Zero Waste Working Group

Picture of plastic recycling facility.

We live in a disposable society, one in which we don’t value the importance of materials and resources.  We buy products with a limited understanding of where these come from, or where they’ll go after use.   

Our current production system is one-directional – from the earth to disposal (“take-make-use-waste”).   Only a third of our waste is recycled or composted while the vast majority is sent to landfills, incinerators, or leaked to the natural environment.  

Many of our natural resources (e.g., ecosystems, fossil fuels and minerals) are being stretched to their limits:  

  • The amount of material the world uses:
    • Tripled since 1970 
    • Could double again by 2060, if we continue business as usual
  • Natural resources used to satisfy a person’s need:  
    • 1990 – 8.1 tons of resources were extracted per person 
    • 2015 – almost 12 tons of resources were extracted

(Sources:  UN Environment Program and World Bank)

On average, Americans have discarded more materials over time, and total solid waste generated per capita in the U.S. has grown accordingly:

  • In 2018, the total generation of municipal solid waste in the U.S. reached a high of 292 million tons, which equated to 4.9 pounds of waste per person per day

(Source:  US EPA)

The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated our growing waste crisis, with the increase in use of single-use materials.  Recycling alone is not enough to address the problem.  It’s clear that we need new ideas and innovations aimed at preventing, rather than managing waste after the fact.  

About Zero Waste

Zero Waste is a smarter framework for evaluating the way we view and use resources.  It shifts focus away from recycling, allowing us to look at ways to minimize waste production and increase efficiency across the entire lifecycle of products.  Zero waste includes redesigning the current, linear production system into closed-loop or “circular” systems, where resources are kept in use for as long as possible.   It also works to change the mindset from wasting materials to managing resources as an “asset” that can benefit the local economy and support more resilient communities.   

Zero waste is a journey, not a destination.  It follows a progression of resource management strategies that are designed to help people, businesses and institutions make smarter choices:

(Source:  Zero Waste International Alliance)

Recycling and composting are not at the top of the hierarchy; rather, these diversion strategies are ranked below strategies that prevent waste from being created in the first place. 

The peer-reviewed and internationally-recognized definition of zero waste is:  

“The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production,consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials withoutburning, and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment orhuman health.”

(Source:  Zero Waste International Alliance)

Zero waste means trying to send as little waste as possible to landfills or incinerators but does not require getting to absolute zero.  The Zero Waste International Alliance defines zero waste as 90% diversion from landfills and incinerators.

Zero waste does not include incineration or current waste-to-energy systems like combustion, pyrolysis, gasification, or plasma arc.  When you burn something to make energy, it can’t be used again, and that is the ultimate act of wasting.  Waste-to-energy technologies have adverse environmental impacts and impede the transition to a circular economy by justifying continued production of discards.   

The zero waste approach can deliver a wide variety of environmental, economic and social benefits, such as: 

  • Cutting local pollution produced by landfills and incinerators
  • Reducing debris in fragile ecosystems like oceans
  • Conserving natural resources and reducing pollution from extraction and processing of raw materials
  • Driving innovation and creating jobs in rental, repair, reuse and recycling businesses
  • Saving local governments money that can be reinvested into the community
  • Creating positive projects that build social cohesion at the local level

Zero waste can be a key component of a climate action plan to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.  The U.S. EPA has estimated that roughly 42% of all greenhouse gas emissions are associated with the manufacturing, use and disposal of materials and products.  Reducing, reusing and recycling will conserve that energy and dramatically reduce our carbon emissions.

Mission

The mission of the Zero Waste Working Group is to foster ideas and policies that prevent waste, conserve resources and maximize the recovery of valuable materials in the community.   

These include actions that drive the redesign of products and delivery systems; and increase access to reuse, repair, recycling and composting.    

Current projects

Repair Café Initiative
Initiate a free meeting space in Tucson where people can learn how to repair broken items, such as clothes, furniture, electrical appliances and toys

Reusable Containers Survey
Create and distribute a survey to assess the views of local restaurants on the use of reusable containers for take-out meals

Zero Waste Community Planning/Los Reales Sustainability Campus 
Advocate for local programs that phase out waste – not by burning or landfilling it – but by creating systems that reduce the generation and disposal of waste.

Working Group Members

  • Kevin Greene (Chair). You can contact Kevin at kevin@sustainabletucson.org.

  • Paula Schlusberg
  • Rocky Baier 
  • Barb Reuter
  • Stephen Menke
  • Donna Corbin
  • Nicole Collins
  • Isa Cecilia Baron
  • Taylor Moore

Resources

The following is a list of resources to help institutions, businesses and community members identify and implement zero waste strategies at the local level: