Zero waste or net zero?

zero waste

What’s more important for the environment: driving down carbon or eliminating waste? Should we be focusing on one more than the other, or is this distinction just a distraction?

As the world takes threats to the environment more seriously, many businesses and individuals are asking the same important question: what can we do to best help the planet?

Many organisations are taking steps to become carbon neutral by balancing their annual CO2 emissions against equivalent amounts of carbon savings.

Others are embracing the idea of zero waste and the circular economy – not sending items to landfill but recycling, reusing or composting them. Both approaches are valid and have their devotees and detractors, but is there a case for prioritising one over the other?

By the middle of this century the world has to reduce emissions to as close to zero as possible.

The Government spelt out its aims last October, in a policy statement called Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener. It says: ‘By the middle of this century the world has to reduce emissions to as close to zero as possible, with the small number of remaining emissions absorbed through natural carbon sinks like forests, and new technologies like carbon capture. If we can achieve this, global emissions of greenhouse gases will be “net zero”.’

One organisation working to help companies go carbon neutral is ClimatePartner, whose clients include Aldi, Canon, and DHL. Jack Warren, ClimatePartner’s commercial sustainability manager, said: ‘Typically, the organisations we work with want data on the emissions associated with running their businesses or a service they provide.

‘For one of our clients, Rossman [Superdrug’s EU sister-brand] we have looked at: all of the raw materials used in a product; how these got to the production facility; how they got pieced together; all the emissions associated with packaging; how it gets to the customer; and, finally, how the packaging is disposed of.’

Armed with that kind of knowledge, ClimatePartner helps clients support carbon-offset projects. For example, in the Virunga National Park, DRC, where trees have been burned for charcoal to heat homes, a run-of-river hydroelectric plant has been built, generating enough electricity for 30,000 inhabitants.

In Nicaragua, to prevent deforestation, a million giant clumping bamboo plants – a native species – are being grown. In contrast to felling trees, harvesting these plants doesn’t kill them, so they regenerate.

The case for zero waste

When thinking about zero waste, a definition is useful. Remi Cesaro, founder and CEO of engineering consultancy Zero Waste City, said: ‘Zero waste is defined as “the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials – without burning or discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health”.’

For a municipality or a company, zero waste means that at least 90% of operational waste has been reduced, reused, repurposed or recycled compared to their original baseline.

He continues: ‘In more practical terms, for a municipality or a company, zero waste means that at least 90% of operational waste has been reduced, reused, repurposed or recycled compared to their original baseline.

‘This is certainly achievable, but don’t expect it necessarily to be easy. Significant behavioural changes, modifications of business models, investment in technologies and infrastructures, plus the development of long-term partnerships, might all be required. Although, for companies with substantial waste generation, zero-waste targets can often mean significant cost savings too.’

Chris Cheeseman, professor of materials resources engineering at Imperial College London, said: ‘The term “zero waste” has been used lots over the last 10 years or so, but what does it actually mean? Of course, it sounds great – it’s a wonderful aspiration – but if it means that no waste is ever created, then that is a totally unrealistic goal. In my view, it is an unachievable, aspirational target.’

‘A much better and realistic way forward, in my view, is to maximise the circular economy as much as possible. That has to be the way forward, particularly if this uses local circular economy infrastructure,’ Cheeseman added.

‘There are huge opportunities for innovation and local economic development. Then the residual waste that remains must be beneficially used.

‘This could involve using residual waste to generate energy combined with extensive resource extraction and reuse of any solid ash residues. I don’t think this would be defined as zero waste, but it seems to me to be the most realistic option. And it’s what the industry is working to achieve.’

In reality, of course, it’s not about a choice between carbon neutrality or zero waste. The two ideals are more like bedfellows than rivals – no issue of Circular is complete without a reminder that net zero can never be achieved without the help of the circular economy, and that driving down waste drives down emissions, too.

Perhaps one day we’ll move away from this language and adopt a more encompassing phrase. One slogan that’s popular on social media is ‘low-impact lifestyle’, which seems to merge the twin concepts of decreasing our waste output and reducing our carbon footprint.

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