Zero landfill is not zero waste

- By:

Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

THE Zero Waste movement is more than just a vision. It is a movement that is actually changing the world. To prove it, I recommend visiting and in the search box type “zero waste.” You will be amazed, as I was, at the tsunami of business activities over the last couple of years related to the idea of totally eliminating waste from our manufacturing, distribution and collection systems. However, a new problem is now emerging, and that is the idea that landfills are the sole villain here when in fact burning mixed waste is just as bad or worse.

Not using the landfill has got to be good news, right? Yes and no. The good news is that managing our discards as a resource is finally getting attention at the highest levels in the business sector from executives who can impact a large volume of materials. The business leader’s green impact comes from minimizing material purchase/consumption, product design and decisions about discard management systems.

The bad news is that some CEOs are learning that “zero waste to landfills” is Zero Waste, and it isn’t. The problem with having a singular focus on the landfill implies that making energy from waste by burning it is acceptable. Waste-to-Energy (WTE) is a disposal technology that destroys resources forever; it makes things “go away,” and doesn’t reduce waste or protect natural resources.

There are legitimate businesses making great strides toward Zero Waste, like Subaru with their 97 percent diversion. But companies that tout “Zero-Waste-to-landfill” and then burn half of their discards are greenwashing.


The pioneers of the Zero Waste movement in the U.S. — and I count myself as one of them —were very clear in the mid-90s that zero waste to landfill was not the same thing as Zero Waste. Zero Waste is about making the best choice with our natural resources — from extraction to production to consumption to disposal. It involves a constant evaluation about our materials’ choices and a strong commitment to eliminating waste, not just treating it.

We were, and continue to be, very clear on our view that the current WTE technologies in the marketplace are actually a waste of energy, money and natural resources. For all the fancy talk about “conversion technologies” (including plasma, gasification and pyrolysis), the workhorse of the industry remains mass burn systems that make some of the dirtiest, most expensive electricity on the planet. WTE makes no sense environmentally, economically or socially: it has the most greenhouse gases (GHG) per fuel type, its emissions contain dangerous air pollutants, it’s the most expensive form of electricity, and it fails to create a fraction of the jobs created by recycling and composting. And WTE produces only a fraction of the energy that can be saved through recycling. Table 1 (U.S. Energy Information Agency) and Figure 1 (USEPA) support that harsh assessment.

Not all companies have fallen prey to the zero waste to landfill message. Some businesses are embracing true Zero Waste as a guiding principle and doing great work. For example, Xerox has been redesigning products for years to reduce the number of parts so models can be more interchangeable. BMW has reduced the number of different types of plastics it uses so more of the car can be recycled more quickly. And’s frustration-free packaging program moves manufacturers from plastic clamshells and wire ties over to recyclable cardboard, saving resources and fostering better customer satisfaction.

Today the challenge we have in creating Zero Waste Communities is that it takes time — but not a lot of time, mind you. Fresno, California jumped from 29 percent to 71 percent in just six years, and many businesses are hitting 90 percent recovery targets well ahead of schedule. Eco-Cycle believes communities can transition to Zero Waste within 10 years, and has created a generic 10-year “bridge strategy” to do so. Our plan proposes definitive programs, policies and infrastructure. A ten-year timeline broken into three phases to implement them all is a reasonable average. In years 1 to 4, a community achieves 50 percent; in years 5 to 8, it achieves 70 percent. Years 9 and 10 are the final challenging push to 90 percent. The journey begins with voluntary participation and ends with mandatory source separation in every home, business and institution.

But even after we get to a 90 percent recovery rate, we may still have about 10 percent of nonrecyclable, noncompostable and nonreusable discards that will need to be treated. That’s when we can talk about “Zero Waste and Bio-Energy.” The cleanest and safest way forward on dealing with this “residue” is to follow the three-step German approach: sort out any remaining recyclables, “biostabilize” the residue in an anaerobic digester to capture the biogas and use it for energy, and landfill the remaining inert material in a dry tomb landfill. Even better would be to follow the Italian lead and sort out all the nonrecyclable items in the residue, identify who made and marketed them, and then pressure these companies to redesign for Zero Waste.

But what we need now is to draw a line in the sand between a true commitment to Zero Waste and those that might want to stop at just zero-waste-to-landfill. I applaud groups like the Green Manufacturers Network for creating a workshop about waste and companies like Subaru legitimately looking at how to better use and recover our limited natural resources. They are recognizing a planet in crisis and making smart business decisions to succeed in a world of declining resources and growing populations. But it is important that the message go out loud and clear that zero waste to landfill is NOT Zero Waste. The true goal of Zero Waste is not just zero waste to landfill or zero waste to energy, but redesigning our entire cycle of resource extraction, consumption and discard management so no resources are wasted at any point along the way.

Customer comments

  1. By Douglas Shackelford on

    Eric's views are clear in his passionate tirade against anything that isn't a "star wars" technology. It is important to remember that a vision, passionate or not, doesn't equate to an implementable reality. The conversion that Eric proposes is based on data and results from what amount to prototype and beta scale operations. Reducing the amount of waste generated is certainly a laudable goal. Reducing it to zero requires the kind of commitment to recycling that one would only find on a NASA space mission. Most of the commercial operations that attain anything approaching zero waste do so by shifting what would be their waste to, their suppliers and then demanding that the suppliers do the same. In such cases the costs go up. the three primary strategies of waste reduction, conservation, reuse, and recycling, generally, each step is more complex and leads to higher operating costs. The choice of technology must be based on the commercial realities of the operation and the local conditions. Commercial operations must be based on reliable, proven technologies. It should also be noted that WTE facilities, based on MSW as their fuel provide a significant reduction in ALL regulated emissions from CO2 to SO2, to NOX, and more. When we get to the place that their is no waste to be landfilled, then the elimination of WTE-MSW plants makes sense, We should be planning for that in about 25 to 50 years, or so.

  2. By Renee Gratton on

    I mostly agree with Douglas. I only say 'mostly' because I need to add that in order to reach even hope for Zero Waste to landfill, there must be true leadership, and a much different form of education as our current mainstream (western) approach to education has in fact been widely identified as inflaming our unsustainable pathologies. And a transformed education is what the newly established building industry led, non-profit and non-partisan Construction Resource Initiatives Council has set out to do. Hope readers of this article will join us in the Mission 2030

  3. By Alex Nadolishny on

    Yes, Zero Waste is great. But the reality is that recyclables collected in our cities often (in most cases in fact) end up being transported to China, reprocessed at antiquated facilities with horrendous emission profile and terrible working conditions, made into new products with the use of dirty coal energy and then shipped back to US on ships burning bunker oil with up to 5% sulfur content, creating the biggest source of acid rain today. Zero Waste? Learn the facts. By the time you add up all the environmental costs of recycling under current scheme, clean waste to energy processing is far better (for one, it does not use any fossil fuel, unlike recycling process in the free-trade globalized economy). One also needs to realize that recyclables are tradeable commodity with extremely low profit margin. This leads to disposal of perfectly fine recyclables in landfills when prices are low and storage space is full. I witnessed it so many times on actual landfills. And lastly, anaerobic digestion is no different from gasification: waste is processed to produce fuel gas that is later combusted for power generation. I know that it makes many feel better that bugs are doing it, but it makes absolutely no difference environmentally. Passion is great, but ardent idealism without proper education is very damaging. Today ZERO WASTE activists in US led us to a situation when we divert 10-14% from landfills, while countries like Denmark, who embraced ALL technologies - from source separation to anaerobic digestion and all forms of thermal WTE divert up to 93%.