Zero waste: why just be less bad?

Has zero waste become something of a lazy opt out clause for companies? Andrew Gadd considers the deeper implications of this buzzword for sustainability

The term ‘zero waste’ seems to be the badge to aspire to in the business world today, and companies are justifiably proud when they achieve it.

Blue chips in particular are very enthusiastic about it, with some assuring us that there is “no Plan B” as they seek to reinforce the message through the supply chain. But is zero waste the sustainable Shangri-La that industry and the public believe it to be?

Well for a start, zero waste is unlikely to mean that a company produces zero waste, of course – there will always be waste, by-products and offcuts even if this is just from the office bins. The small print is that it is an assurance that no waste goes to landfill.

Leaving aside the troublesome semantics about whether that simply means no waste goes directly to landfill, it implies that the company has signed a deal with a waste processor who will convert residual waste into refuse-derived (RDF) fuel, or alternatively with a waste-to-energy facility where the residual waste is combusted.

RDF is a dry, energy-rich material which is used as an alternative fuel in some cement kilns, or in waste-to-energy facilities in Europe. For a waste-generating company which happens to be sited within viable reach of an RDF-producing facility, then it is technically straightforward to achieve the zero waste badge – they simply sign a deal with said processor, and the waste is taken care of via skips and bins.

If, on the other hand, the waste producer does not have the good fortune to be near a producer of RDF, or a mass-burn waste-to-energy facility, then it is more difficult to get a zero waste certificate. For such companies, reducing waste requires the meticulous consideration of each waste stream, exploring opportunities with specialist recyclers or innovators, analysing the production processes with the intent of minimising the waste produced in the first place.

All the time, the goal should be to reduce the amount of waste being produced, and then erode the increasingly-expensive volumes that are going to landfill. Set against this context, the achievement of a zero waste badge carries the inherent risk that this beneficial process of consideration, exploration and innovation is parked. If a company’s plan A is to get a zero waste badge, then once it is achieved, there is a risk there is no plan B.

Irrespective of any zero waste certification, the process of reduction should still occur, alongside the drive to get wastes out of the residual skip, regardless of whether it is heading for landfill or energy. Waste-to-energy is a useful component of an overall waste management strategy, but it runs the risk of being a ravenous beast that consumes finite and critical resources.

In 2012, almost one million tonnes of UK waste was exported to Europe for energy recovery, an increase of over 300% compared to the previous year. Zero waste is a helpful means to an end, but it ought not be the end in itself.

Andrew Gadd is business development manager at Re:Sourcing UK

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