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What is Zero Waste


Building a Zero Waste community is bigger than just changing individual behavior, and it’s bigger than just recycling or composting. Zero Waste addresses the entire social system of how we make, consume and dispose of our “stuff.”

Through local Zero Waste actions, we can directly and positively impact the biggest global challenges of our time—climate change, human health risks, ecosystem collapse, and social/political conflicts over access to resources.

Here’s where we are now and why we need to change the entire system of how we make, use and dispose of the stuff in our lives.

Currently, our production system goes one way — from the earth to the dump.

  1. We extract natural resources like trees, precious metals, and petroleum.
  2. We manufacture them, often through polluting, toxic, and wasteful practices, into products designed primarily for convenience…and the dump.
  3. We distribute them to communities, often shipping them long distances — from manufacturing to sale.
  4. After we all buy and use these products, we pitch them into a hole in the ground (landfill) or burn them in an incinerator, both of which destroy the value of those resources. When we need new products, we just head back to the natural resources like they’re in infinite supply.

When we think about the problem of “waste,” we usually think about what’s in our trashcans, and we focus on how to make that waste “go away.” But the waste you see in your trashcan is only a fraction of the REAL problem, 1/87th, to be exact.

For every can of garbage at the curb, there are 87 cans worth of materials that come from this linear production system, and the way we extract, manufacture, and destroy our resources.

This system is BROKEN, and here’s why:

  • 7+ Billion People (and untold numbers of other species): In the past 40 years, our population has doubled, and it continues to grow. We’re all dependent upon a limited number of natural resources for survival.
  • Resource and Ecosystem Destruction: If everyone on the globe followed this system and consumed resources at the rate we do in the U.S., we’d need five planets to keep up.
  • Climate Change: The way we produce, consume, and dispose of our products and our food accounts for 42% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. A rapidly changing climate will fundamentally affect the life of every global citizen (and species) including our water and food supplies, our health, and more.
  • Resource Wars: As quantities of resources like petroleum, minerals and even fresh water shrink, wars are being waged to grab control of the last of them.
  • Future Generations: The resources we’re squandering don’t belong to us. If we can’t feed, clothe, and house people peacefully today, how will future generations do so on far fewer resources?

Zero Waste System: Meeting the Needs of the 21st Century and Beyond

A Zero Waste System is cyclical, as in nature, and does two fundamental things: It redesigns our systems and resource use—from product design to disposal—to prevent the wasteful and polluting practices that lead to so much waste. It then captures discards and uses them, instead of natural resources, to make new products, creating a much cleaner manufacturing process with far less pollution. This new system carries with it new businesses and jobs to feed local economies.

A Zero Waste System has:

  • New community-wide POLICIES that take a responsible approach to using fewer natural resources, urging participation from all sectors, putting public dollars toward conservation programs, and investing in resource recovery infrastructure.
  • New PROGRAMS in every sector of our society to shift our culture away from wasting and toward a sense of responsibility for our planet and its future.
  • New manufacturing processes and smarter design where manufacturers are held responsible for the full lifecycle of their products, giving them the incentive to design for the environment, NOT the dump.
  • Resource recovery INFRASTRUCTURE to replace landfills and incinerators and recover 90% or more of our discards through reuse, composting and recycling.
  • An empowered community where everyone has a role in participating in a system that supports your values and priorities, while you continue to call for Zero Waste progress in your community.


International Definition of Zero Waste

The Zero Waste International Alliance adopted the first peer-reviewed, internationally accepted definition of Zero Waste. Eco-Cycle Solutions stands by this as the official definition of Zero Waste:

“Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.

Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.

Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.”


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