is zero waste heading in the wrong direction?

Lately I have been pondering on the term ‘zero waste’ – it’s a neat coin of phrase, a buzzword if you like. It is mainly seen in a positive light, but part of me feels it is also quite deceitful. It reinforces entrenched attitudes, buried deep in our psyche, that waste is something to be shameful of, and eliminated.

And therein lies the rub. Because actually waste is a resource. By adding value to it and transforming it into a useful engine for economic growth and prosperity, whether that’s as renewable energy or secondary materials, it becomes less of a problem – and actually quite sought after.

I remember there was quite a degree of confusion when the term first got aired within the environmental sector. Defra ministers had to clarify that it actually meant ‘zero waste to landfill’ rather than no waste at all. I doubt this lateral thinking has yet filtered down to your average person on the street.

I’m now of the opinion it is quite a lazy term, and does the evolutionary journey of resource management no favours. When a company or organisation boasts of its zero waste status, well, you have to pry a little deeper.

It could well mean they are patting themselves on the back for bypassing the hierarchy and shovelling all of their waste arisings into an incinerator. If that is the case, most of Europe – which hasn’t had the luxury of reliance on landfill – has been zero waste for years.

A more intelligent approach would be to count up, rather than down. If there is waste to deal with, lets not ‘zero’ it but instead embrace the carbon potential and turn it into something bigger, something better. We need to be proud of our waste if we are to attempt to soothe that squirming that instinctively kicks in when we think of the word.

Perhaps it’s a question of language. Here we could learn from Japan. They have not one, but three words for waste – muda, mura, and muri – and they all mean slightly different things. With such subtlety comes deeper reflection and a greater understanding of what we are dealing with.

The one most aligned with our perceptions of waste here in the UK is muda (無駄) as it describes an activity that is wasteful and doesn’t add value, or is unproductive. Think about it, it makes sense doesn’t it? Surely it is muda that our society needs to address, not zero waste.  

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