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 has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

4 responses

  1. Pursuing a zero waste policy can be a tricky thing, depending on the metrics one follows and the practices one puts in place in order to meet those metrics. However, it can also be a great opportunity for businesses (and individuals) to reduce their consumption, divert waste, reuse materials, and save money. For instance, The Taylor Companies, a furniture manufacturing based in Bedford, Ohio, began pursuing a zero waste goal a few years ago. They have diverted more than 90% of their waste at their Bedford facility and more than 65% at their Los Angeles facility. They have been able to reuse materials that would otherwise be wasted, repurpose materials from other vendors that would be wasted, and even sell materials to other businesses to make a profit on something they would otherwise pay to have hauled off to a landfill.

    All of this leads to reduced costs on materials, new revenue streams, improved reputation, and increased sales. If one pursues a zero waste goal the right way, it can pay major dividends.

    Tim Kovach,
    Product Coordinator for Energy at COSE

  2. You’re not answering your question here. Yes, biomass burning presents this problem. But NOT recycling! Look at the green xchange launched by Nike and Creative commons. The whole point of it is to increase innovation around using MORE recycled materials for textiles and other products. That will never be a zero sum game because by the time we run out of plastics (recycled or virgin) we’ll have a viable replacement (NOT corn!)

  3. Thanks for the comments. Though I wasn’t aware I had to answer my question. I hear both sides on biomass vs recycling vs incineration. Amsterdam’s system has its critics–but at the same time we cannot keep filling landfills, obviously. And recycling has its critics, who point out that it’s often really down-cycling. Like Gilda Radner’s SNL character Rosanna Rosanna Danna would say . . .it’s always something!

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