Discussions about Zero Waste actions

Help me to build a literature of Zero Waste discussions, analyses, issues, projects and anything else. Send me your writing on this subject and I will add it below.

  1. Click here to peruse my existing, older collection of writings about recycling.

  2. How to design for Zero Waste solutions to problems.

    Any design for ZW necessarily falls back on basic principles. I think this sums them up, but you may want to add more. In thinking about the impact of these principles, you can see that moving to a Zero Waste society requires strong social engineering It is not a trivial, completely transparent add-on that affects nothing significant, such as "a little more recycling".


    1. Push the design upstream to design for reuse, not for discard. Correct design starts when a product is first contemplated. Just as costs, markets and materials are elementary design considerations, so must perpetual reutilization be. Ending up with degraded or mixed garbage after use is never a given, only a design failure. Planning for post use diversion from garbage is never acceptable.
    2. Design to capture the highest function, not the lowest. Do not design for materials capture but for the repair and reuse of every article's highest value. For example removing a large formed plastic part from an automobile and grinding it up into chips is not a Zero Waste operation unless there is no known way to reuse the entire formed part. It is recycling of the lowest value, because all of the resources that were expended to form the part are arbitrarily discarded.
    3. Include industrial and large scale consumer items in their highest manifestations. Do not demolish buildings, cooling systems, processing plants, conveyor systems, display systems, forklifts, trucks, buses etc. but preserve them as complete systems and reinstall them elsewhere as needed.
    4. Build in financing of later reuse at the point of sale, not at the end of a first life cycle. Recycling is not an add-on service and cannot be charged that way. It is a commitment that a civilized society makes towards its design for living, and must be allowed for financially at the earliest possible time.
    5. Separate all articles by logical category, avoiding all mixing. The garbage mentality claims that all discards are equal, all candidates for dumping, therefore mixing them causes no harm. The Zero Waste mentality claims that all articles are different, requiring different attention to reuse them. Mixing degrades them. This applies strongly to chemicals, but also to scraps, consumer excesses and all industrial excesses.
    6. No article for reuse may pass thru any intermediate stage in which no one takes responsibility. This stage will cause irremediable degradation. As soon as an article has no owner, no one responsible, the garbage mentality takes over. This means that articles cannot be 'thrown' into a dumpster for 'someone else' to take care of.
      1. Emphasize that every owner of an article retains responsibility for the next reuse of that article until the next owner has assumed responsibility, including the obligation to preserve information. Allow no zone of irresponsibility, such as a garbage can or transfer station, unless someone is in charge committed to reuse and conservation.
    7. Information about all articles is the rock solid basis of recycling. The casual, frantic identification of discarded, abandoned articles (as happens in thrift shops) is hardly more than garbage management. Information about every article must be captured and preserved at all times thru labels, notations, bar codes, Internet sites, specification sheets and every other possible means.
    8. Admit ignorance. Design for ZW is a complex operation requiring time, money and research. We do not, and cannot be expected to, have, all the answers. Many of the needed answers can only be found thru research. Never allow the garbage world to belittle Zero Waste design because answers must be discovered. It is only garbage dumps which have a single answer for everything.
      1. Recycling will demand experts and expertise, particularly with the more technical kinds of items but even with ordinary items. It is, unfortunately, no more of a catchall industry for people of mental handicaps than any other technical industry. It is only the handling of garbage, and their lowgrade form of recycling called diversion, which require no knowledge or intelligence.
      2. Recycling is a technically demanding and advanced industry. The answers aren't simple. Often decisions have to be made about intertwined life cycles or the right time to abandon a function or to reconstitute it thru repair or upgrade. You will not be able to answer every challenge: "So what do I do with xxxxx?" Get comfortable with the difficulties.

    9. Do not compete with subsidized garbage management. Removal of all subsidies for garbage and a strong upward pressure on all garbage fees is a major weapon for the transition to ZW. The subsidies for garbage are legion and subtle. A big one is that they are allowed to remove a portion of the surface of the earth from future beneficial use, without paying for that loss of planetary surface. Then the industry monitors its dumps for a few years after filling them, after which they expect the public to pay for all future problems.
      1. Garbage collection is not a public service. The encouragement of garbage creation thru collection and dumping does dreadful harm to society. It needs to be eliminated, not honored as a service. Municipalities should not be contracting for it. The garbage industry should be forced to compete in the public marketplace like every other industry, for as long as it still exists.
      2. The money that is wasted on garbage collection and dumping is money that is spent to destroy our planet. We should be removing that money from garbage collection and applying it to Zero Waste solutions and research. There is a huge amount of money available for research into Zero Waste, but it is being squandered today on garbage collection.
      3. The study of garbage generation, dumping practices and other trivia of the garbage industry is not the business of the recycling industry, except insofar as it helps in the elimination of such practices. You will repeatedly be expected by government and the public to involve yourself in solving 'waste issues', as though finding a place to dump garbage is an environmental problem. This is usually simple ignorance, not malice, so gently but firmly educate the public about the difference between garbage and universal reuse.
      4. Collection is not recycling! Simply putting "recyclables" into a separate bag is not recycling. Until a specific item has an effective and operational reuse pathway, it is not recycled. Just reducing the amount of something going into a dump is not recycling and not a Zero Waste success. Extending the life of a dump is not a Zero Waste success. Zero Waste successes are not measured at the dump but at the reuse or repair facility.
      5. The measures used for garbage are not valid for measuring Zero Waste progress. The primary measure for success in recycling is the value of the assembled goods that are reused, not the "amount" of their contained materials, not their weight and not their volume. Those are measures of garbage, but irrelevant to Zero Waste.
    10. Choose your projects carefully to be soluble and do not accept challenges from the garbage industry to solve their problems on your time. Turn the tables on anyone who asks you to design magical solutions i.e. instant answers. Design realistic solutions instead, which may require research, and challenge opponents to redesign their own practices to meet your requirements.
    11. Design your own terminology. Never use terminology or conceptual frames which presuppose the methods of the opposition or competition. Under no circumstances use terms like landfill (there is no empty land waiting to be filled with garbage), waste (no article is inherently unusable), waste management (a backhanded way to say garbage is okay), hauling (carrying an excess somewhere is the least important action) or disposal (this has been bastardized to mean dumping). There is no such thing as a "landfill crisis", a "crisis of capacity" or "too much garbage". There is only too little recycling.
    12. Toxicity is an opportunity, not a difficulty. Toxic materials are just as reusable as anything else, but they have the added benefit that they have been carefully monitored and controlled so they are available in pure or well understood forms. Chemicals are highly interconvertible which opens many pathways to reuse.
    13. Emphasize in public discussions that Zero Waste is not just the familiar world of garbage generation, with all the familiar tools missing, but a new way to organize resources.
      1. Citizens newly encountering Zero Waste ideas often think that everything will be exactly the same but there will be a little more recycling, and that will be Zero Waste. They should understand that, for example, repair will be much more widespread but not because someone just wants it to happen but because non-repairable items will not be allowed to be sold. Disposable items will not be sold (there will be no disposal anyway), unless the manufacturer takes them all back, but then they are no longer disposable. Garbage cans and dumps will not merely disappear by fiat but because there will be no use for them. Consumers will still have a rich feast of goods, but those goods will not be dumped on a public with no afteruse options but a garbage can.

  3. Sonoma County Zero Waste Planning

    The county in California in which I live has a progressive public. For example, the city council has a majority of Green Party members. Like all counties in California, we have a Local Task Force which was set up by a bill known as AB 939 that was passed in 1989. The bill was fairly progressive at the time, (though in my opinion it has become obsolete with time). It mandated high diversion rates from the garbage stream. This is a recycling provision which is opposed to progress toward Zero Waste. The mission of the Task Force is to provide public citizen advice for county legislators on the subject of garbage management and diversion. In Sonoma county, many of the members are in favor of moving on toward Zero Waste implementation to solve long term problems of the creation of unwanted excesses (note my shift from garbage terminology to ZW terminology).

    We have a preliminary document which I have prepared and which will probably be of wider interest than merely in our county. It makes use of the Zero Waste Principles above.

    Proposal For Achieving a Zero Waste Reality in Sonoma County


    We have taken on the challenge of coming up with at least some believable and realistic programs. We need a logical way to classify and prioritize projects. Here are some possibilities:

    1. The kind of process used, such as repair in a specialized or centralized shop.
    2. The type of consumer item, such as cement based rubble.
    3. The length of time needed to put it into practice.
    4. The availability of expertise.
    5. The need for forming a new or specialized business.
    6. The need for a public subsidy or incentive program.
    7. The ability to apply a solution on a county, regional or statewide basis.
    8. The difficulty of shutting down a competing garbage based alternative.
    9. The technical public education required.
    10. The changes in public behavior required.
    11. The sheer impact they have on current practices, including the rate of filling the dump whether by volume, value or otherwise.

    These classifications are in no way exclusive. This list is expected to grow.

    Projects arrive on the wind as it were. That is, they often are suggested by needs that arise or by existing opportunities. There is no one way to classify them, though most of them do deal with a particular type of article and so they can be differentiated on that basis. I suggest we think about some of these:

    1. Packaging

      Specifically any container which can be refilled. What is needed is a refilling station with the capacity to refill virtually any container that is found in commerce. There will be hundreds of products that flow and can be dispensed thru tubes, which are the main thrust of this design. (Some non-flow solids may also be candidates for refilling, such as marinated, treated foods like olives). We will ultimately need fairly sophisticated filling machines but could begin with simpler ones. Special features could include built in weighing stations and smart cards which are used to activate each refilling operation and continually add up the weights, items and charges.
    2. Composting

      A forceful program of the composting of abolutely all organic, compostable matter generated in the county, without exception. There are already several composting operations but the elimination of EVERY SCRAP of organic matter from the dump is not yet a reality. If there are subgroups, they need to be established as such. For example, lawn clippings, especially from golf courses, are known to contain an exceptionally high proportion of certain grass pesticides. The obvious way to deal with this uses Principle 5, no mixing. Compost the lawn clippings separately and apply them back to golf courses where the pesticides contained are considered to be desirable, rather than a problem. Do not allow one single ounce of any compostable, organic material to enter a dump in this county. This is a precursor to the elimination of that abomination, daily dump cover, which is a major problem in the filling of available dump capacity during the transition. If wood and other structural products are to be regarded as organic material, this will require special consideration (see below).
    3. Concrete to aggregate

      A similarly forceful program of recycling ALL cement rubble back into aggregate. The county has a crisis of aggregate anyway due to citizen opposition to expansion of crushing operations by quarries or the mining of gravel from the Russian River. The county is fortunate to have a number of concrete recyclers. The objection will be raised that contractors are used to bringing in degraded mixed demolition debris. This practice must cease.
      Note that this question bears some resemblance to the common breaking of glass bottles for diversion. However there is no good way to "refill" concrete except to move it in large blocks such as walls. The heavy weights make this infeasible.
    4. Wood recycling.

      A good deal of wood is unnecessarily reduced to unusable forms because of simple irresponsibility. Much more wood could be constructively dismantled and reused than is captured at present. One of the crying needs to make this happen is the development of pneumatic tools for nail pulling and separation of wooden members.
    5. Hot lines.

      An absolutely astounding amount of reusable, large scale, equipment is today rendered as debris due to the absence of any constructive means to find a new user,and the lack of a program to encourage (require?) the careful extraction and separation of reusable equipment and fixtures. Usable steel buildings are often demolished while other new ones are purchased, with no way to establish contact between such parties. All kinds of HVAC equipment such as coolers, duct work, heaters, freezers and fans are discarded today with no attempt to find any possible users. The existing hotline has no provision for keeping track of those searching for reusable items. I watched one day as hundreds of perfectly good supermarket carts, that had been picked up on the street, were placed into dumpsters simply because the collector could not be bothered delivering the carts to their individual markets. There are rollup and overhead and garage doors as well as counters, windows and furniture destroyed for no reason, other than the lack of informational insfrastructure.

      Hotlines for stimulating the reuse of chemicals might also prove useful, however they would need special features which I understand well, having been in the business for thirty years. They would in no way resemble the boondoggles, the so-called waste exchanges favored by the government, but would actually work.

      1. There will be resistance from all concerned to taking responsibility for the reuse of items for which the garbage industry formerly was willing to accept a bastardized responsibility (taking it to a dump does not constitute actual responsibility in a reuse model). However, there is no quarrelling with the basic proposition that a buyer takes on responsibility when he makes a decision to purchase, and that continued responsibility is nothing new, merely being enforced.
    6. A centralized repair facility

      is needed. How can it be formed and how would it work? It would require a great deal of expertise and knowledge, only a small portion of which is presently available in this throw-away society. Can a start be made with a limited list of items?
    7. Cathode Ray Tubes (CRT's)

      There are a large number of computers being excessed and attention has been focussed (for the wrong reasons) on the monitors. These are cathode ray tubes which consist basically of an electronic and magnetic collar around a specialized glass tube. The most common problem with them is that the electronics burns out. There used to be a thriving "gun replacement" industry for repairing and replacing the electronics, thus greatly extending the useful life of a CRT. That kind of repair industry needs to be reconstituted.
    8. Technical Information on the Web

      There is a need for a statewide requirement that all spec sheets, circuit diagrams and component layouts, including materials of construction and generic replacements where possible, must be posted on the internet before a product is permitted to be sold in this state. Unfortunately, this is not a county issue. Perhaps all that can be done is to start the ball rolling by including it in our analyses as a wish item.
    9. Close connections

      with similarly minded recycling groups in neighboring counties, such as Marin, Mendocino, Solano etc.
    10. Dishmobile

      Festivals and public gatherings are a disgraceful source of abundant discarded garbage everywhere in this country, and beyond. One solution is to eliminate the insidious concept of disposable utensils - cups, plates, silverware - by installing a mobile dishwashing station that can visit any gathering. Fixed fair locations, like county fairgrounds, can afford to have fixed installations. These kinds of mobile washers already exist, and are rentable, though it is hard to find one that incorporates the entire range of services that are needed to completely eliminate all garbage at festivals. They would need to provide a large quantity of easily identifiable and differentiable dishes and a way to wash them.

      These are my initial thoughts and suggestions. Many more could be added. I hope they stimulate additional thought, editing, suggestions and practical implementations. I look forward to a group process of refinement.

      Paul Palmer