Zero Waste and Zero Energy Systems


This week’s discussion became what will be the “new” normal on Thursday’s as we draw burning sustainability questions each week from the grab bag. The conversation was informative, dynamic and I look forward to hear what other questions come out of the activity. Lili posed this question to the class: What are the impacts and outcomes of zero waste and zero energy systems, along with specific examples?

Various examples were given ranging from governmental actions, to local businesses and community actions. One intriguing part of the conversation was a suggestion that demanded a complete reversal of business as usual by redefining ownership. How can we achieve zero waste if we continue to view goods as throwaway commodities? The answer given by the Ellen MacArthur was to change the economy into a circular economy. Do you believe this will be a feasible solution? How willing are industries to change to this model, and what will this change likely look like? Another interesting example given—the life cycle assessment—turned our conversation on it’s head, with the assumption that nothing is truly zero waste, a point that has left me scratching my head.

 My example for a zero waste system is a company called TerraCycle, which started in 2002 by Tom Szaky. The company’s social purpose is to eliminate the idea of waste. The company, based out of New Jersey, collects items that are difficult to recycle and repurposes the raw materials into new, innovative products. The company offers programs called Brigades to collect hard to recycle products such as food wrappers, old garments, laptops and e-waste and many other products. Most of the brigades offer points to redeem for charitable donations.

Companies like TerraCycle are part of a large collection of social entrepreneurs who start small. Many have failed to make enough money to keep the business running; however, TerraCycle has grown quite significantly since it’s initial compost collecting model. Last month Progressive Waste Solutions, North America’s largest waste management company acquired 20% interest in the company. The sense of purpose for social entrepreneurs must be extremely strong and powerful in order for the company to be successful. Zero waste mitigation strategies can start small, and gain momentum; however, the product and the mission must be smart and enticing for customers.

The theme from the discussion seemed to imply that small-scale governments were more successful in implementing zero waste strategy. We heard from various cases in Italy, the UK, South Africa, Nigeria and the United States, and the common thread was the scales of these projects were relatively small. The programs were focused on local based efforts in which centered communities were being targeted and helped by initiatives. What would a national strategy to provide zero waste look like? Please contribute your zero waste examples here along with thoughts on the larger question of a national zero waste strategy. 


10 thoughts on “Zero Waste and Zero Energy Systems

  1. aritakatavasquez

    Unfortunately, I was sick and missed class last week but I’m so glad we have the blog so I can see what creative zero waste solutions people have found. I really enjoyed the LCA example because it seems to be very comprehensive. The idea of zero waste is great, but I tend to be skeptical (as I usually am when it comes to sustainability) of zero waste as a goal because it is only a component of sustainability.

    Also, I agree with Amir’s comment about the consumption of “stuff” is a point I tend to come back to. Ultimately, there will need to be a shift in/halting of consumption…but is that possible in a capitalistic system? It requires the eternally production of goods, which is at ends with sustainability (and I think often, at ends with true happiness).

  2. ehannah27

    Thanks for a great class discussion, I so enjoyed hearing everyone’s contributions! Here are the links to the resources I discussed in class.

    I first want to share the link to the conference that my mother’s company, BioCycle is putting on in San Diego in early April. Here is a link to the agenda:
    The conference focuses on renewable energy from organics recycling, and covers topics from anaerobic digestion technologies, biogas, bioenergy, composting and much more! There are many sessions on the connections between waste and energy — and if you have any interest in volunteering or attending, please let me know! I believe students get a discount/get in free if they volunteer.

    Now, on to zero-net energy buildings..

    The New Buildings Institute (NBI) is performing comprehensive analysis on the state of zero-net energy buildings in the US. And just published a 2014 update! A link to their summary and associated reports are here:

    The report I shared in class was from 2012, and since that time the area of Zero Net Energy buildings (from all categories) has grown to 160! The most growth has taken place in the ‘Zero Net Energy Emerging Buildings and Districts’ meaning they have not yet been ‘officially’ verified as being ZNE. I think one important takeaway here is the shift from thinking about just the building scale to moving towards the district scale. In many ways, ZNE at the district scale seem more viable than single buildings trying for the certification. If districts can make shared investments in zero-carbon energy infrastructure and other technologies, it is possible the challenge of reaching zero net energy could be lessened.

  3. You ask a very good question about what a national zero energy policy would look like. Given the political and economic constraints, we might need a strong federal government that will enforce this regardless of opposing political interests. There would need to be a prioritization in our government in terms of funding, programs, advocacy, and local collaboration to implement this strategy. I can see this strategy happening in phases and through a series of parallel approaches. I envision these approaches in categories:
    (1) Transportation: Exchanging all cars for zero energy/waste vehicles at low or no cost to people
    (2) Building and housing retrofitting: retrofitting all buildings to become zero energy and ensuring that all new buildings are built zero energy
    (3) Regional consumption and manufacturing: in order to reduce the our carbon foot print in the making and transporting of all consumption goods, create a regional development plan that supports the local economy, businesses, and agriculture to provide the majority of the goods for a region.
    (4) Technological advancement: continue to fund R & D for more technological advances to renew and protect our natural resources
    (5) Waste: Full recycling and compost production of all waste material-zero waste, all trash is recycled and used.
    (6) Water conservation and environmentally friendly water treatment

    If anything is to get done at a nationwide level, we need to ask ourselves how we gain the political will to do so.

    These are the links to the sources I shared in class:
    (A) The developer of zero energy and affordable housing ZED factory:

    (B) An article on the issues with zero energy:

  4. skonala254

    I really enjoyed learning about all of the zero waste/zero energy strategies and case studies in class. It definitely made me more optimistic about sustainable planning.

    I brought in the example of Capannori, which is a small town In Italy with a population just under 50,000. The city has led a zero waste movement and the results achieved already are incredible. The city’s goal is to be net zero by 2020. In 1997 a new incinerator was proposed near the city. A local school teacher realized the significant health impacts the incinerator would have on the community and by setting up a zero waste program, he was able to block construction on the incinerator. In 2004, about 690 Kg of waste was generated by each person each year (250 Kg was recycled). As a result of the program, by 2013, the waste generated decreased to 430 Kg with an astonishing 350 Kg being recycled.

    I think its important to learn two lessons from this case study. The first lesson is on why was the program successful. There are many reasons for this but some include:
    – used a door-to-door collection scheme
    – consulted residents (held public meetings)
    – volunteers distributed waste collection kits to homes
    – the scheme was economically viable because the city saved money by having to pay less for disposing waste and made money from recycling
    – taught residents about composting
    – created a reuse center
    – created self-service bulk goods refill stations

    The second lesson is on what is Capannori doing now to ensure a net zero future. In 2010, a Zero Waste Research Center was opened in the city. The center has analyzed what residents are still throwing away in order to come up with solutions for this waste. In Capannori the 2 highest waste types are leather/textiles and diapers. Various types of plastic goods are also still thrown away as well.

    Overall, I think Capannori is a great model example on how to approach a zero waste future.

    Emilie, you pose a great question on what a national strategy to provide zero waste would look like. I don’t think it would look dissimilar to the small scale strategies. We need to rethink, how we consume goods and not treat goods as things to throw away. I think the Capannori example showed that it is not only economically viable to not throw things in the landfill but it can actually be economically beneficial.

  5. teowickland

    The zero waste example I shared in class is the concept of the “Circular Economy” espoused by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The Circular Economy is a capitalist economy wherein product ownership is retained by corporations, rather than consumers, who hold only use rights. This structure (coupled, perhaps, with regulation) encourages/requires corporations to design products for durability, rather than obsolescence, and to allow for continuous upgrading rather than replacement. In addition, all physical components are imagined to be reused or recycled, in the most efficient possible manner.

    The website of the foundation is at:

    Two of the foundation’s videos that introduce the concept of the Circular Economy can be viewed on YouTube at:

    Regarding the question of a national zero waste strategy, I believe a new socio-political-economic paradigm will be required. The Circular Economy may be one example of such a paradigm. However, while it has the potential to reemphasize use value over exchange value, this paradigm still foresees a society dominated by its economy, and in particular an economy focused on capital accumulation. Therefore, it still encourages the maximization of consumption and inequality. For these reasons, I suspect that, if realized, the Circular Economy would be unsustainable, even though it would be zero waste. A truly sustainable zero-waste economy would likely follow from a paradigmatic application of environmental justice principles, which would (to follow Wheeler) subjugate the economy to society, and frame society within the broader ecosystem.

  6. edermartinez

    Regarding Zero Energy I brought to the class the methodology called Life Cycle Assessment [LCA] which according to the EPA “is a technique to assess the environmental aspects and potential impacts associated with a product, process, or service”.

    LCA is a comprehensive “cradle to grave” analysis which measures products/services’ impacts from the extraction of raw material to the final disposal – after the end of use.
    Please watch this 1.5 minute videos for more info:

    Considering such a comprehensive analysis, it is difficult to find a product or service that can be marketable as Zero Energy or Zero Waste. At the end, every product/service we consume contains an embedded amount of C02 or has caused the release of waste to the environment.

    LCA is a complicated and time consuming methodology. It requires huge amounts of data, work and expertise. However, the LCA way of thinking is gaining more and more adept, leading product developers, engineers and decision makers to think comprehensively about the civil systems, product or services we create. For instance, this methodology helps us to compare environmental performance of two different alternatives (For example: what is better a bottle of plastic or glass?)

    For instance, LCA way of thinking evaluates recycling performance. It is assumed that recycling contributes to save materials and energy. However, some times the energy used in during the process of recycling consume more energy that it saves re-utilizing certain products/materials. Please see this article:
    “A recent study conducted by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has found that re-manufacturing or recycling certain products actually uses more energy than simply using new products”

    Can you think about a Zero Energy/Waste product/service?

  7. lrudis

    Thank you all so much for the wonderful and thought-provoking examples of zero-waste, zero-energy, and zero-carbon systems. It was interesting to pick out unifying threads in many of the ways in which innovators have made progress in closing waste and energy loops. It seems that solar power and anaerobic digestion are both viable and efficient energy production methods when implemented correctly.

    I also found the importance of the definition of “zero” to be fascinating. It remains up to debate whether carbon or energy offsets can be purchased in order to bring a system’s net energy to zero. Of course, this brings us back to our persistent discussion of scale. Where do we feel comfortable with or entitled to draw boxes around specific moving parts and call them an isolated system?

    The example I brought to class and one I believe to have a lot of potential for future development is that of The Plant on the near South Side of Chicago. The Plant claims to have closed its waste and energy loops through recycling, composting, and digesting, all while producing vegetables, tilapia, beer, and kombucha as products for sale. Perhaps more importantly, it has brought jobs and tourist traffic to an otherwise underdeveloped part of the city. To learn more about their operation and how they have closed their waste and energy loops, check out their website!

  8. I brought two contributions to the zero waste/net zero energy “grab bag” discussion:

    1) Zero Cottage, a net-zero energy San Francisco residence designed by architect David Baker,
    As of February 2014, Zero Cottage generates 30% more energy than it uses. It is LEED for Homes Platinum certified and is the first Passive House certified residence in San Francisco. The project is also on track to achieve Net-Zero Energy certification through the Living Building Challenge, after the first year of energy performance can be monitored.
    This example interests me because it highlights the various “indicators” being developed around zero waste/zero energy systems and structures. Additionally, the “justainability” theme of our class underlies this project, though in a perhaps paradoxical way. David Baker focuses on affordable architecture, but Zero Cottage is not an example of affordable architecture; instead, it’s in the architect’s own backyard. This paradox can be interpreted in two ways: first, as a regressive paradox that pulls ever sustainability farther out of reach for the non-elite; or second, as a critical first step toward creating affordable zero-energy/zero waste systems that is couched in exclusivity only for the added flexibility (money, in particular).

    2) GAIA’s (the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance) report on zero-waste best practices from around the world
    This set of zero waste case studies profiles nine diverse communities, each providing a real-world example of authentic progress toward the goal of zero waste:
    Pune, India: Waste Pickers Lead the Way to Zero Waste;
    San Francisco, USA: Creating a Culture of Zero Waste;
    Alaminos, Philippines: Zero Waste, from Dream to reality;
    Hernani, Spain: Door-to-Door Collection as a Strategy to reduce Waste Disposal;
    La Pintana, Chile: Prioritizing the recovery of Vegetable Waste;
    Mumbai, India: Waste Picker-run Biogas Plants as a Decentralized Solution;
    Flanders, Belgium: Europe’s Best recycling and Prevention Program;
    Taiwan: Community Action Leads Government toward Zero Waste;
    Buenos Aires City, Argentina: Including Grassroots recyclers.

    In response to your question about creating a national strategy for moving toward zero waste/net zero energy: I believe the development of a national *framework* to guide state, regional, and municipal-level strategies for moving toward net zero waste/energy/etc. would be a huge step in the right direction. This said, a consolidated national *strategy* seems much less useful, given the hugely varied identities of states, cities, and regions across the United States. Crafting a national-level strategy that adequately addresses the entire range seems (to me) either an impossible exercise or one that would take an inconceivably enormous amount of time and resources to complete, whereas the development of a framework that delegates to and guides smaller-scale governments in their efforts would likely be a very useful (yet resource-minimizing) way forward.

  9. Thanks for a comprehensive summary.
    I really enjoyed the discussion and learned allot. The interesting take-away from the discussion is that:

    — The “waste” problem is occurring in all nations the developing world as well as the advanced world

    — It is obvious that, in the developed world, it is not at all an awareness problem; it seems the problem is well articulated and deeply researched. It is more a consumer behavior. However, the thoughts to produce “stuff” in a way the makes it recyclable is certainly a step forward and it shows that we are somehow on the right track.

    — The experiment in Nigeria shows that some pilot projects on grass-root level can be very successful, and maybe the challenge is to scale it up or generalize it (and this is the responsibility of the governments to either adopt it or provide the political environment in which allow the initiative to be replicated)

    — The effectiveness of such projects will keep more related to small scale and local initiatives unless we adopt a fundamental change in our economical system that: (i) reduce the consumption level and (ii) transform our consuming goods to be more able to be recycled and re used.

    — The overall discussion also shows how interlinked this problem with several external factors, such as central government economic policies and also the system of value of the end user.

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