What does "Zero Waste" really mean?

On its face, "zero waste" sounds like a pretty simple concept… make zero waste. 


However, it's not quite as simple as that; for as long as homo sapiens have been around, we've been leaving waste behind (pottery, tools, other fun archeological stuff). And, in the modern world, we've taken that propensity for making things to the nth degree, producing an astronomical number of goods, and with it, an unfathomable quantity of waste — not to mention while using
way more resources than our Earth is capable of supplying.
 

So — unless as a global population we're going to give up products of all kinds — what zero waste really means is reimagining our existing linear economy (harvest/mine raw materials, make thing, sell thing, use thing, put thing in trash) into a circular economy in which all the resources in a product's life cycle are reused instead of heading to landfills, incinerators, or the ocean. In other words, we need to be striving for all product lifecycles to mimic nature. There’s no waste in nature: It’s the “circle of life,” “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” All waste nurtures something else. 

Axiology zero waste, circular economy vs linear economy

 

Circular Economies in Nature

Let’s take composting, for example. Composting is just taking nature’s natural process of reusing resources and speeding up the process and/or making it work for more bulk than nature intended. After all, fallen leaves, deceased creatures — nearly everything — in nature becomes food for some other species or system at the end of life.

What is Zero Waste? Composting as an example in nature of a circular economy.

Or, a more fun example: Every drop of water you drink was, at some point, dinosaur pee. How? Well, dinosaurs were around for 186 million years and water molecules are finite, which means that almost every molecule we drink was also drunk by a dinosaur. That’s a bit too long of a reuse scenario for the purposes of designing a circular economy, but you get it.

... and in Manufacturing

These circular systems we see in nature are also possible with manufacturing. For example, tech innovators Gerrard Street sell headphone subscriptions. Just like phones and computers, the newest headphones (ahem, AirPods) use precious, rare resources that have to be mined from the earth. Despite this, when our headphones stop working, most of us just throw them away. To correct for the many ills of this situation (see that scathing AirPods article, above), Gerrard Street is essentially loaning out headphones so that when a user is done with a pair, Gerrard Street can reuse and repurpose those precious materials and keep them out of the landfill. The consumer gets what they want (the newest technology), the company gets what it wants (loyal customers and cheap materials), and the earth has to provide the resources for those items only once. Pretty neat. 

Hence, Zero Waste Balmies! 

Hand made zero waste boxes by women in Bali — 100 percent recycled paper, 100 percent recyclable and compostable


It's with this definition and thought for circular economies in mind that we refer to our
Balmies as zero waste. Yes, yes, when the Balmie is all finished you still have a paper wrapper and box left over (which could, in a larger sense be referred to as "waste"), but you've got to think of the whole lifecycle of those "leftovers." They're made with only a single piece of machinery and reused water from 100% recycled paper — no virgin materials and low supplementing resources. And when you're done with them, they're 100% recyclable, or, better yet, compostable. There is no reason for them to end up in the landfill. Thus: Zero waste. 

Zero waste balmies with recycled paper wrap


Still, like all buzzwords (or terms we use to oversimplify complex topics), "zero waste" isn't a perfect phrase or a perfect movement, but it's a crucial step in the right direction to correcting the health and future of our planet and its inhabitants.