"Zero waste." It's a compelling concept, among the most coveted goals in the environmental world. It suggests highly efficient systems of production and consumption that emulate nature, in which there is no such thing as "waste" -- where one species' detritus is another's pantry. For most of us mere mortals, "zero waste" is a journey more than a destination, an ideal we will likely never likely achieve.
Nonetheless, a handful of companies, communities, and others are committed to getting to "zero."
The idea of zero waste goes back at least a decade. In the 1990s, several U.S., Asian, and European companies set forth ambitious goals of eliminating wastes of all kinds throughout their products' life-cycle. In 1996, for example, I wrote about Xerox's "Waste-Free Factory" initiative. Zero-waste goals are still popular among Japanese companies -- Hitachi, Kirin, Sharp, and Omron each already has at least one zero-waste factory. In June, Honda announced it would build a $550 million zero-waste automobile plant near Greensburg, Indiana.
No company ever really gets to zero, of course. (Xerox certainly didn't; its Waste-Free Factory initiative was pretty much been zeroed out by the end of the decade.) Still, zero-waste advocates have been promoting the idea relentlessly for years, especially in green plans and other environmental initiatives of cites, states, and nations. Among the leading advocates are the Zero Waste Alliance and the Grassroots Recycling Network in the U.S., and their counterparts in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, the U.K., and elsewhere.
But how to get there? Zero-waste experts tell us that to wean from waste requires a carefully orchestrated transition in which all unwanted materials and products achieve their "highest and best use." That phrase is key -- it appears in countless mission statements, regulatory schemes, and other defining documents. Problem is, no one knows exactly what "highest and best use" actually means in the case of waste.
Enter Gary Liss.
Liss runs an eponymous California-based consulting company and has been hip-deep in waste-management issues for three decades, consulting to cities, states, companies, and others on waste-elimination strategies. He is a leading advocate for zero waste.
One of Liss's clients, my hometown City of Oakland, California, retained his firm to help implement its Zero Waste Strategic Plan. "One of the issues that arose in that planning process was how to guide the city in the future in the selection of technologies and programs," Liss told me last week. "We agreed that we needed to find some way to better describe what 'highest and best use' means. I researched that term and found surprisingly little definition of it for solid waste."
Toward that end, Liss developed a draft hierarchy that cities like Oakland could use to guide its policy decision. On its face, the one-page document (download - PDF) seems pretty simple -- "reduce" comes before "reuse," which comes before "recycle," as any school kid these days knows. But Liss precedes those items with "Stop Subsidies for Wasting" and "Rethink, Redesign and Takeback by Manufacturers," then puts meat on all of those bones by creating a hierarchy of subcomponents. For example, within the Reuse category are the following subcomponents:
- Reuse of product for original use and retain value and function of product if the product is as efficient a user of resources (e.g., Household hazardous waste “swaps”).
- Reuse of product for alternative use.
- Reuse of parts to repair and maintain products still in use.
- Thrift stores; used building materials stores (e.g., ReStores); garage sales; flea markets; charity collections.
- Provide Incentives to takeout customers to bring their own containers, coffee cups and bags.
Liss is asking interested parties to review and comment on the document, sending comments to him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What's the point of this exercise? For starters, it's essential for those making decisions -- policy makers, procurement officials, corporate operations and strategy types -- to have such a hierarchy in place. Though the hierarchy may seem obvious to some, it's not obvious for most people in business and government designing program, products, and processes.
In the case of Oakland, city officials will be better able to evaluate new technologies as they are proposed for considerations, says Liss. For other communities, he says, "this will be helpful whether or not they adopt zero waste as a goal. This makes clearer that zero waste is more than recycling."
As cities like Oakland join their larger municipal brethren -- Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, among others -- in leveraging their considerable purchasing power toward more environmentally preferable products, the hierarchy of waste could help steer billions of dollars toward greener products. For cities with zero-waste goals, this means seeking products that aren't just recycled or recyclable, but offer a much fuller range of environmental benefits: that are made from renewable or nontoxic materials, are durable and efficient, can be safely reused or repaired or disassembled into constituent parts -- and, when all else fails, can be easily and economically recycled.
In other words, products designed to provide their "highest and best use" throughout their useful lives, and beyond.
This is no small matter. Any emerging market needs norms and standards -- things upon which all the players in the market can agree. This one-page "Hierarchy of Highest and Best Use" has the potential to help procurement officials -- in government as well as in companies, universities, and other large institutions -- vote for the environment with every purchase they make.