Can Zero Waste make a difference?
Reducing disposable waste, composting and sorting bio-waste, extending the lifespan of products, … All of these are at the heart of the Zero Waste (ZW) approach. What appears first and foremost to be a simple eco-friendly gesture may prove to be more effective in the fight against climate change.
What is the ZW approach?
According to the Zero Waste International Alliance, “Zero Waste is 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”. It can be declined through cities’ and businesses’ waste management strategies, as well as in each and everyone’s lifestyle. More than a trend, ZW is a powerful lever to lower our global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While the original waste hierarchy, set by the Directive 2008/98/EC, was about disposing of our waste in a way that is least harmful for the environment, it did not take into account the need to encourage a transition towards circularity. Hence, the ZW hierarchy changes the mindset from waste management to resource management.
How can ZW help mitigate climate change?
In 2016, the waste management sector was responsible for about 3% of the European Union’s GHG emissions (European Environment Agency, 2018). These low proportions might suggest that this sector can only make a small contribution to the reduction of GHG emissions at European and therefore global level. In fact, figures usually exclude waste import and export, as well as the generation of waste accounted for by other economic sectors. For instance, food waste is associated with agriculture, incineration is associated with the energy sector, prevention and recycling are taken into account via the transport and industry sectors. Therefore, the Zero Waste association believes that “the role of waste prevention and optimised waste management in the reduction of GHG emissions and the development of a low-carbon economy has been completely underestimated so far”. The independent consultancy firm Eunomia, which lead the study on behalf of the Zero Waste association, made 11 recommendations to remedy these issues. Among them stands in first position a better respect of the European legislation on waste prevention and recycling: these two practices generate the most positive outcomes.
On an individual scale, adopting the ZW approach is often a starting point towards a more sustainable lifestyle and the implementation of other green practices lowering your global environmental footprint. However, if your ZW method only consists in replacing disposable elements by manufactured ones, which probably required more resources for production, then we may wonder if the benefits are real. Keep in mind that, less is more and most of the time you already have plenty of ways that can help your transition towards ZW!