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Debate Zero waste

The government is expected to recommend that after 2020 the UK should eliminate household waste to landfill.

This week we ask: Is zero waste a credible target?

Yes Warren Snow, Envision New Zealand

Zero waste is not attainable.

There will always be a loss, if only a minute fraction.

But we must aim for nothing less than zero to unleash the creative thinking needed to achieve results previously thought impossible. Business is already comfortable with impossible targets such as zero defects, accidents or emissions that drive quality and efficiency.

In spite of all our efforts, we are losing the battle against waste. We cannot solve the waste crisis with the same thinking that created the problem - thinking that accepts waste as inevitable and builds expensive landfill facilities to 'hide' it. Zero waste envisions a world where all materials are reintegrated back into the economy or harmlessly into nature. Its starts by designing waste out of the system and co-ordinating actions all the way down the supply chain for maximum materials efficiency. It challenges unsustainable patterns of production and consumption.

It is a whole system approach to a whole system crisis.

Any good idea can be analysed to the point where it won't work. Great achievements are brought about by visionaries and risk takers who defy the odds and those who say it cannot be done. According to our current understanding of aerodynamics, bumblebees are unable to fly. Relying on analysis alone, and without living proof otherwise, it would be logical to conclude that bumblebees never got off the ground. The same thinking also applies to knockers of the feasibility of a zero waste economy.

Zero waste is driven by realists who understand we cannot continue the way we are, that incremental change is too slow and that to get past vested interests and programmed thinking we need a breakthrough. Zero waste is a basket of technologies and behaviours that collectively compete with old disposal technologies - replacing 'waste management' which simply reinforces the status quo with 'waste elimination'.

Zero waste enables people to benefit through jobs, business opportunities and participation all from materials previously destined to landfills or incinerators, with long term environmental and community costs.

We need 'unachievable' targets that mobilise creativity for change. Zero Waste is the breakthrough for a society addicted to unsustainable material flows.

No Annette Dentith, senior waste management officer, Devon County Council

Ummmà Zero waste. Nice idea, shame about the practicalities, the costs, our throw away culture, our buoyant economy (more wealth, more waste), our NIMBY attitude to waste processing facilities, planning and licensing hurdles and our penchant for DIY and interior decoration.

What do we mean by zero waste? Minimising resource use and waste at source. Maximising recycling and composting. Producing no residual waste that requires disposal.

With domestic waste growing by 3% per annum and the recycling rate languishing at 11%, zero waste does not look like a very smart objective. Even the oft quoted European superpowers of recycling, Germany, Austria and Denmark, only have recycling rates of 50%-70% leaving residual waste for thermal treatment and landfill.

So can we persuade 60M people to return to the Good Life and will it result in zero waste?

Imagine this: You have used a reusable shopping bag; you have not chosen mange tout from Kenya because it has too much packaging on it; you have composted your kitchen waste; you have used your empty yoghurt pots to grow cress in; you have recycled everything possible and your baby is in reusable cotton nappies. Still there will be something in your dustbin and the recycling process itself produces a residual waste. Even if we include incineration in the equation there remains a residual waste.

Do not get me wrong. I am passionate about reducing waste and I try to lead the Good Life myself. But there are practical limits and a zero domestic waste utopia cannot be achieved without, at the very least, a cultural change, technological advances, sticks, carrots and an appropriate level of funding.

In the construction industry zero waste is more likely, but industry has the biggest carrot - reducing waste saves money.

Engineers, being ingenious by name and nature should lead the way in product design for waste minimisation and reverse that product to waste weight ratio of 1:10 to something nearer 10:1.

Choose the Good Life if you can and help local authorities meet government recycling targets. And if the 28Mt of domestic waste currently collected per annum does not fall dramatically, there is always variable charging for the weight of rubbish you throw out - pay as you throw.

The facts

The government's Policy & Innovation Unit's report on UK waste policy, due out soon, is expected to recommend a 40% recycling target for 2015, rising to 50% by 2020, with zero waste to landfill in the longer term. It will also back a consultation on allowing councils to charge households for the volume of waste thrown out, a £10/t increase in landfill tax in 2004, rising by £5/t per annum from 2005.

How the UK disposes of its waste: 80Mt to landfill, 36Mt recycled/recovered, 2Mt treated as hazardous waste, 80Mt to agriculture, 55Mt contained on site, in mine or quarry, 30Mt for reclaimed land, 41Mt other.

In a new analysis of UK waste production, waste firm Biffa reckons high recycling/landfill is the cheapest option. High recycling/high energy is expensive but the most commercially realistic option, as most materials have minimal or no reuse value.

High composting/high recycling is the most expensive.

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