Zero waste: Exciting, radical and real

Zero waste is one of the most exciting ideas I’ve come across in nearly a decade of writing about business and sustainability.

In the short run, it makes business sense.

In the long run, it has the potential to transform the way we design and make things.

Garbage–and how to eliminate it from our lives–is more interesting than you’d guess. I’ve kept an eye on the zero waste trend since writing a story called The End of Garbage for FORTUNE in 2007. More recently, I wrote about DuPont’s efforts to eliminate waste. Walmart did so well at reducing and recycling waste that it turned what had been a cost (landfill fees) into an asset (revenues from recycling.). Even Waste Management, the nation’s biggest trash hauler, is remaking its business to extract value from waste. [See my 2010 FORTUNE story, Waste Management Earns Its Name]

Why is zero waste a radical idea? Because, as I wrote in Fortune, it leads to a new way of thinking:

Getting to a wasteless world will require nothing less than a total makeover of the global economy, which thinkers such as entrepreneur Paul Hawken, consultant Amory Lovins, and architect William McDonough have called the Next Industrial Revolution.

They want industry to mimic biology, where one species’ excrement is another’s food. “We’re not talking here about eliminating waste,” McDonough explains. “We’re talking about eliminating the entire concept of waste.”

In two weeks, I’ll be in Costa Mesa, CA, at the first national business conference on zero waste, sponsored by the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council, a fledgling nonprofit set up to promote the idea of zero waste in the corporate world. The event begins on June 26, and I’ll be giving a talk (called “Zero waste: Exciting, radical and real!) on June 27. I’m also hoping to learn more about progress towards zero waste, as well as what obstacles stand in the way.  Toyota Motor Sales, SuperValu/Albertsons, Ricoh Electronics, Inc and Sierra Nevada are among the companies sending speakers.

If your company has a story to tell about waste, let me know in the next week or so (by email, please), and I will consider working it into my talk or my coverage. And I hope to see some of you there.


  1. says

    I’m all for zero waste, but we need to make a distinction between waste management and waste prevention. Let’s hope we can get to true waste prevention, as waste management — recycling, co-gen, etc. often has nasty impacts of its own.

  2. says

    RE the above comment: biomimicry does not presuppose recycling or even co-gen so much as using one entity’s waste as another’s fuel, which is how energy is cycled in nature. Thus the heat from a factory would be routed to provide energy for a neighborhood. The effluent from a chemical plant would be used as raw material for some other process.

    On another note: biomimicry is a great model for designing sustainable human systems. However, we need to do more than re-use waste the way organisms in ecosystems do. We need to consider that mature ecosystems are no-growth systems.

    In nature we find growth only in spaces that have recently been cleared out. For instance, the area around a volcano post-eruption, or the space on the forest floor under a tree that has been uprooted in the rain forest. These empty niches allow biological growth “economies.”

    In the same way, the U.S. experienced centuries of growth by exploiting an entire continent which had been effectively cleared of human competitors, thus creating an empty economic niche.

    We need to mimic nature by studying how no-growth biological “economies” work. And our economists have to give up being wedded to the idea of continued growth. Even now many are alarmed about our slowing birth rate around the planet, saying that it spells doom for our growth model. As if you can have infinite growth on a finite surface.


  1. […] Unlike Erik, though, I’m skeptical about the notion of strict planetary limits. People are endlessly creative and adaptable, so I believe that technology and markets, as well as culture change, can help us find ways to consume sustainably. That’s not quite the same thing as consuming less. Essentially, if  we can price the costs of externalities — particularly carbon emissions — into everything we buy, we’d buy differently and, yes, we’d buy less. Commodity prices would rise. Recycling would increase dramatically, as would the use of clean energy. The economy would evolve into one where little or nothing goes to waste. […]

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