Zero Waste and Zero Energy Systems

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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. 

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