Our lifestyle is unsustainable. The volume of waste we produce on a daily basis should make us aware of this. Therefore, taking actions that help minimise waste production should be one of our main challenges. From this idea, the Zero Waste movement was born, based on the rule of the five R’s: refuse, reuse, reduce, recycle and ‘rot’ (compost).
According to data from the United Nations, we produce around 11.2 billion tonnes of waste every year in the world. This high volume of waste makes its management increasingly complex and much of it has a negative impact on nature: from the pollution of water and soil to the emission of polluting gases from the disintegration of waste, which accounts for 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, a major cause of global warming.
Zero Waste refers to the principles of reusing products so that they do not return to nature as waste or rubbish. In this paradigm, the life cycle of objects is extended through recycling and requires the inclusion in their composition of as many biodegradable materials as possible that do not harm the planet. A very different model from most packaged or manufactured products made of plastic (which takes one to four centuries to degrade) and other pollutants.
The definition of the Zero Waste model
According to the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA), the goal is to achieve ‘the conservation of all resources through the responsible production, consumption, reuse and recovery of all products, packaging and materials, without burning them and without discharging them into the soil, water or air, so that they do not threaten the environment or human health’.
For ZWIA, it is up to producers and manufacturers to achieve this goal when deciding whether or not to follow these principles, but it is also up to each consumer to commit to the cause. Changing habits and priorities requires action from the whole of society, and institutions and governments have a key role to play in implementing zero waste regulations, as well as tax incentives and support for less polluting activities.
According to the US Conference of Mayors, “the concept of zero waste goes beyond recycling and composting at the end of a product’s life cycle. It encompasses the entire life cycle of the product, from its design to its use and management of materials in a way that preserves value, minimises environmental impact, and conserves natural resources’.
Five Rs, zero waste
The model is summed up in these concepts:
- Reject what you do not need.
- Reduce what you need.
- Reuse all types of materials, packaging and wrapping (with the recommendation to consume second-hand products).
- Recycle everything that cannot be discarded or reduced.
- ‘Rot‘, a word that defines the action of decomposing or composting organic matter to obtain a natural fertiliser.
The problem is that, despite these initiatives, waste is increasing at an alarming rate. According to the World Bank, cities alone generate 2.01 billion tonnes of solid waste (0.74 kg per person per day). Unless a global zero-waste policy is promoted, this figure could reach 3.4 billion tonnes by 2050.
Zero Waste Italy and the ten steps towards zero waste
ZERO WASTE ITALY and Zero Waste Network are the two associations that promote the zero-waste lifestyle in Italy. The former is mainly involved in developing projects for the implementation of the 10 steps towards zero waste, defined by the ZWIA International Charter of Naples:
- Separation at source
- Door-to-door collection
- Waste reduction
- Reuse and repair
- Punctual pricing
- Waste recovery
- Research and redesign centre
- Zero waste
What measures have been taken?
For example, charging for plastic bags in shops and supermarkets to reduce their use, as they are among the items that pollute the oceans the most, along with cigarette butts, food wrappers and plastic bottles, according to the Ocean Conservancy. Reducing the use of single-use plastic products is at the heart of the SUP directive, with which Europe aims to become a leader in the fight against marine litter and plastic pollution.
Zero waste and the Circular economy
Nature conservation associations call for improved product labelling so that consumers are aware of the environmental impact, including waste, of what they buy, and warn that materials advertised as biodegradable are not so.
Biodegradable plastics, made from organic products such as cassava, maize or wheat, have burst onto the scene, but the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has pointed out their side-effects, such as the difficulty of their degradation at sea or the increase in cultivated area required to meet demand.
The challenge would be different, not just the five R’s in consumption, but the paradigm shift towards the circular economy: “the model of production and consumption whereby existing materials and products are shared, rented, reused, repaired, renewed and recycled as often as possible to create added value and extend the life cycle of products”, as defined by the European Commission.