“Zero waste is a goal that is both pragmatic and visionary, to guide people to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are resources for others to use. Zero waste means designing and managing products and processes to reduce the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing zero waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water, or air that may be a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.”

Definition of zero waste as adopted by the Zero Waste International Alliance

What is zero waste about?


  • Culture Change – Current European linear production, consumption and disposal patterns reflect the myth that we live in a world with infinite resources. Over the last few decades Europeans have increasingly been living on an ecological deficit with the rest of the world, importing almost 4 times more materials than we have exported. As the European Sustainable Development Strategy points out, a change in paradigm is necessary. But this change of paradigm has to go beyond the current goal of EU waste policy of becoming a Recycling Society; it needs to embrace the reduction of material and energy use in order to turn it into a Zero Waste Society.


  • Engaging community – Community education and participation is indispensable for the success of any Zero Waste plan. Citizens should be invited to invent & adopt waste free practices and take active participation in the design of the resource management system towards waste reduction. Public education campaigns to encourage public participation should be undertaken, and they need to be well resourced and sustained over time.


  • Changing infrastructure – The production system and the waste management infrastructure in Europe must be designed to reflect the following priorities[1]:


1. Waste Prevention – should be implemented in local and sectoral plans. The Waste Framework Directive (WFD)  mandates Member States to define Waste Prevention Plans. Prevention targets prove to be necessary to trigger action at national level. Industrial responsibility is key in creating green jobs and designing waste out of the system – By designing long-lasting, easily maintainable and repairable products, by reducing packaging and redesigning those products that cannot be safely reused, recycled and composted. Lastly, by reusing parts and material coming from discarded products and material in line with a circular economy where every “waste” output of one process becomes an input for another such that the utility of the material is maximised. Education and training of professionals, policy makers and citizens is vital to shift the paradigm  and progressively phase out waste.


2. Separate Collection – To maintain materials’ utility, source separation of reusable products and components, various recyclable materials, food & garden waste, and residual waste should be required. Zero waste municipalities in Europe are showing that separate collection can achieve recycling rates of 80 to 90%. This leaves residual municipal waste of less than 100 kg per person. Kerbside collection is to be promoted  to prevent any increase in waste and obtain clean separation of materials at source. Price incentives should be implemented as a key driver for behavior change. Excessive generation of waste should be penalised. Kerbside collection should be supplemented with local reuse and recycling centres (“Civic Amenity Sites”, “Recyglinghoefe”, Déchetteries”, “Piattaforme ecologiche”…) that enable households and businesses to safely deliver and separate reusable items, recyclables as well as hazardous waste. Regarding potentially reusable items, the civic amenity sites should, where possible, partner with local reuse centres run by social enterprises,  where the primary aim of the organisation is the reintegration of disadvantaged groups back into the labour market.  The reuse sector has significant socio-economic value and employment potential.


3. Reduction of Residual waste – The small fraction of waste that is not reusable, recyclable, or compostable should be reduced as much as possible but kept very visible to continuously drive efforts towards phasing it out. Work should be done at the front-end to design it out of the system, notably through reinforced Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). Residual waste should be constantly studied in screening facilities so that kerbside schemes and reduction programmes be further implemented, and non-recoverable products can be redesigned or removed from the market.


Disposal infrastructure such as landfills or incinerators should no longer be built and be progressively phased out as prevention & recycling rates increase. Adaptability is vital in zero waste, therefore contracts and waste plans should not inhibit increased recycling by creating lock-in situations.


With due consideration for the lack of adaptability of incineration (whether conventional or non-conventional) new capacity for thermal treatment must be avoided, and existing sites should be progressively phased out.  A transitional solution for residual waste fraction while local schemes increase reuse, separate collection, recycling and composting, and decrease waste amounts is to allow only a small and ever-decreasing amount of stabilised residual waste to be safely landfilled.


In order to minimise reliance on landfills right away, the mass, volume (and impact) loss through biological stabilisation should be complemented by further material recovery from residual waste, which is proving practicable and increasingly effective where kerbside programmes have been started.    


Creating a low-carbon, resource efficient, resilient and socially inclusive economy that respects the diversity of ecosystems and increases social cohesion is one of the main challenges faced by the EU today. The zero waste strategy is an essential pre-condition of this endeavour, as among other things it:


  • Will provide thousands of extra jobs,
  • Help close the material loop
  • Reduce European dependency on imports,
  • Bring nutrients back to the soils,
  • Reduce the environmental impact associated with waste disposal,
  • Drive innovation in product design and
  • Last but not least, involve citizens in designing a better Europe.


Finally – and importantly – a circular economy has the potential to create many more jobs and enterprises to deal with the reuse and recycling of these finitely available material resources and is, almost of itself, a precondition for a sustainable habitat for humans on this planet.


Zero waste has an important impact on the management of energy flows in the economy. In the life cycle of most products the most energy intensive moments are in the extraction, production and use phase; hence from an energy point of view zero waste reduces emissions associated to extraction and production thanks to feeding-back most nutrients and resources back into the natural cycle –soils- or technical cycle -reuse and recycling-. The emissions associated to the use phase are reduced with better product design and ecoinnovation.


Therefore, zero waste offers big potential in energy savings and preservation of embodied energy. LCA studies have given evidence that the magnitude of saved energy through reuse or recycling largely outperforms the energy which may be obtained through incineration (be it conventional or non-conventional).


As far as energy generation is concerned zero waste supports systems that operate at biological temperature and pressure, such as anaerobic digestion to produce biogas followed by composting of digestate in order to maximise benefits of turning organic matter back to soils.



[1] For a complete description of the zero waste hierarchy read this.