The Green Tau: issue 31

Zero Waste – why?

24th January 2022

Zero Waste is the idea that nothing should end up as land fill, in an incinerator or being washed out to sea/ caught in a tree/ blown onto a mountain top as rubbish. Whatever is left after we have consumed something should be recyclable so that nothing is wasted. Zero waste means not buying/ consuming more than you need. Zero waste means cradle-to-cradle or closed loop design of all we consume. 

Why is waste an issue? 

Waste that we throw away has to be disposed of. Historically waste was buried in midden heaps or burnt on the household fire or thrown onto the street or into a nearby river. The amount of waste was generally  small enough that this was not impractical. As towns grew and as the amount of things people could acquire and casually discard grew, so waste became a problem. As long as amongst  the waste there were things that could  be recycled for financial gain, there were people who would take on the waste problem. In the 18th century urban areas had business known as ‘dust yards’ where rubbish was collected and sorted to,extract what could be resold – bones for knife handles and glue, coal ash for bricks etc. When waste became a potential health hazard, the authorities intervened. In 1846 the Nuisance Removal and Disease Prevention Act set up the first regulatory waste management system operate by municipal boards. The Public Health Act of 1875 required all householders to put their rubbish in bins for weekly collection. 

Having a system for taking waste away doesn’t reduce the amount of waste produced. The amount of waste we produced has grown exponentially. Globally (circa2016) we produce 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal waste a year (ie waste from households, shops and small businesses collected by local authorities – as opposed to waste generated on an industrial scale such as in mining, farming , manufacturing). The average of  0.74 kg per per person per day masks a range from 0.11kg to 4.55kg. Typically it is the less developed countries that generate least waste whilst it is nations such as Denmark, the USA, New Zealand, the most. Here in the UK we averaged 392kg (2017) down from 425kg in 2010. As more countries become increasingly developed/ westernised, the World Bank estimates that average per capita waste will increase to 3.4kg per day by 2050 – a projected annual total of 3.4 billion tonnes.  

Waste and its disposal can cause various pollution and health concerns. Uncollected waste can be a source of infection. It can attract vermin and scavengers that may further transmit infections. It can block drains and water ways causing flooding. It can produce chemicals that pollute water supplies. It can create unpleasant odours as well dangerous gases that irritate and damage lungs or that can enter the blood steam and cause further forms of ill health. It can be blown across land, lodging in trees and branches where it may injure wildlife as well domesticated animals (n Richmond Park deer die each year from eating rubbish). It can end up in the middle of oceans or on remote mountain tops. It may end up as waste polluting the seas – this is especially true of discarded marine nets.

Most waste is collected but that doesn’t eradicate the health and pollution risks. Most will either be incinerated producing noxious fumes and health debilitating small particulates as well as CO2, or goes into some form of landfill which depending upon the level of safeguards in place, will still be a cause of much pollution. Buried waste in landfill also produces methane. Globally only 13.5% of municipal waste is recycled (https://datatopics.worldbank.org/what-a-waste/trends_in_solid_waste_management.html).

The world’s stock of resources – in particular raw materials such as minerals, but also things such as water, timber, peat, helium gas – is finite. We cannot carry on manufacturing and consuming at current levels. In 2021 Earth Overshoot Day – the day when we have consumed as many resources as the world can annually regenerate – fell on 29th July (https://www.overshootday.org/). On the one hand we need to find ways of consuming less, and in the other  – or at the same time – we need to ensure we extract and recycle as much as we can from what we throw away. This imperative to use less and recycle more applies as much to industry as it does to individual consumers. And much of the burden must lie within the industries, for it is here that designs can be adapted so as a) to use less resources and b) to ensure ease of recycling when the product reaches its end of life. 

What is needed is cradle-to-cradle or closed-loop  design, production and recycling. Whilst the onus for this lies with the industries, consumers do have a role to play. We can do our research and only buy, where possible, items that come from closed-loop system. This could be milk in glass bottles that are collected and reused by the milk company. It could be clothes that the maker takes back when they expire and use to create new clothes. It could be paper or cardboard that are collected and processed into new paper and cardboard. We can be conscientious about collecting, sorting and recycling everything we use. And on the way, we can extend the life of the things we use by reusing and repairing them. We can aim for a 100% zero waste lifestyle.

Author: Judith Russenberger

Environmentalist and theologian, with husband and three grown up children plus one cat, living in London SW14. I enjoy running and drinking coffee - ideally with a friend or a book.

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