Is Zero Waste Attainable?

Learn how communities are fighting the war on waste

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The Zero Waste Concept

If you have yet to be introduced to the concept of Zero Waste, consider this your primer because if you haven’t heard about it, you soon will. The answer to whether or not it is attainable depends largely on how you define it. The leaders at Zero Waste Alliance International (ZWAI) have defined it as follows:

Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where ALL discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use. “

Using this definition, it’s safe to say that absolute Zero Waste in not yet attainable, but Zero Waste as a philosophy and lifestyle certainly are. Ultimately, the long-term success of the movement will require a fundamental shift in the way people and communities manage their relationship between consumption/consumerism and its resulting waste.

The Zero Waste mindset exists on many levels; there are Zero Waste households, Zero Waste businesses and even entire cities that hope to someday be Zero Waste. Obviously, households are the most nimble, able to start the waste-less journey overnight. Businesses and cities take time, requiring extensive planning, logistics and legislation.

The Zero Waste Household

The key to a Zero Waste household actually happens outside the home. The less you bring in, the less that goes out as waste, period. Easier said than done, however. We live in a consumer-driven society, so taking pause and thinking “Do I really need that?” or “Where will this end up when I’m done with it?” isn’t really how the general population thinks. When people hear “Zero Waste” they tend to think that because they recycle well that they share the same philosophy; that’s a huge misconception. While recycling material is preferred to having it end up in a landfill, it is essentially the Zero Waste last resort. So if the cornerstone is really choosing what to bring into the home and what not to, where do you begin?

Here are some good starting points for a Zero Waste lifestyle:

  • Get off junk mailing lists
  • Use only reusable bags/glass or metal containers for shopping
  • Say “no” (politely) to business cards, fliers and other promotional materials
  • Buy in bulk when possible
  • Ban one-use plastics completely (bottles, straws, cups, drink lids, plastic cutlery)

Once “stuff’ is inside the home there are a myriad of other Zero Waste techniques that can be explored to eliminate them in a responsible way. You can let them rot (compost), or you can trade, donate, or sell items. But always keep in mind that your first line of defense is the front door; it may change the way you shop.

The Zero Waste Business

Beyond the household, there are hundreds of businesses that share the Zero Waste philosophy. Subaru International is one such company. The Subaru Initiative of Indiana is a great story. The initiative began with the dual intent of saving money and improving the environment. What they didn’t anticipate was becoming a Zero Waste mentor to hundreds of other companies across industries. Companies flock to Lafayette, Indiana (the only Subaru manufacturing plant in the US), every year to learn best practices, get inspired and tour the facilities.

Subaru International of Indiana (SIA) has been 100% landfill divergent since 2004. They recycle all their food waste into compost which employees then take home to amend their own garden soil. They recycle or reuse almost every automotive component; old light bulbs eventually find new life as road strip reflectors, damaged bumpers are ground and sent back to the forms to be remolded – everything is full circle. Subaru executives guess that the savings are roughly 1-2 Million annually. Wow.

The Zero Waste City

It’s not a huge surprise that San Francisco, one of the anchor cities of the West Coast, and one that has a deeply entrenched spirit of conservation and preservation is a leader in the Zero Waste Movement.

San Francisco was one of the first cities to declare a war on waste, passing a mandatory recycling and composting alliance in 2009. This led to the three bin collection system, “the fantastic three”, requiring the separate collection of garbage, recycling and compostable material. Very quickly thereafter, in 2012 San Francisco was able to say that they had an 80% landfill diversion, making it the greenest city in the US. They hope to reach Zero Waste status by 2020.


The Zero Waste movement is gaining momentum every day. There are people and communities deep in their journey and others are jsetting off. Wherever you are, there are resources to help facilitate your next step. Here are a few: