Zero-waste is not a cliché: reducing waste and reusing items as much as possible is always the most environmentally-friendly choice.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2018, Americans produced about 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) -that's 4.9 pounds of waste per person per day!
Such figures prove there is no such thing as throwing away. Litter always ends up somewhere. In America, half the trash generated (146.1 million tons) in 2018 hit the landfill. Only 24% was recycled -and 25 million tons (9%) were composted. Though waste management practices provide a fantastic opportunity to tackle pollution and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, they are not harmless.
Why zero-waste is a top priority
The EPA remarks that the focus should be on waste prevention and works with a model that considers hierarchies as to what practices are preferred from a sustainability standpoint. It consists of an inverted triangle, a funnel that depicts the steps from Source reduction to Disposal.
Waste Reduction above all
Reducing the amount of waste and reusing items as much as possible is considered the most preferred option in terms of environmental impact.
How can we reduce waste?
The zero-waste approach is multifaceted and will depend on the type of products involved:
- Manufacturers and designers can reduce packaging, make it lightweight and reusable, and avoid hazardous materials. Neutrall, for example, has consciously designed an eco-pack with Green Cellfoam starch inserts that can be dissolved in water or composted.
- Consumers can reduce litter by purchasing only what is strictly necessary. Other options include buying in bulk to avoid excessive packaging, opting for sustainable brands that incorporate the features above, and reuse or donate items instead of disposing of them. Nowadays, we rely on dozens of online thrifting stores and charity shops to help build a circular economy.
By reducing waste at the source, we will not only preserve our natural resources and reduce pollution and the toxicity of our waste. The outcome will also be considerable cost savings, both for businesses and consumers.
Recycling and Composting
Once waste enters the stream, composting and safe recycling can reduce its environmental impact. Both practices save energy and cut down greenhouse emissions. Recycling also creates jobs while conserving natural resources.
Here, once again, consumers make the difference only if they buy products made from recycled content. Composting is pretty similar to recycling, using food scraps, yard trimming, or other organic materials which, once decomposed, nurture the soil.
In the waste management hierarchy scale, the third option is Energy recovery. This process, often called waste-to-energy, converts non-recyclable waste materials into usable heat, electricity, or fuel. In 2018, 34.6 million tons (12%) of MSW were combusted with energy recovery.
Why aren't we increasing MSW combustion rather than Landfilling? The truth is building a combustion facility is costly, and America has a large amount of land at its disposal, unlike other countries that do have space constraints. On the other side, some of these facilities lack emission-control equipment and trucks that handle waste increase traffic in the surroundings. So, in common understanding, even though energy recovery may offset fossil fuel energy, combustion facilities are considered highly polluting. Also, about 10% of its waste volume ends up in the landfill as ash.
Disposal is the less environmentally friendly waste management practice. Before Disposal, waste can undergo different treatments to reduce its volume and toxicity, such as compaction or shredding.
The most common form of waste disposal is landfill. Actual landfills abysmally differ from the open dumps of the past. They must meet specific requirements to remain open and be monitored to comply with federal and state criteria. Yet, decomposing waste emits methane. This greenhouse gas can only be partially reduced through the Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP), which encourages the conversion of methane into biogas.
What other habits can we put in place to reduce waste?
Swapping to zero-waste habits is not an impossible mission!
Upcycling is a fantastic way to reuse and repurpose items, preventing them from hitting the landfill. Neutrall aims to reduce waste glass containers by collecting them and transforming them into elegant and durable glassware. Sorting recyclables at home is another way to contribute to building a circular economy.