Zero waste is a concept that sounds pretty neat, right? You can buy, sell and trade products and have nothing from the transaction go to the landfill, and if done right, very little even needing to be recycled or composted. As we’ve seen, recycling ain’t what it was hyped up to be, and composting has its limitations, too, in addition to releasing methane (a potent greenhouse gas) if done less than perfectly. But there is so much more to this awesome phenomenon of zero waste!
Here’s a top five list of reasons why it’s good to move toward zero waste!
- There’s waste behind the waste. Many times, to produce a product, there are a lot of inputs. It may surprise you to know that behind every product, there’s often a mountain of waste.This may be referred to as the ecological “rucksack”. An engagement ring has been found to have a 1 to 350,000 ratio of product to waste. In other words, if that ring weighed one pound, 350,000 pounds of materials were used/processed/re-used/re-processed/disposed of along the way to create it. Computers have a 1:40,000 ratio, a semiconductor a 1:100,000 ratio, a newspaper a 1:22 ratio, and orange juice a 1:100 ratio.To produce a plastic seal, for instance, first you need to drill for oil (requires massive machinery, all with its own ecological footprint). Then you need to lubricate the drill (lots of petrochemicals poured down into the earth’s crust that can get into drinking water). Then you need to put the crude oil into barrels or a pipeline and ship it (wastes gas and other energy sources). Then you need to safely get it into an industrial laboratory (wastes fuel, releases fumes, sickens workers and neighboring citizens unfortunate enough to live by a refinery). Then you need to mix chemicals to turn the oil into plastic (lots of wasted chemical byproducts that need to be disposed of safely but often aren’t). Then you need to use a lot of energy to put that plastic into usable form, and of course, there are trimmings of plastic bits and pieces that don’t make the final product (this, by the way is what’s often referred to as “pre-consumer waste”…as opposed to post-consumer waste, which you’ll see on recycled products a fair bit). So, OK sure, plastic sucks. But what about a compostable product? Well, a recyclable and compostable product, like a newspaper, can be very similar: first you need fiber to make the paper. So you chop a tree down, shave the bark (waste), drive it to the mill (wastes gas), mill it (wastes energy), use chemicals to soften it into pulp (chemical waste), use a press to press it down into paper (wastes energy), apply ink which then off-gases as it dries (chemical waste), then cut the newspaper into its shape (trimmings are pre-consumer waste), then bundle it with either a plastic bag or rubber band or both (solid waste), then transport it (wasted energy), then finally it’s used…for a day…and then thrown in the recycle bin.
- The wasted waste may be toxic. Plastic comes from oil. Everyone knows oil is pretty toxic, but it can get way more toxic the more it is manipulated in a refinery. Benzene, formaldehyde, and a lot of other known carcinogens are derived from oil. Useful materials for some things, no doubt, but toxic AF! Plastic, as it breaks down in our environment, releases chemicals that may cause cancer and disrupt our immune systems, hormones, reproductive system….
- The waste generated is creating perverse economic incentives for more toxic pollution and waste. The EPA keeps a list of toxic releases called the Toxic Release Inventory. The companies putting out the most toxins into our air and water are primarily oil/petrochemical manufacturers (Koch Industries, Syngenta, Dow, Dupont, etc.). For every product made that requires any sort of inputs from these industries, guess what? Your hard earned dollars are lining their pockets, even if the end product doesn’t directly contain petrochemicals.
- Waste hurts the people who can least afford it. You don’t find landfills and toxic waste facilities in wealthier neighborhoods. The poor have less political power in “the rich get richer” countries like the U.S., meaning they’re less able to fend off developments of oil refineries, coal plants, toxic dumps and landfills in their communities. This creates and reinforces a cycle of poverty that is hard to escape.
- There is no “away”. One of the classic lines of the early environmental movement, it’s as true today as it was 50 years ago. For decades, Americans bought the line of plastics manufacturers that we could just recycle our eco-guilt away, shipping plastic to China to be recycled. As it turns out, so much of that plastic never got recycled, and now resides in the oceans, lakes, rivers, and beaches of the world.