex subject.  Perhaps it might be useful to describe some background as to how the concept of Zero Waste evolved. 


The term Zero Waste has its origins in the highly successful Japanese industrial concept of total quality management, known as TQM.  TQM is based on the idea of Zero Defects, which is the extraordinarily successful approach whereby producers like Toshiba have achieved results as low as one defect per million.  Transferred to the arena of municipal waste, Zero Waste, as in TQM, forces attention onto the whole lifecycle of products. Leading academics in the field describe this as taking a “whole system” approach, at the end of which there would be zero defects.  In other words, every ton of garbage put into landfill or an incinerator is a measure of system failure and inefficiency. 


In the last three decades people in all parts of the world have become conscious first of the huge problems that wasting creates¾resources extracted from precious wild areas amid great destruction, and then abandoned in pits that create present and future pollution; potential wealth turned into ash and Particulates; putrescibles and sludges that pollute water instead of enriching the land.


The whole system approach to Zero Waste thus encompasses producer responsibility, ecodesign, waste reduction, reuse, composting and recycling, all within a single framework.


To be successful in this, businesses need to think creatively.  They need to  mimic nature¾everything can be recycled in some way. This thinking breaks away from the inflexibility of incinerator-centred systems and offers a new policy framework capable of transforming current production and disposal processes of waste, into “smart” systems.  These are based around the idea that municipal waste is a resource, which could generate jobs and wealth for local communities.


Zero Waste works on the premise; therefore, that we all change our approach to waste management. This means that instead of treating it as waste or rubbish, we begin to recognise that waste is a valuable resource.  I am put in mind of images of Africa.  When I worked there, I remember seeing an old lady scavenging on a stinking rubbish heap in the middle of Nairobi.  She was looking for anything that she could sell.  She found a plastic container such as we all throw away every day¾the sort that fruit is packed in.  When I asked why she was collecting things like that I was told that she would sell those containers for a few shillings, enough to buy her maize for the day.  These containers would end up adorning many a servant girl’s quarters who considered them extremely valuable for putting things in.  


The concept of Zero Waste works in a similar way.  It seeks to redesign the way resources and materials flow through society.


The concept of Zero Waste is; therefore, an innovative way in which we come to respect waste.  Actually I think that we need to rename waste, discarded resources in order to move our thinking away from it being rubbish, garbage and worthless.


To achieve Zero Waste we also need to drastically reduce extraction of virgin materials.  Zero Waste also means reducing waste at its source by designing products that are non toxic and can be reused, repaired, recycled or composted back into nature or back into the marketplace.  However, it also means stimulating the marketplace to use those materials.


One of the arguments often levelled against the concept of Zero Waste is that incineration is more cost effective than kerbside recycling.  However, during the conference, one academic after another showed us convincing statistical evidence of how, reusing, reducing, composting and recycling, which also involves kerbside collections works out economically more viable in the long run than burning valuable virgin resources in incinerators.  Leading environmental studies have warned us that consumption of virgin materials must be reduced by 90%. Dr Jeffrey Morris showed that a complete statistical appraisal must take into consideration the cost of mining and producing virgin materials, and then burning them in incinerators.  They conducted four separate studies that analysed the overall cost to the environment, the cost to human health and the cost of keeping those burners fed.  He compared this to the cost of recycling, reducing and reusing.  In all studies it was found that by recycling, reducing and reusing, we reduce emissions which in turn benefits public health and global warming.  The estimated dollar value of these benefits was found to greatly exceed the net cost of kerbside recycling.


Zero Waste thus combines ethical practice with a solid economic vision, both for local communities and major corporations.  On the one hand, it creates local jobs and businesses, which collect and process secondary materials into new products, and on the other, it offers major corporations a way of increasing their efficiency, thereby reducing their demands on virgin materials as well as their waste disposal costs.


One of the really exciting things at the conference was when Dr. Daniel Knapp who is also an entrepreneur demonstrated how he pioneered a resource recovery business park in California.  This park offers a comprehensive alternative to landfills and incinerators. Within the park there are tenants who collect and process the “rubbish” – termed more appropriately by Dr Knapp as resources - which then goes on to reuse or recycling. There is a composting area; there are shops, educational facilities and workshops.  Dr Knapp has created an environment in which people want to work and in which rubbish is no longer seen as rubbish, but is instead seen as a valuable resource. 


One of the tenant businesses at the park recovers discarded wood for example, and on the same site makes it into beautiful furniture, which he then sells at really high prices.  This same park might be where another firm might make it their business to break down second-hand batteries into their component parts and send the parts back to their source so that they can be reused.  Likewise, cookers, fridges and old televisions might be dismantled and sent back to the makers to be made anew.  There are large amounts of copper in televisions which could be used instead of continuing to mine copper as a virgin material and so depleting the earth’s resources.  Imagine if this is what we were able to achieve at Slyfield!!!


Another exciting moment in the conference was when Professor Paul Connett produced and showed a video of a waste recycling plant in Nova Scotia.  He filmed the whole process from kerbside recycling during which time, all organic matter i.e. kitchen food waste and garden waste is separated from the rest of the exciting stuff that gets thrown out.  Because organic waste is separated at source, separated waste can then be taken to the depot where technology is in place to further sort all recyclable materials.  The final process deals with rendering what is left, i.e. the residual waste, inert, through a process of stabilisation.  This inert matter is then landfilled. 


Picture a typical landfill such as Albury.  It smells.  There are thousands of birds scavenging and it is a huge health hazard.  In comparison, Professor Connett showed us the landfill, which is at the end of this recycling rainbow.  There were no birds scavenging, which shows that there was nothing in the landfill decomposing.  It was a perfectly clean site.  The point is that so much can be recycled. And the small amount that is left can be made inert. 45 % of household waste can be separated at source and composted.  It is mixed waste that goes to landfill that makes it such a health hazard.


We hope to show this video at the next exciting GAIN meeting.


I suggest that Zero Waste is a powerful alternative to incineration.  Incinerators, are, however, the main traditional disposal alternative to landfills, and widely adopted in countries where land-filling was difficult (such as Japan, Switzerland, Holland and Scandinavia).  However, these have been found to be a major source of pollution.  In these countries, the problem has not been with organic waste materials but with materials, which give off toxic emissions when burnt.  Early tracking of dioxins and furans identified incinerators as the main source and even in the mid-90’s, when other sources were uncovered, municipal incinerators still accounted for over a third of all estimated emissions.  They were also important sources of the release of volatile metals such as mercury, cadmium and lead.


The health impacts of incinerator pollution on air, water, and land (through the land-filling or spreading of toxic ash) have been the subject of an intense and expanding scientific debate.  Few, however, now dispute the extreme toxicity of many of the substances produced by incinerators.  In spite of repeated plant upgrades and the introduction of new flue gas treatment technologies, municipal incinerators and other forms of “thermal waste treatment” such as Pyrolosis and Gasification remain at core dirty technologies for four reasons:


·         If flue gas emissions are reduced through improved scrubbing and cleaning, this does not destroy the toxic residues but transfers them to the ash and creates the problem of the safe disposal of toxic ash and of polluted wastewater. 30% of what goes into incinerators comes out as ash, which must still be landfilled, and which will still pollute the earth.

·         Municipal incinerators and thermal treatment plants are not dealing with streams of a single material with a standard calorific value.  There are constant changes in the composition of the waste, in its calorific values and its moisture content.  This means that there are difficulties in operating these plants at the consistent combustion conditions necessary to minimise the toxicity of emissions.

·         The inclusion of volatile substances and fluctuating highly combustible materials is one of the reasons for the regular fires, process upsets (and even explosions) that characterise incineration, and which in turn lead to large increases in toxic emissions.

·         It is difficult to control the illicit introduction of toxic waste into incinerators, or of materials such as PVC, which can be major sources of dioxin when burnt.


I came away from the conference inspired by the belief that if we all work together in partnership with the public, industry, local government and government, we can move mountains of waste. Zero Waste is a positive, “can do” vision that supports the reduction, reuse, composting or recycling of all municipal solid waste materials back into nature or back into the marketplace in a manner that puts human health first, whilst at the same time protecting the environment. 


The idea of Zero Waste does not then appear to be as many first suppose¾a cure-all for the immediate and total elimination of waste, so that it is only measured a success if we are left with nothing to burn or bury.  It should be thought of rather, as an on-going process¾by which we gradually get better and better at re-absorbing products back into the community or back into nature.  Its future aim is to waste as little as possible and drastically cut down on the mining and production of virgin materials.


And to those who argue that people are lazy and do not want to recycle, I say in response to them that recycling should be made as easy as possible.  To coin an American phrase, recycling should be a no-brainer!  People will get used to it.  Cultures and public thinking changes, as it did when seatbelts were introduced or when smoking in public began to be considered anti-social.


I suggest that Surrey adopts this innovative approach to waste and sets the example for the rest of England.  Lets take this exciting step forward¾and view this as a challenge rather than a problem.


Source materials can be referenced if required.