Zero-Waste Explained!

What do we mean when we say “Zero Waste”?

The dream of “zero waste” is to reuse every raw material indefinitely - anything that is extracted from the earth is placed in a closed loop of use and reuse.

SF Zero Waste Campaign (picture from sfenvironment.org)

SF Zero Waste Campaign (picture from sfenvironment.org)

Where have I seen this buzzword?

  • Subaru (zero-landfill production)

  • Anheuser-Busch (99.1% recycling)

  • New York City (56% waste diversion from landfill or incineration)

  • San Francisco (>80% diversion)

  • Viacom NYC (75% diversion)

  • Recology (waste reclaiming company)

Why is it buzzworthy?

“Zero waste” gets attention because it has the potential to greatly reduce pressure on our limited resources to not only store our waste but also to produce new materials to be consumed again.

What does it actually mean?

The Zero Waste International Alliance has a set of standards and policies defining “zero waste” which they use to evaluate businesses and communities for their implementation of the goal.  In sum, the standards are that

  1. All discarded materials are resources

  2. Resources are not be burned or buried

  3. Goal is Zero Air, Water and Land Emissions

In practice, zero waste is a goal that different municipalities, companies and individuals define for themselves. This means that when you see someone or some business claiming to be “zero waste”, it may not really mean zero. Take San Francisco and New York City as an example of the variation that can occur across the adopters of this goal. The goal for SF is to divert 100% of waste from incinerators and landfills by 2020. In NYC, the goal is to send no waste to out of state incinerators by 2030. For companies producing goods, being fully zero waste requires that the lifecycle of the product is designed such that the byproducts of manufacturing and the end product itself can be reinjected into the lifecycle. The GrassRoots Recycling Network (GRRN) describes, for example, details the many parts that go into the Epson printers and imaging supplies that are reclaimed for reuse by the company or recycled in partnership with third party organizations. GRRN applauds the Epson effort because it has reached 90% diversion and is in line with the goals stated above. However, New York City commended Sweetgreens Restaurant for being zero waste though they only reached 75% diversion from landfills and incinerators. Individuals pursuing zero waste adopt varying levels of zero waste, usually focusing on reducing the volume of material that they personally would send to a landfill or incinerator.

Bottom Line: Follow!

The common theme between individuals, institutions and governments is that there are initial designing and transitioning stages in order to shift out of the old pattern of consumption into one of stewardship. While most companies and cities have a long way to go to zero waste, it is worth supporting those who have moved that direction. Any reduction in the waste directed to the landfill is a reduction. However, watch out for “green washing” - a term used for entities that highlight their initiatives that seem sustainable while not addressing more serious waste-generating concerns. For example, a food company that offers new recyclable wrapping for individually sold goods, but don't offer goods in bulk, which would drastically reduce the waste generated. So follow the trend, but keep pushing for zero as a consumer and an individual.


While resisting our inertial habits is difficult, the reality is that it will become impossible to sustain the demand for new resources and space for our “garbage” very rapidly. As individuals there are almost infinite choices we can make to reduce what we waste many of which are very simple.

Written by Megan Armstrong

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