Zero Waste is the Future

This guest blog was written by Hana Heineken & Laura Calderon of the Sierra Club Washington, D.C. Chapter Zero Waste Committee.  Hana chairs the Zero Waste Committee and is an environmental attorney, and Laura is a member of the Committee and has a Master of Science in Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science from Lund University in Sweden.

Zero Waste is the Future

Waste, trash, rubbish, garbage, etc… whatever you call it, we are used to producing it! In 2011, the US generated 250 million tons of trash, of which 54 % was landfilled and 12% incinerated. 40% of all food produced in the US is wasted!

It’s especially noticeable during the holiday season, when it’s estimated that 35% of the turkey Americans buy for Thanksgiving goes to waste, and an extra 5 million tons of trash is thrown away between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, the majority of it being wrapping paper and shopping bags.

Image courtesy of Hana Heineken & Laura Calderon.

Image courtesy of Hana Heineken & Laura Calderon.

Why do we generate so much waste, and is it a problem?  Annie Leonard’sThe Story of Stuff argues it has to do with how products are made and how people consume. Many products are made to be disposable. Take plastic bottles for example. According to the Container Recycling Institute, “around 802 thousand tons of PET plastic bottles were recycled nationwide in 2011, but more than two times as much PET was wasted: 1.9 million tons.”  If everyone used reusable bottles, that number could be zero.  There are sales, deals, promotions all year around persuading people to buy more. But do we really need two? Probably not!

The problem with generating more and more waste is that it takes a heavy toll on the environment and doesn’t make economic sense. Making new products takes energy (i.e. coal, natural gas, oil) and raw resources for paper (trees), plastic (oil), and metal (minerals) – resources that are finite and getting scarcer by the day.  Transporting it to the store and to the consumer takes even more energy. And when it’s thrown away into a landfill or incinerated, most of its value is lost.  Incinerator advocates boast that energy can be generated from burning the waste, but the energy captured is far less than what could be saved by reusing, recycling, and composting the waste, and there are many other side effects from incineration: air, water, and ground pollution, high cost of maintenance, a disincentive to produce less waste, and a lost opportunity to create jobs around a reuse and recycling economy.

Image courtesy of Hana Heineken & Laura Calderon.

Image courtesy of Hana Heineken & Laura Calderon.

To achieve a sustainable planet, we need to produce zero waste. This means following the zero waste hierarchy of 1) not buying unnecessary things 2) reducing and conserving materials by avoiding disposable or single-use items; 3) reusing or repurposing items to find other uses; 4) recycling and composting; and as a last resort 5) regulating disposal.  When you’re about to buy a product or be handed a plastic bag, ask yourself: Do I need it? Is it recyclable or compostable? Is it toxic? Does it have other uses?

Zero waste may seem like an unachievable goal, but many cities and towns around the world and in the US are making progress toward achieving it. San Francisco, for example, diverts 80% of their waste from the waste stream, and they’re doing this by putting in place polices to incentivize less waste (i.e. a ban on plastic bags and styro-foam), investing in infrastructure (i.e. a three-bin system and city-wide composting) and doing outreach to make it easier to comply. (Read more here)

Zero waste can be the new normal, but it has to start with each person.


This entry reflects the authors’ personal judgments and does not represent the views of the United States Government or the Department of State. 


One thought on “Zero Waste is the Future

  1. Dear Friends, Could someone kindly focus on “original research” and “new knowledge” regarding the human species? Take the example of human population dynamics/overpopulation. The ‘science of the anthropocene’ appears to be ignoring the elephant in our planetary home. After all, human beings are a part of, not apart from, Earth systems, are we not? The way this matter is ‘overlooked’ is incredible. Extraordinary claims call out for extraordinary evidence. I get that. Let’s discuss the research and the extant knowledge. Thank you. Always, Steve

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