Zero waste means reducing what we trash in landfills and incinerators to zero.
Most things can and should be safely and economically recycled, reused or composted. We also need to simply use less and redesign our products so that they are toxic-free and built to last. Cities around the world, including Buenos Aires, Canberra, Kovalam and San Francisco, have already passed zero waste resolutions and have innovative plans to reduce their waste disposal levels to zero. The leadership in these cities realizes that waste is a sign of an inefficient system. They are modeling efficiency and sustainability by creating well-paying green-collar jobs in the reuse and recycling industries, reducing consumption, and requiring that products be made in ways that are safe for people and the planet. These cities are proving that our air, soil and water do not have to be polluted, and that our natural resources don’t have to be trashed.
Zero waste programs include all of the following strategies:
- Reducing consumption and discards
- Reusing discards
- Extended producer responsibility
- Comprehensive recycling
- Comprehensive composting or bio-digestion of organic materials
- Citizen participation
- A ban on waste incineration
- Effective policies, regulations, incentives, and financing structures to support these systems.
Adopting a zero waste approach to resource management is critical to the future of our planet.
Incineration vs. Zero Waste:
– Covanta incinerator, Crows Landing, Stanislaus County, CA
– Siemens, Colorado River Indian Tribes, Parker, Arizona
– Stericycle medical waste incinerator, North Salt Lake City, Utah
– Proposed garbage incinerator in Phoenix, Arizona
– Proposed plasma arc incinerators in New Orleans, Louisisana
– Proposed plasma arc incinerator in Gonzales, Salinas Valley, CA
– Proposed pyrolysis incinerator in Green Bay, Wisconsin
Facts You Should Know: Burning waste has many negative environmental, social and health consequences.
Traditional “mass burn” incinerators as well as the new generation of two-staged incinerators (what we call “incinerators in disguise” that use plasma arc, pyrolysis and gasification technologies) all emit a wide range of pollutants into the air and are a disincentive for recycling and other “zero waste” pollution prevention efforts.
Waste incinerators do all of the following:
Poison our environment, bodies, and food supply with toxic chemicals. Incinerators produce a variety of toxic discharges to the air, water and ground that are significant sources of a range of powerful pollutants, including dioxin and other chlorinated organic compounds that are well-known for their toxic impacts on human health and the environment. Many of these toxins enter the food supply and concentrate up through the food chain.
Produce toxic byproducts. In addition to air and water emissions, incinerators create toxic ash or slag that must then be landfilled. This ash contains heavy metals, dioxins, and other pollutants.
Undermine waste prevention and recycling. The use of incinerators feeds a system in which a constant flow of resources needs to be pulled out of the Earth, processed in factories, shipped around the world, and burned in our communities.
Contribute to global climate change. Incinerators emit significant quantities of direct greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, that contribute to global climate change. They are also large sources of indirect greenhouse gases, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, non-methane volatile organic compounds, and sulfur dioxide. In fact, incinerators emit more CO2 per megawatt-hour than any fossil fuel-based power source – including coal-fired power plants! But their greatest contribution to climate change is through undermining waste prevention and recycling programs, and encouraging increased resource extraction.
Waste energy and destroy vast quantities of resources. People selling “waste-to-energy” incinerators claim that generating energy by burning trash is a win-win solution to our waste and energy crises. The truth, however, is that incinerators actually waste energy. When burning materials that could be reused, recycled, or composted, incinerators destroy the energy-saving potential of putting those materials to better use. Recycling, for instance, saves 3 to 5 times the energy that waste incinerator power plants generate. Incinerators are also net energy losers when the embodied energy of the burned materials is taken into account. For these reasons, “waste-to-energy” plants would be more aptly named “waste-of-energy” plants.
Drain money from local economies to pay for expensive, imported technology, and provide far fewer jobs than zero waste programs. Incinerators are bad for local economies. As the most expensive waste handling option, they compete with recycling and composting for financing and materials, and they only sustain 1 job for every 10 at a recycling facility.
Hide the evidence of dirty and unsustainable industries. Incinerators allow dirty industries to get rid of their toxic waste and hide the impacts of their practices. These industries depend on incineration to fuel our continued use of this system of unsustainable production and consumption.
Violate the principles of environmental justice. Incinerators are disproportionately sited in poor and working class communities and areas of least political power.
Better alternatives to incinerating materials exist, and many communities where people are organized into strong grassroots movements have been able to defeat incinerators. Most things can and should be safely and economically recycled or reused, and we also need to simply use less and redesign our products so that they are toxic-free and built to last. This is the heart of a zero waste strategy that eliminates the negative environmental, social and health impacts of incinerator use.