Footprints in Waste Management: Taking Steps toward Zero Waste

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"To waste, to destroy our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed."

-Theodore Roosevelt, Seventh Annual Message, December 3, 1907

The prospect of living in a society of resourcefulness rather than wastefulness has long intrigued everyone, from leaders like Teddy Roosevelt to people like you and me. Waste reduction and recycling programs aid in these efforts, but these are only the tip of the iceberg.

Zero waste is a philosophy of waste management that aims to reduce total amount of waste to zero by redesigning resource-use systems. Rather than maintaining a linear waste system — you throw something away, it ends up in a landfill — zero waste initiatives work toward extending current practices of recycling and reuse into a circular waste system. This strategy "maximizes recycling, minimizes waste, reduces consumption and ensures that products are made to be reused, repaired or recycled back into nature or the marketplace."
Advancements in the recycling industry serve to bring us a step closer to a zero waste society. Single-stream recycling, for example (video link), simplifies the process by allowing for all recyclable materials to be placed in one bin. Consumers no longer must manually separate their paper, plastic, glass and cans. Instead, all materials are sent to the materials recovery facility, or MRF, to be processed. Ultimately, through single-stream recycling we see a higher recycling rate, thus reducing the overall amount of waste heading to landfills.

Creating an overarching zero waste society starts at the local level. Several cities and states worldwide are taking policy steps to jumpstart the process. Australia's capital city of Canberra was the first city on the planet to adopt a goal of zero waste going into landfills. Its Waste Management Strategy, developed in 1996, set the vision and future strategies for achieving this goal, including community involvement, avoidance and reduction of waste, resource recovery, residual waste management and other creative solutions for waste diversion and reduction. Such strategies have set the bar for other programs, such as in California and Masdar, Abu Dhabi, which intends to become the world's first zero-carbon and zero-waste city.

Taking their cue from these cities, corporations are also working with the EPA to become "landfill-free." The WasteWise program works to reduce municipal solid waste and some industrial wastes from its business, non-profit and government partners. Currently, the program has more than 2,300 partners and 250 endorsers, making it a highly respected initiative in keeping a variety of wastes out of landfills on a large-scale level.

Zero waste depends on an extension of the three Rs — reduce, reuse and recycle. Implementing these processes into your daily waste habits and working to create a circular flow of waste will only add your footprint to these already resourceful steps to creating a global zero waste society.

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