Zero Waste: a Zero Sum Game?

I always thought anaerobic digestion was what happened when you overdid it on Paul Newman snacks and then spent the rest of the evening vegetating in front of the TV, watching Green TV, the Sundance Channel, or in my case, 1990s British sitcoms. 

Anaerobic digestion, a process in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen (as in landfills), is often touted as a way to deal with waste.  Best used as a way to treat wastewater, it is one way to reduce the amount of methane and other gases into the atmosphere, and has potential as a renewable energy source, too.

Zero waste, which focuses on sending minimal trash to landfills, is becoming a more popular topic among the sustainability crowd.  The thinking goes that if we can are not constantly replenishing wasted raw materials, we reduce energy consumption and the pollution that goes along with it.  The United Kingdom is pushing for a zero waste policy, and across the Atlantic there is talk about implementing such changes in Massachusetts.

In the United States, only about one-third of all trash ends up composted or recycled.  Los Angeles (where arguably the only sustainability models that exist are, well, probably human models) actually prevents an impressive two-thirds of its trash from going to landfill—but the landfills we have down here will eventually spill over, so city and county officials are exploring options from even more increased recycling to converting methane into electricity.  Meanwhile, Amsterdam barely sends any of its trash to landfill—for almost a century garbage the city incinerated its trash, and now two waste-to energy plants fuel many of the city’s offices and residences.  Whether that can be truly scaled, however, is open to debate.

The risk in any zero waste measure, however, is creating a demand for a resource that in the end cannot be sustained.  Some argue that simply recycling or burning garbage does not address a core issue, consumerism, as Christine Loh of Hong Kong Civic Exchange has argued.  So whether a city aggressively incinerates or composts, questions fester:  what happens when that source runs out?  If it’s biomass, do we go after trees?  Or do we just have to consume more if those incinerators provide a cost-effective way to fuel our homes?

In the end we confront an issue that many of us do not want to face:  rather than pulling our hair out looking for alternative sources of fuel  . . . perhaps we need to find a way to reduce our collective demand.  Or is that even possible?

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). He is currently living and working in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.