Zero Waste

Zero Waste is a visionary goal that can energize people, communities and businesses to change their “lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.  Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.” (Zero Waste International Alliance definition)

Zero waste is about setting the bar high and continually working towards it. Just like no one would consider their work done on airline safety if 30% of planes crashed, zero waste is about continual improvement to get to zero. Some people say “zero waste or darn close” and those who decrease their waste by 90% are considered to have achieved zero waste.

Metro Vancouver could close landfills without building incinerators by simply achieving higher waste diversion rates. Their aspirational goal of 80% by 2020 is a good start but we should be shooting for at least 90% for 2025 or 2030. This would create more jobs, save money and be the best possible outcome for the environment. We could reach the 90% target simply by enforcing existing material bans and fully rolling out the existing extended producer responsibility rules.

This  zero waste hierarchy shows many of the steps that should be taken and points out some that should not.

The Role of Design

Some people will point out that not all wastes can be recycled. That is where design comes in. Design for the Environment is where a product’s impact on the environment is considered. This may create products with less packaging, that are easier to repair, that last longer, that use less harmful materials, that can easily be recycled or composted or that use less energy. For items that remain as waste after composting and recycling options are exhausted are great candidates for redesign.

One local example of a forward thinking company is Ethical Bean. Controversy ensued after they proposed a project to collect their coffee bags to burn them. That caused them to re-evaluate their decision and sponsor a recent design jam with the Vancouver Design Nerds. Harnessing the creative power of enthusiastic, sustainability-minded people with all different perspectives and backgrounds resulted in many different ideas that could be investigated further. Interestingly, many ideas for this jam and a simultaneous one on disposable coffee cups were related to designing systems to encourage behaviour change.

The Role of Producers

Extended Producer Responsibility (or EPR) is where the producer is held responsible for their products at end of life. Traditionally, producers just made the product and dealing with the waste at the end of the product’s life was the responsibility of the local government (or the buyer). Because the waste service was free for producers, they had no incentive to pay attention to their products’ impacts. This resulted in a lot of disposable and hard to recycle products. EPR corrects this imbalance by having producers take that responsibility. This means that the costs of collecting and recycling (or disposing of the remainder) of the products are borne by the producers (and then the purchasers of those products) instead of local governments and their taxpayers. It can eventually also give the producers an incentive to revisit the design of their products.


BC is a leader in EPR by having a Recycling Regulation framework that makes it easy to add new products.  Extended Producer Responsibility programs have already removed a lot of the toxic wastes (paint, pesticides, tires, computers, oil, pharmaceuticals, antifreeze, lead-acid batteries and solvents and flammable liquids) from our waste stream and a new program is coming for packaging and printed paper.  There are also programs for beverage containers and electronic products. See the Ministry of Environment website for the full list of existing and upcoming programs. The Ministry has a goal of two new programs every three years.

Furthermore, BC (along with the rest of Canada) has signed on to the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment Canada-wide Action Plan where they have committed to implementing EPR programs for hazardous wastes, electronics, packaging and  printed material by 2015 and then furniture, textiles and carpeting and construction and demolition materials by 2017. Ontario is going even further by proposing programs for small household items and vehicles as well.

One more step in closing the loop.

Looking ahead, not behind

Zero waste will also become more likely as the consequences of continued wastefulness become more apparent. Waste is just one symptom of our linear resource use system. Other symptoms include resource depletion, loss of habitat, loss of biodiversity, climate change, contamination of water, land and air and  depletion of soil health. As we run out of resources, they will start to become too valuable to waste. As the pollution starts to affect us more, it will become too costly to pollute either in health impacts or monetarily.

Basing our waste predictions on the past no longer makes sense as the conditions that allowed and even encouraged wasting are changing. Not only that, attitudes are now changing. A survey of Canadian CEOs showed “nearly three-quarters of Canadian CEOs (73%) support social and environmental sustainability regulations” among other things.  What we need is a provincial zero waste vision and then backcast to determine the steps to get there.

Imagine twenty years ago if smokers had been told they could not smoke on the beaches and in parks. Now the citizens are demanding it. We need that kind of change in thinking around waste and we have proven we can do it.

Inspiring groups who show it can be done

1. Individuals –  The Clean Bin project is where three BC residents competed to have the least total garbage for a full  year. They managed to have less than 10kg each by the end of the year (average per capita generation in Metro is over 600 kg) But who won? -check the Clean Bin website for more information.

2. Multi -Family - Quayside Village In North Vancouver has 19 units and NO dumpster. Through dedicated recycling and careful purchasing, they have reduced their waste by 93%.

3. Community – a group of neighbours in the Strathcona area of Vancouver took on the Zero Waste Challenge. In three weeks, they reduced the weekly waste from 23 people from 55 pounds to 16 pounds total each week, a 71% reduction. Another community, Glenbrook in New Westminster also took on the challenge. Cappanori, Italy has reduced its waste by over 80% so its waste composition is quite different -of the remainder, leather and textiles are the biggest component. Great strides have been made by communities offering organics collection and reducing the garbage pickup to every other week -results -35% decrease in Portland, Oregon in one year, 35% decrease in Surrey, BC and Port Coquitlam. Port Moody now diverts 73% of its waste, up from 40%. Calgary residents participating in a pilot decreased their waste by 40% which is similar to the City of Vancouver (see pg. 8 of link).

4. Retailer - Mountain Equipment Co-op works with their suppliers and staff to decrease their waste. The results have been fantastic with 92% materials reused or recycled. Whole Foods was the first Zero Waste certified business in the US.

5. Office towers -“The Hudson’s Bay Company has adopted a number of long-term goals including achieving zero waste at 20 percent of stores by 2012. The Hudson’s Bay Company Simpson’s Tower in Toronto was the first office tower in Canada to be certified by the Zero Waste International Alliance, achieving 96 per cent diversion from landfill. Two additional Hudson’s Bay Company office buildings and sixteen retail locations are also running under the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Zero Waste Program, diverting from landfill approximately 94 per cent of waste generated at these locations”. Source: Ontario Ministry of Environment From Waste to Worth: The Role of Waste Diversion in the Green Economy, 2009.

6. Industry – Many companies are working on reducing their waste, and often save money as a result. Epson Portland Inc. reached 90% diversion by 2000. Xerox – now boasts 87% recycling for non hazardous waste in US. A Taiwan manufacturing plant actually reached their goal of Zero Waste in 2005. More examples can be seen here.

These people and companies have been able to succeed in approaching or reaching zero waste even when the systems surrounding them were not designed to help them.  Don’t think system change can be done? -think of how many people still use horse and buggies for transport. Imagine what could be done if the systems were changed to foster zero waste:

  • If there were recycling and composting available for all families, not just those in single family homes or certain municipalities
  • If manufacturers were held responsible for all their products at end-of-life, and had incentives to design them for the environment
  • If communication programs were set up to assist neighbours in sharing information and working together to reduce waste
  • If all businesses and institutions were encouraged and supported in their efforts to recycle and compost the same way residents are
  • If all construction and demolition projects were required to recycle as much material as possible
  • If fees for waste disposal were set up to fund more waste reduction programs and provided incentives to consider waste in purchase decisions

Some governments have been working on this.  While many cities on other continents have made big reductions in their waste (OptikiNovaraCanberra), in North America we have good example in San Francisco, which has diverted 80% of its waste. Closer to home, the Regional District of Nanaimo, which has been actively pursuing zero waste for a while, has reached over 70% diversion as well. And of course, Nova Scotia is a success story with a provincial rate of 68%. Recently Palo Alto noted a 44% decrease in garbage tonnage between 2007 and 2009. How did they do it -the first step was committing to a bold goal and then getting down to work. They set up composting systems, created incentives to decrease waste and spent a lot of time communicating with their residents and businesses.

Note: Each time these examples are brought up, Metro Vancouver staff say that the community in question is not the same as Metro Vancouver, yet they are comfortable using comparisons with European cities, which are even less comparable. The point is not that each region is the same, the point is that they are making huge strides in waste prevention and a responsible local government would want to find out how.

When you start to look around, you can find people making a difference in many ways, from the woman in Smithers who started making her own yogurt because she couldn’t bear to throw away the store-bought containers, to the man in Richmond who reduced his waste by 89% after discussions with one of our zero waste advocates to the family on the North Shore who cut back their waste to 2.5 kg total for two months.  Richmond councillor Harold Steves reduced his family’s waste by 79.9% when they started trying to reduce waste. It is time to support these champions.

Thank you Zero Waste early adopters for your leadership!

Zero Waste -organizations

Recycling Council of BC -see their Zero Waste page for more information

Zero Waste Vancouver

Global Anti-Incineration Alliance

Zero Waste International Alliance

Zero Waste Canada

Zero Waste Europe

Not alone -other groups

There are many dedicated citizen’s groups around the world advocating for better waste solutions. Here are just a few:

Durham, Ontario

Detroit -trying to shut down their existing incinerator and provide clean air, jobs and justice


United Kingdom

Brussels, Belgium

Social justice groups

Sierra Club

Green Jobs

Recycling and composting can generate up to ten times the number of jobs that burning or burying the waste can and these are not short-term jobs like the ones involved in construction of waste facilities but long-term local jobs that are harder to outsource overseas. The Vancouver and District Labour Council resolved May 18, 2010 to support the City of Vancouver’s proposed changes to the Solid Waste Plan -among them one to remove the combustion proposals. They are not alone – they join Labour Councils in Durham and Windsor as well as the Canadian Labour Congress who adopted a resolution opposing the principle of waste incineration. This new report for the Climate Justice project notes that up to 7000 new jobs could be created through aggressively expanding the recycling systems.