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Prior to the Dialog held last August 2004 in San Francisco, I released a
series of papers that addressed what we call "Managing Discards in the New
Millennium." These papers were presented to stimulate the discussion at the dialog.
For the next nine weeks under the title Dialog Paper #, I will release each
document to the four lists (GAIA, ZWIA, CRRA and Greenyes). Each list is not
linked together, but I would request your response be to "all" or to the
author. The ultimate result of this discussion will be a rewritten and edited
version each document. All the papers can be downloaded from
Zero Waste Theory
By Richard Anthony, Richard Anthony Associates, San Diego, CA, USA
A system design to handle discards from a household, business, institution,
or city with a zero waste goal would be theoretical. Recognizing that
scientifically, absolute zero is improbable, close counts. Any system that reduces
wasting to ten percent of current generation rates would make a significant step
toward sustainability and would be close to zero (90% successful).
In a zero waste system everything has to go somewhere. Discards create jobs
and products. In the cycle of use: reuse, repair and recycle close the loop to
wasting. Discard management plans involve getting discarded resources to a
place where they will be used again.
In a perfect world this would happen logically. But the fact is that in many
cases the status quo of wasting is protected and encouraged by law. In many
places in the world, tax laws and government funding for the collection and
disposal of discarded materials encourage wasting over recovery.
Government has the power to finance and implement discard management systems.
Some systems are financed in such a way that they discourage the growth of
recycling and composting industries. From the grassroots perspective the
individual has some control of this decision by insisting that the government include
convenient recycling and composting programs in the disposal system.
If the natural forces of supply and demand were not subverted by subsidies
for wasting, the consumer would place value a product based on its reusability,
repair ability and recyclability, when making purchasing decisions.
When recycling and composting are considered a part of the disposal system
when costs are analyzed, the revenue is used to reduce the public subsidy for
the proper handling of the discards. When adding the cost of long term disposal
monitoring and considering the economic cost of taking land out of production
forever, destroying ancient forests and polluting air and water downstream,
planning a system to reduce or eliminate these future costs makes economic
Zero waste discard management systems have political as well as technical
considerations. The way each human being accounts for their daily generation of
discards, and the way those discards are managed in a community are political
and technical decisions. The future sustainability of the planet depends on
people at the point of purchase choosing products that can be ultimately
composted or recycled and at the point of discard making a decision as to where in the
system the discarded material should go. Aside from product design decisions
and separation requirements, most of the decisions in the process are
The consumer and the manufacturer are both responsible for the proper
disposal of a product before, during and after purchase. The relationship between the
consumer and the manufacturer should not be confused by government subsidies
for disposal of wasted resources. It is not fair to make the entire population
pay for the disposal of products enjoyed by only a few. The consumer should
encourage the manufacturer to design products that can be repaired and
eventually recycled or composted.
Manufacturers have the responsibility to the community to produce products
that are designed for recyclability and/or compost ability. Manufacturers should
be encouraged to use recycled materials in their products. Products should be
produced in a way that they can be repaired where wear and tear occurs and
dismantled and recycled into new products when they cannot be repaired.
There is a hierarchy of use of materials that involves the highest and best
use of materials in the areas of energy and resources [2-6] Source Reduction,
Reuse, Repair, Recycling, Composting, Transformation and Landfill. In
California in the early eighties the “Three R’s” were used to teach pollution
prevention. The first R in the “Three R’s” (reduce, reuse and repair) refers to
source reduction, or the area of discard management that addresses over packaging
and single use products. The 3 “R’s” are taught as a means to demonstrate how
product design can lead to decreasing waste. Consumers are encouraged to
consider buying products that can be reused and repaired.
To many the key component in a zero waste disposal system is reducing the
amounts of discards at the source. Products designed for a single use are used as
examples of unnecessary over consumption. The debate over paper versus cloth
diapers for babies addresses reusable washable cloth diapers as opposed to
introducing fecal mater to landfill via paper diapers. Some other reuse issues
include cotton versus paper napkins, double sided versus single sided copies,
and refillable versus single use products.
Repair ability in a product is another design criteria that can be omitted
when subsidized wasting occurs. The notion that the manufacturer owns the
products and rents it to the customer is becoming popular in the carpet and computer
industries. As the product wears out or becomes obsolete the product is
returned to the manufacturer for dismantling and recycling. Automobiles, appliances
and computers are examples where landfill and incineration are unacceptable
disposal options. The materials used in these products can pollute water and
air. The proper disposal hierarchy for these items is reuse, repair and recycle.
After reuse and repair, the next step on the hierarchy is to separate
materials at the source for recycling or composting. Sorting discards into recyclable
and compost able categories assists in zero waste by keeping wet materials
from contaminating paper products. Plastic and glass are contaminants that are
hard to remove from finished compost. Wet organics are contaminants to paper
recycling. Once collected based on reuse, recycle and humus markets material
processing facilities (MFR) classify materials into specific categories. These
categories include reusable products, paper, metal, polymers, glass, ceramics,
vegetative debris, putrescibles, soils, wood, textiles, and chemicals.
The hierarchy places mixed waste (not source separated) composting,
transformation processes and sanitary landfill at the bottom. In a zero waste system,
items that cannot eventually be composted or recycled are returned to the
manufacture though advance recycling fees or product deposits. The price of
recovery and recycling is added to the product cost to cover the infrastructure
needed to reintegrate this material back into use.
Thus zero waste theory calls for disposal systems that place disposal costs
responsibility on the manufacturers to redesign products for recycle ability.
The discard management service provider whether government or private
contractor, is mandated to collect source separated material from clearly labeled and
conveniently located storage containers and deliver them to processing centers
that will sort, process and reintroduce these materials back into the use
San Diego, California
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