The true meaning of “zero waste”

A distorted message about the meaning of “zero waste” is being conveyed through the mass media in Italy.

This practice is being presented as a completion of the cycle of waste management, in which consumers are required to participate actively. According to the distorted information, on the citizens it should lie the burden to push the separated collection to the maximum for the economic benefit of those involved in the business of waste. The separated collection is being presented as a virtuous behavior, as an act of care for the environment and of great public spirit. It seems that anyone with sensitivity to pollution prevention must necessarily adhere to this system.

The reality is another.

It is the very concept of waste management that should be overcome.

Consumers have the right not to buy waste anymore, but only products. This means zero waste: producing no more waste, but only products or services. It means shifting the responsibility and the burden from consumers to producers.

When we buy a commodity or a service, we should demand that it has not been designed according to the dictates of planned obsolescence, and that its return upstream of the production cycle has already been organized at the expenses of its manufacturer. In use, it should not produce waste and, after use, it should not be a waste.

The production cycle of goods and services should be organized in continuous and nonlinear cycles.

A linear production cycle, which today is the most widespread or perhaps almost the only one, starting from the exploitation of resources, raw materials and energy, delivers to the consumer a product that, after use, must be disposed of by entering it in the integrated cycle of waste. In this way, resources, raw materials and energy are depleted, the environment, the society and the distributed economic prosperity are impoverished, companies that manage waste are enriched, waste increases anyway, even with the most developed separated collection.

A continuous production cycle follows instead what already happens in nature, where the biodegradable waste of the plants, such as dried leaves, is transformed by microorganisms into new raw material for the growth of the plants, like humus. The production of compost is inspired precisely to these spontaneous processes. Even with non-biodegradable waste (metal, plastic, electronic, etc.), it is possible to produce new raw materials for new productions. After use, a consumer good should not be disposed of, but returned to its manufacturer, who should have already planned its reinsertion upstream in its production chain.

Other mechanisms to not produce waste anymore consist in increasing the supply of services, replacing the sale of goods, for example, increasing rentals, expert advice and shares. The used, still working and in good condition, products to be divested may be donated to non-profit associations or to non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

It should also be prolonged the life itself of the sold products and services, and it should be enhanced the services offered by manufacturers for repair, maintenance, tune-up and for the necessary technological upgrades. Products, flexible in use and of lasting quality, should  arrive to the consumer.

This planning should be made solely by the producers of goods and services, should be included in the design of the product itself and should involve the entire supply chain. There are some companies, which are already organized in this way. As examples of virtuous producers, we can refer to firms like Herman Miller® or Steelcase®.

Consumers should demand that they could buy only products and no more waste.

The increase of the separated collection of waste is certainly a very good solution in the transient, short and medium term, but in the long-term the goal must be another, enduring and decisive.

Zero waste, does not mean engaging consumers in the burdens of the integrated waste cycle, means just not to produce it anymore, shifting all the responsibility on producers of goods and services.

Paola Morgese, PMP
Civil Hydraulic Engineer
M.S. Sanitary and Environmental Engineering

Paola Morgese, Handbook for Sustainable Projects – Global Sustainability and Project Management, CreateSpace, USA, 2014

Translation of the article: Paola Morgese “Il vero significato di rifiuti zero” published in the blog of



Author: progettisostenibili Paola Morgese

Ingegnere, project manager, autrice. Convogliatrice di sostenibilità nelle aziende e nella vita. Engineer, project manager, author. Conveyer of sustainability in business and life

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s