Zero Waste is defined as "The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.” It's not a utopic idea, but a set of policies and practices intended to eliminate incineration and reduce waste as much as possible, ultimately achieving at least 90% reduction of waste going to disposal.

Link to Flyer.

Zero Waste Hierarchy:

Source Separate: (reusables, recycling, composting and trash)
  • Reuse / Repair
  • Recycle (multi-stream) ⇒ Material Recovery Facility (MRF)
  • Compost ⇒ aerobically compost clean organic materials like food scraps and yard waste to return to soils
  • Waste:
    • Waste Composition Research (examine trash to see how the system can be improved upstream)
    • Material Recovery (mechanically remove additional recyclables that people failed to separate)
    • Biological Treatment (aerobic composting -- or, better yet, anaerobic digestion followed by aerobic composting -- of organic residuals to stabilize them)
    • Stabilized Landfilling (biological treatment reduces volume and avoids gas and odor problems)

The official Zero Waste definition and Zero Waste Hierarchy are policies we helped the Zero Waste International Alliance develop. See our more detailed zero waste hierarchy.

Zero Waste Defined

Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing 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.

Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.
General Framework

Story of Stuff (excellent short, fun film on how materials move through our economy, from extraction to production to distribution to consumption to waste):

Getting the back end of the zero waste hierarchy right:

The Zero Waste Solution - Untrashing the Planet One Community at a Time, by Paul Connett

Resources on the problems with incinerators and landfills:

Zero Waste Plans:
  • Austin, TX: In December 2011, Austin adopted an excellent Zero Waste master plan to put them on the same path that cities like San Francisco have been pursuing. They found this plan to make economic sense even though landfilling in the area is dirty cheap, at $20/ton! If Austin can do it, any city can.

    The Austin Zero Waste plan aims for diverting the following percentages of discarded materials from incinerators and landfills:
    50% in 2015
    75% in 2020
    85% in 2025
    90% in 2030
    95%+ in 2040

    Austin's Zero Waste master plan: main webpage, Master Plan (321 pages - 37 MB PDF), Summary (25 pages - 28 MB PDF)
  • San Francisco Zero Waste plan
  • Alameda County, CA: Policy Tools & Model Ordinances for Local Governments
  • Oakland, CA zero waste plan
  • Maryland is working on a statewide zero waste plan, but seems to think that incineration is a needed step along the way, as they've concocted a non-existent landfill space crisis. See their draft plan and our comments.

Other major resources on zero waste:
Job creation:
A zero waste program should include a number of tactics that increase material reuse, recycling and composting. Doing so has great job creation potential: about 5 to 10 times more jobs than landfilling or incineration.