30 July 2014 — There are many alternatives to dumping, burying or combusting waste, and Paul Connett does a very thorough job of outlining both the business and the environmental case for more enlightened methods. He also does it in an entertaining way, crafting a compelling and achievable vision of a more people-centred, community-minded and sustainable society.

The Zero Waste Solution – Untrashing the Planet One Community at a Time covers the theory and history of waste reduction efforts through better design, increased re-use, end-of-life stewardship and resource recovery and recycling programs. One of the points Connell makes is that “waste is only waste when it’s wasted”; in other words, as long as a resource has value it will not be waste.

The business case analysis shows there are some critical flaws in the current trend for waste-to-energy projects when compared to resource recovery and recycling operations. These include lower rates of long-term job creation, the production of toxic fly ash that still requires landfill disposal, the massive upfront capital investment required for incinerators compared with the much smaller investment required for resource recovery, and the energy footprint calculations.

The case studies section gives concrete examples of communities that have chosen to embrace zero waste as a goal, such as San Francisco, where the city’s organics are sent to a composting operation that supplies vineyards and farmers, while the recyclables are processed by a material recovery facility employing 1000 workers. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is quoted as saying the facility has created 10 times as many jobs as would have been created sending the material to landfills and, furthermore, these were local jobs that could not be sent offshore.

Then there’s Sweden, where a reuse and recycling park offers rock concerts for the price of 20 plastic bottles, clowns entertain children and a dog trained to separate recyclables into six categories puts on a regular stage show.

There are also examples drawn from the Global South, including the Philippines, India, South America and Lebanon, where waste collection, recycling and reuse has been part of the survival economy for many poor families. The need here, according to Connell, is for the governments in these countries to incorporate this activity into their waste management plans and provide workers with safer, better working conditions and healthcare, and educational opportunities for children.

According to Connell, the first government to gazette a zero waste policy was the Australian Capital Territory government, which passed the No Waste by 2010 law in 1996. However, in 2000 the government changed, and so too did the policy settings that supported the goal, and the ACT didn’t get there.

The third section of the book compiles essays by leaders in the zero waste movement, including economist Jeffrey Morris from the Sound Resource Management Group; executive director of Eco-Cycle Eric Lombardi; and founders of Berkeley’s Urban Ore company, Daniel Knapp and Mary Lou Van Deventer, who coined the “waste isn’t waste until it’s wasted” motto.

Urban Ore, which had its roots in former university professor Knapp’s scavenging at the Berkeley landfill, has grown into a massive storefront and warehouse operation that retails post-deconstruction building materials, consumer electrical items, salvaged metal items from screws to doorknobs, repaired items and recovered paint.

Knapp and Van Deventer have evolved twelve master categories of discards:

  1. reusable goods – anything which can be repaired, repurposed or reused as is
  2. metals
  3. glass
  4. paper and cardboard
  5. polymers, including plastic containers, bags and cases of consumer goods such as telephones and electronic equipment
  6. textiles
  7. chemicals, including recyclable or reusable solvents, paints, motor oil and lubricants
  8. wood
  9. plant debris
  10. putrescibles including offal and debris from animals, fruit and vegetables
  11. soils
  12. ceramics, including rock, porcelain, concrete and nonreusable brick

These categories, they say, should be handled via ecoparks, which should also include a research and information centre at the front to facilitate increasing degrees of recycling. The ecoparks designed by Knapp, one of which was presented as a concept to the ACT government, also incorporate a financial incentive, with high disposal fees only being charged once all recoverable, reusable or recyclable items have been offloaded.

Connell also details ten steps toward a zero-waste community:

  1. source separation of waste
  2. door-to-door collection systems
  3. composting
  4. recycling
  5. reuse, repair and deconstruction (as opposed to demolition)
  6. waste reduction initiatives
  7. economic incentives
  8. residual separation and research facilities
  9. better industrial design
  10. interim landfills

The end of the book contains Connell’s notes, research references, links, a comprehensive chronology of the movement and information on many of the global groups and major companies in the zero waste field, making it an excellent reference text.