What Is the Zero Waste Movement?

The term “movement” implies a shift in direction, away from something and toward something better. In this case, it’s a move away from a wasteful past of conspicuous consumption and the profligate use of resources with scant concern about the impact on the health and wellbeing of the planet and all living creatures. So what is the zero waste movement? The zero waste movement is a movement fueled by a belated but growing recognition of that impact and the legacy we will leave for future generations.

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What is the Zero Waste Movement?

In truth, the zero waste movement is a paradigm shift—the evolution of a philosophy, a mindset, a lifestyle that promotes good stewardship of natural resources and prioritizes conservation and sustainability over consumption. The ultimate goal is to reduce and ultimately eliminate the waste output of every individual, household, business, and community, not only in the United States but worldwide. Many fear that this is an unrealistic, unattainable goal, though certainly worth striving for.

In 2018, the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) defined zero waste as the “conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.” A number of U.S. cities have adopted this definition and modeled their zero waste efforts after those of the Zero Waste International Alliance.

Three years earlier, the U.S. Conference of Mayors adopted a resolution “in support of municipal zero waste principles and a hierarchy of materials management, which stated that the concept of zero waste goes beyond recycling and composting at the end of a product’s life cycle, to encompass the entire life cycle of a product, beginning with product design, and envisioning the use and management of materials in ways that preserve value, minimize environmental impacts, and conserve natural resources.”

State and Local Initiatives

States that have established zero waste initiatives and goals leave it up to municipalities within the state to translate them into action plans that will achieve state-level goals within a certain timeframe. For example, the state of Connecticut defines zero waste as “a philosophy and a design principle for the 21st Century. It includes ‘recycling’ but goes beyond recycling by taking a ‘whole system’ approach to the vast flow of resources and waste through human society.”

The city of Middletown, Connecticut intends to meet the state’s Solid Waste Management Plan goals by 2024 and eventually become a zero waste community “through action plans and measures that significantly reduce waste and pollution. These measures will include encouragement of residents, businesses, and agencies to judiciously use, reuse, and recycle materials, and motivation of businesses to manufacture and market less toxic and more durable, repairable, reusable, recycled, and recyclable products.”

Individual Action

Making zero waste a reality will require individuals to make some lifestyle changes. Many have already made reuse and recycling their norm. For millions of people, it has become second nature to buy used rather than new, repair rather than replace, reuse or donate for someone else’s reuse rather than discard, and take other measures on a daily basis to cut down on the amount of waste they generate.

With the current average of roughly five pounds of waste per day produced by each individual in the U.S., we still have a long way to go. Fortunately, even small actions by large numbers of people can have a big impact. But individuals alone can’t make this a zero waste nation.

The Role of Businesses

ZWIA describes the true aim of the zero waste movement as being to “redesign our entire cycle of resource extraction, consumption and discard management so no resources are wasted at any point along the way.” That means that zero waste must become a design principle. Businesses must take responsibility for product, package, and process redesign to reduce waste and conserve and recover resources for use by others or return them to nature. This is the only way to move us closer to a circular economy that treats all materials as resources at every stage of their life cycle.

Most companies lack the capacity to accomplish this sea change on their own. But when suppliers, producers, and waste management professionals work together, the goal of zero waste becomes much less daunting. Professionals like Repurposed Materials, who can work with your company to reach your recycling goals.

Contact Repurposed Materials today to find out how we can help you find a new home for unwanted materials.