Zero waste is all the rage, but is it realistic?
From zero waste supply chains, zero waste blogs, and products that facilitate a zero waste lifestyle, the concept of zero waste has taken the world by storm. But is zero waste actually an achievable goal?
The fact is that there is no such thing as true zero waste. Even in a closed-loop system, waste is created in some capacity (e.g. emissions from transportation, energy wasted during the creation or repurposing of goods, etc). The term zero waste is a misnomer, and the goal to achieve 100% zero waste, while noble, isn’t feasible for most consumers—but that doesn’t mean the path toward zero waste isn’t one worth walking.
At my company, TerraCycle, our theory is that zero waste should be a goal we all seek to attain. It’s a mindset and a lifestyle, one that can mitigate many of our impacts on the environment and divert valuable materials from linear disposal. That’s why we are committed to our new recycling model, the Zero Waste Box, and why we are excited about our recent partnership with Staples here in the U.S.
The Zero Waste Box is a premium recycling option that allows us to collect and recycle typically difficult-to-recycle waste streams (writing utensils, coffee capsules, candy wrappers, etc) without sponsors or funding from third-parties. A consumer or business can purchase a box from Staples.com (the price includes the cost to ship the waste to TerraCycle), fill the box with waste, and then send it back to us for recycling. It’s a simple model that gives us an opportunity to overcome the economic barriers to recycling, presents consumers with an easy way to meet some of their zero waste goals, and allows us to continue innovating new recycling solutions for materials usually considered “waste.”
After successfully launching the Zero Waste Box model with Staples Canada on their Staples.ca website—a platform that ended up winning a 2015 Top Product of the Year Award from Environmental Leader—we recently partnered with Staples here in the US, and our Zero Waste Boxes are currently listed on Staples.com. When municipal recycling options or TerraCycle’s free recycling programs are not enough to reduce some of the more elusive waste streams generated at home or work, people can use a Zero Waste Box to take one more step down the path toward zero waste.
We know that achieving complete zero waste is nearly impossible for most consumers. Nonetheless, adopting a zero waste lifestyle has clear environmental, social, and economic benefits that we shouldn’t leave by the wayside. We aren’t alone in this belief either, and many companies across the industry spectrum are successfully integrating effective zero waste strategies across their production chains.
Subaru, for example, has been manufacturing cars in ’zero landfill’ facilities for over ten years. All waste generated within Sabaru’s facilities is recycled or reprocessed into energy. The company has mastered categorizing, weighing, and tracking all waste streams generated across its production processes, and even offers training services to manufacturers interested in pushing their own facilities toward zero landfill. Setting manufacturing standards like these pressures other industry actors into following suit, and sets a great example for companies hoping to compete in an increasingly sustainability-driven consumer landscape.
The key takeaway we should all keep in mind about the concept of zero waste is that it’s the journey, not the destination that matters. It makes us rethink the way we buy things (e.g. anything "disposable”), and forces us to purchase more sustainable and less wasteful products; it decreases the volume of potentially valuable material we send to landfills and waste incinerators each year; and it leads to more sustainable manufacturing practices and efficient, more circular models of production.
Even if we as consumers, businesses, manufacturers and multinational corporations fall short of 100% zero waste (which we will), we’ll still be able to accomplish a lot along the way.