The future of zero waste lies in the circular economy

Zero waste is on the rise, and while many people still associate the movement with the mason jar challenge popularized by Instagram influencers and social media gurus, there’s a lot more behind its growing popularity. In fact, it is underpinned by nothing less than a radical restructuring of our entire “take, make, throw away” economy.

Many people understand this restructuring as the circular economy and participating in the zero waste movement means embracing many circular concepts. However, although the two share a range of fundamentals, they also differ in several ways. Here, we explore both concepts and why the future of the zero waste movement lies in embracing even greater circularity.

How zero waste implements circular economy concepts

Both the zero waste movement and the circular economy share the idea that in order to stop the impacts of waste, they must be designed around our existing systems (or loops) while recovering valuable resources and ensuring that elements pollutants are kept out of the environment. .

However, for the zero waste concept in particular, this means focusing on a globally agreed hierarchy that expands on the already widely familiar three Rs. Currently, the International Zero Waste Alliance defines this hierarchy as follows:

  • Rethink/redesign products and materials to create less waste
  • Reduce consumption of new products and materials
  • Reuse products and materials before throwing them away
  • Recycle/compost products and materials and avoid landfill
  • Retrieve materials from non-recyclable products
  • Manage residues using the best possible approach from above
  • Unacceptable incineration and burial of products and materials

The circular economy, on the other hand, takes a more systematic approach to how we consume to design closed-loop systems that promote circularity of resources to design waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use throughout life, and regenerate natural systems.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines it like this:

“restorative and regenerative by design, and aims to maintain products, components and materials at their maximum usefulness and value at all times. … It is a continuous positive development cycle that preserves and enhances natural capital, optimizes resource yields, and minimizes systemic risks by managing finite stocks and renewable flows.

Clearly, there are a lot of commonalities between the two concepts, and the zero waste hierarchy itself acts as a circular guide to waste management. Additionally, both concepts lean towards the cradle-to-cradle concept (as opposed to the cradle-to-grave concept), moving beyond simple end-point waste management and instead focusing on production management. of waste at the source, that is to say, the point of manufacture.

However, since circular economy concepts predate the zero waste movement by a few decades, its influence on zero waste thinking cannot be underestimated. Today it is fair to suggest that the zero waste movement is a branch of circular thinking, especially aimed at consumers and businesses that want to reduce waste, while the circular economy encompasses our entire system of consumption. existing.

How zero waste can be improved by circular economies

Interestingly, the appeal of the zero waste movement to the general public might, in fact, be its biggest detractor. Growing consumer demand for more environmentally friendly products is accompanied by increased business interest in meeting this demand. Invariably, this means that some products are more “eco-friendly” than others, and without careful regulation and monitoring of these claims, we have no way of knowing which products are better for the environment.

For example, the recent proliferation of zero-waste products has the potential to create greenwashing issues where products are produced that do not consider future impacts. It is not enough to label a product as “zero waste” to attract businesses and consumers, and whether through good intentions or simply used as a unique selling point, the integration of a more rigid circular approach must become the priority if we really want to achieve Zero waste.

Biofuel is a good example, and today the palm oil plantations used to create this “green” product are a major cause of deforestation. This effort to replace fossil fuels seems like a good idea at first glance, but the reality is that this is now a significant ecological problem that a truly circular approach might have been able to avoid.

In addition to issues that don’t account for future impacts, the zero waste movement is arguably still far too reliant on throwaway mindsets. Essentially, this means that too many products are being produced that don’t address the single-use issue, placing unnecessary demands on the waste management infrastructure.

For example, bamboo toothbrushes do a great job of reducing the approximately one billion plastic toothbrushes that go to landfill each year in the United States on its own, solving a huge waste problem with a simple change of materials. However, fast forwarding a decade and a few billion bamboo toothbrushes is hardly a best-case scenario, as much of it will still end up in landfills where they will contribute to methane emissions, even if the infrastructure of recycling are improved.

True circular thinking can improve these products. For example, making separate bodies and interchangeable heads could significantly reduce the amount of waste generated. Better yet, a return to naturally grown chew sticks or other products that require fewer manufacturing inputs while focusing on renewable natural resources.

The same could be said for paper water bottles to replace plastic, or compostable packaging for goods that, in fact, could just as well be distributed without packaging. The zero waste movement could rely more on the circular economy by promoting reusable water bottles and easily accessible water dispensers or, for example, equipping supermarkets with bulk dispensers that consumers can use to refill their own containers time and time again.

The future of zero waste

At this point, it is worth acknowledging the many good things that the zero waste movement has achieved. He bought the concept of good waste management and the need to reduce waste at all levels to the general public. It fueled the growth of more sustainable products and gave consumers access to more choice. He also aimed to establish an easily relatable yet comprehensive hierarchy

However, by embracing higher-level thinking based on circular economy concepts, the zero waste movement can still grow and become increasingly effective. In fact, it has the potential to be the leading movement that propels a truly sustainable economy where circularity is the foundation.

Finally, with the increased adoption of circular concepts, the zero waste movement can shed its critics who would simply label it as another form of greenwashing, creating a movement that not only promotes sustainable products and habits, but also develops constantly thinking about closed-loop systems that benefit everyone.

About the Author:

Shannon Bergstrom is LEED certified Green Partner, REAL waste advisor. She is currently working at RTS, a technology-driven waste and recycling management company, as Head of Sustainability Operations. Shannon consults with clients from all industries on sustainable waste management practices.

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