Heading Towards a Zero Waste World

Interview by Heidi Koolmeister for the Let’s do it! Newsletter December 2014

Zero waste is not merely a campaign to make our governments change the management of waste, it is a movement that wants to change the way all of us think about waste and how we manage waste in our daily lives. I talked to Joan Marc Simon, the Executive Director of Zero Waste Europe, to understand the philosophy behind this new approach to waste management, to hear about the real-life success of that philosophy, and to get some practical guidelines to give you a chance to join the movement now.

A Change in the Philosophy of Waste Management

Zero waste claims to be an innovative way of thinking about waste, however it might be unclear how does it differ from the older approaches such as recycling. According to Simon: “The issue of recycling aims at closing the loop: you recycle the stuff that there is and you close the loop of materials”. Zero Waste on the other hand is defined as a philosophy, a strategy, and a set of practical tools that seeks to eliminate waste, not merely manage it(1). Therefore zero waste is not only about recycling, it is about reducing waste generation itself: “When you recycle something it means it has no use anymore, you want to recycle it to then turn it into something else”. In the zero waste approach of reduce-reuse-recycle, recycling is the last step of the waste hierarchy, meaning the last possible option to be used when managing waste. However recycling without reducing the waste has been the traditional system of Europe where still a staggering 60% of the waste ends up in either landfill (37%) or incineration (23%)(2). Simon explains: “We don’t want send things to landfills and incinerators as it means destroying resources: we want to reduce the trash we send there to zero”. This means that the real emphasis in zero waste is on the promotion of waste prevention, reuse, and redesign.

“Zero Waste is a journey more than a destination”

Zero waste is an ambitious project and this is why some question whether it is achievable. Is the achievement of Zero Waste as such a dream — a goal we strive for, but probably will never achieve — or is it something that we can turn into reality of our life style and our world? According to Simon, it is a necessity as there is no future for a world that generates waste and wastes the way are currently. “We are moving in the direction of zero waste, just in some places we are moving slower and in other places a bit faster. What we try to do is to accelerate this process. Because every year when we don’t move in the direction of zero waste is a year where we generate lots of damage for the future generations and to ourselves. ”He compares striving towards a zero waste world to striving for happiness in our life: “We all strive to be happy and we do our best to be happy, sometimes we don’t make it, but we still want to go towards this direction, as nobody wants to be sad. With zero waste it is the same: we know that there is no future for a society that generates waste, waste being waste of resources, thus zero waste is the direction to head for.”

This idea becomes clear when looking at the concrete cases, where zero waste is being implemented in certain companies and municipalities. Simon explains that, “Usually at the starting point on the process, the companies are not doing well, they are producing a lot of waste and they are simply inefficient. However while moving towards zero waste they realize, that they save costs, generate green jobs, and they are more competitive in the market.” In the case of municipalities, the zero waste movement tries to involve civil society in the design of the system, by involving them with the decision makers and waste experts, so that they can help to bring about the change they want to see: “It is about people helping to design how waste is going to be managed, in a way that is sustainable, easy, and logical”. He explains, that, “At the moment we have a network of more than 300 municipalities in Europe that are either doing very well or are committed to moving in this direction. This is something we value highly. Currently we have very good practices of municipalities that are recycling more than 80–90% of the waste, but we also have cases of municipalities that only recycle 20–30%. In the latter cases we value the commitment, because even if you are not doing so well at the moment, we as a zero waste approach, you can organize things that in less than 3–4 years you can be recycling more than 80% of the waste, if you want to do it. And this is what we do: we try to help these communities that have the political will to make this happen.”

Zero Waste Strategies as Alternatives to Incineration and Landfilling: the Real-Life Successes

According to Simon, more than 80% of the waste we create is recyclable. Then there is left the 20% of waste that might not be recyclable or not economically viable to recycle at least today. From the perspective of zero waste philosophy, this 20% is an industrial design mistake, which should not exist. What we should do is to see what are the problems with the design, then fix the design, and then we will not have the problem anymore. If you burn it or landfill it you are just hiding the problem without solving the problem. For solving the problem, you have to make it visible and you have to redesign it. Of course this cannot happen overnight because most of the products you do not control at the local level, so you will have them for some years. In the meanwhile, when you are finding a way how to design these products out of the system, to make them recyclable, the zero waste movement proposes to try to recover as many materials as possible from this residual fraction as possible, to recycle them, so you won’t have to burn them or landfill them.

The problem from the zero waste perspective with incineration is is that if you build an incinerator today, you know that you are going to have pay for it and therefore have to use it for the next 10–20 years: this gives no incentive to redesign products or systems. With the incinerator waste needs to be burn with maximum capacity, thus there is this need to fill it up completely: this means that if you recycle more and reduce waste the incinerator is working in a very inefficient way as it is not a flexible tool. Apart from that it is a very expensive tool — the most expensive waste management technology out there and one of the most polluting ones! When you have alternatives that are cheaper, that are more sustainable, that don’t create toxics, then why should you choose incineration?

The zero waste movement does not support landfills either, however here they allow some flexibility. The zero waste movement says that it is possible to stabilize what is today the waste we cannot recycle, and then landfill it as a process of transition. “Because we believe that in 10–20 years we will be redesigning products and we are going to be reintroducing this waste”. Zero waste means reducing the trash that we have been sending to landfills and incinerators to zero in the long term. This is why it is very important for the zero waste movement to keep this flexibility in the system. “For us what matters is not whether it is better to landfill on incinerate, what matters is that most of the communities are recycling between 10–30% of the waste. The real challenge is how to bring that to 80–90% and this is the big change we are focusing on.”

One great example where this actually happened is in Capannori, Italy. In 1997 the community of Capannori was a successful in fighting the battle against the construction of incinerators. While trying to find an alternative to incineration, they found their way to waste reduction with zero waste strategies. Simon explains that, “The whole zero waste movement there started 17 years ago against incinerators, but then it had to look for an alternative because of waste problems. So they started separate collection, waste reduction measures were introduced, and by now Capannori is recycling 85% of the waste!”

Another inspiring example is Gipuzkoa in the Basque Country, Spain, where until not long ago 70% of waste was sent to landfills and there was also an incinerator going to be built with EU funds to manage the growing need to manage wastes. Whereas the region insisted in building the incinerator, the citizen groups continued to tirelessly work for reducing waste and increasing recycling according to the Zero Zabor (Spanish. for Zero Waste) strategies.(3) According to Simon, “The citizens got organized, they won the local elections, and stopped this contract. They organized a system that is based on separate collection and their recycling rates are increasing year after year.” Zero waste provided for them an alternative waste management so that it would be possible to eliminate the need to burn or bury waste.

A successful case can be found also in Ljubljana, Slovenia, which was the first EU capital in 2014 to adopt Zero Waste strategy. The city collects separately 60% of municipal waste and generates less than 150 kg of residual waste per person yearly. They have committed themselves to increase separate collection to 78% and decrease the residual waste to 60 kg per person per year by 2025.(4)

These are only a few examples of what citizens can achieve when mobilizing themselves against the harmful waste management practices such as incinerators or landfills. More and more communities are turning into zero waste lands. These communities that have implemented the zero waste strategy and have made it happen testify with their amazing results that zero waste is something that works in practice.

Simon: “There are other examples as well, where we try to stop incinerators and implement zero waste strategies. Ten years ago we had a theory, but no practice, however now we can see it works! We see that we are saving money, and that it is possible to do without incinerators, and actually that it is necessary to work without incineration. The places where there is the most recycling in Europe is where there aren’t incinerators, because they continue to develop zero waste strategies. That is the added value of our network that we are not priests and do not preach the zero waste gospel, we are actually showing that it is possible and that it is already happening.”

The Problems of Zero Waste Implementation in the Global South

The zero waste movement has been very successful in the global north with many success stories, however in the global south things are moving with a different pace. Simon points out that, “In Europe we are more advanced, as we have been implementing the strategy of zero waste for longer, we have results to show”. He explains that even though the conditions and the situation are different in the global south, the philosophy is still the same. In the global south the informal sector plays a very important role: they are the ones who have been collecting waste since hundreds of years. Therefore you can’t go there and change the system up-side down: you simply cannot kick them out and leave them in adjunct poverty without giving them an alternative. Those who have tried to implement the Northern systems models in the global South have failed as there is no one-size-fits-all solution. We try to work with the local communities there and make sure that the new system can be improved. For example, we try to share our experience about managing organics, as this is something that in a lot of places is not done. What the Zero Waste movement can do in the global south is to train those communities to manage organics, help them to get organized, helping to get better prices when selling the recyclables etc. For now some very encouraging examples are found in the Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Costa Rica, India, Kairo (Egypt), Mexico, Philippines, and South Africa. Simon admits, that Africa at the moment is the missing point: they would like to work more also there, however with limited resources it is not possible at the moment. However he expresses hope that in the not-so-far future they will be able to implement zero waste strategies also there.

From Let’s Do It! to Zero Waste

Although different in their aims the LDI! World and Zero Waste movement actually work hand in hand. Simon reveals that, “We see the LDI groups as a school for zero waste: we have lots of people who are still in the LDI and have moved one step ahead and are saying that now I want to stop cleaning and stop people from throwing waste, from generating waste, so I wouldn’t have to clean”. One great example of this is Slovenia, what started with a clean-up campaign is now is a zero waste movement, that has managed to have four municipalities (among which the capital) committed to zero waste. He explains that, “For us it is very important that we have young people being mobilized, getting interested, and understanding the real problem of waste: it is not a technical problem, it is a problem of our society — of the way we think and the way we behave — and that those who want can learn more and can engage with zero waste. It is already helping that when doing clean-ups you talk to policy makers and tell them, that today we are cleaning for you, but we don’t want this to happen tomorrow, so we advise you to adopt a zero waste strategy. The LDI! World can be seen as a groundbreaker, that prepares citizens and communities for zero waste. Our existence is very complementary: you open up the door doing the first bid, and then we do the second bid, so to guarantee that you would not have to come back the next year”.

Let’s do it! World Clean World Plan

“Any change has to happen at the local level”

Zero Waste is all about the citizens and community themselves being involved in the process of adopting zero waste. From one side, this means changing individuals lifestyle, but from the other side, it means citizens active engagement in the planning of change in the community. According to Simon, this is based on whether you see citizens as customers or as citizens. The citizen should be an active part of the community from whom we may ask to contribute, separate waste, not to damage the environment, pay taxes — to act as responsible citizens. If you treat them like customers and say that you don’t have to do anything, just pay, and we will do everything for you, however the experience says that this approach doesn’t work. In the future we need to educate all the population to do the right thing, otherwise we won’t survive.

He explains, that “Zero waste is mostly a bottom-up strategy because our success is mainly at the local level, however we try also top-down approach. We have this framework of thinking that we try to influence the policies at the national and government level, the European level, and at the United Nations level. However first and foremost, any change has to happen at the local level, because we all generate waste and that’s where we need the change. And this change should not happen because there are European directives that tell you that you should recycle as that is not enough. Thus it is important that we educate people from the bottom up. Just as in LDI! you don’t try to change the laws in order to motivate people not to throw waste into the nature, you mobilize people on the local level to do the change themselves, so we try to do the same.”

By Seppo Leinonen

Zero Waste Starts at Home: What Can You Do to Reduce Trash?

“Zero Waste starts at home” is one of the main slogans of the Zero Waste movement. This is because if you separate wastes at home, than at a later phase it is going to be easier to handle them in the right way. Simon explains that, “The most important thing at home is to separate the wet fraction from the dry fraction: the organics that are going to degrade faster from the dry waste that can be kept for months without anything happening to it. The second crucial thing would be separating the toxics (aerosol cans, batteries, household cleaners, paints, solvents, used oils etc.) — don’t mix it with any of the fractions, because otherwise it contaminates! And then afterwards most of the systems can manage these wastes in a quite efficient way.

As zero waste starts at home, we invite you to take those first small basic steps to turn your household to a zero waste one:

· Shop and consume consciously. Ask yourself, where do these products come from? Are they going to last? Are they reparable? Who has been producing those products? Have they used child labor or have they been using materials that come from conflict areas etc.?

· Try to use products that come as close to home as possible, because these are the ones that have lesser carbon footprint.

· Try to shop without a plastic bag: bring always a re-usable shopping bag with you.

· In countries where the tap water is drinkable bring your own non-plastic bottle (which can be made of glass, stainless steel etc.), which is way cooler than the plastic bottle!

· Separate waste at home. This is a crucial step for reintroducing the waste into the production cycle.

· Be creative about recycling food waste: if it is possible feed it to animals or compost it at home, if not find out if your community collects organic waste.(5)

Read more from HERE on how to change your waste management habits and transform your lifestyle into “zero waste”.

Simon acknowledges that, if you want to live a zero waste life you need to make an effort. What the zero waste movement does is to try to make this easier and cheaper in the future you. However for that it is important to change the way the system works. Because as great as it is that you separate the waste at home, if the municipality doesn’t recycle, then you are doing this work for nothing. As important to doing things yourself, it is also important to convince others to help to change the rules, because that will be a lot more effective: it will make it easier for everybody to get to zero waste!


1. http://www.zerowasteeurope.eu/about/principles-zw-europe/

2. http://www.zerowasteeurope.eu/2013/04/zero-waste-hierarchy/

3. ZW Gipuzkoa: http://www.zerowasteeurope.eu/zw-groups-in-europe/zw-gipuzkoa/

4. http://www.zerowasteeurope.eu/2014/09/ljubljana-first-eu-capital-to-adopt-a-zero-waste-strategy/

5. http://www.zerowasteeurope.eu/the-zw-lifestyle/

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