What is zero waste?

The official Zero Waste definition, adopted by Zero Waste International Alliance:

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.

“Zero Waste” is increasingly being adopted as a “toolkit” to turn the Circular Economy vision into practice. Even the first Circular Economy Package proposed by the EU in July 2014, was sub-titled “A Zero Waste Programme for Europe”.

The guiding principle of Zero Waste (ZW) is the commitment to constantly:

  • improve the management of resources,
  • reduce progressively the amount of waste,
  • increase the percentage which is reused/recycled/composted,
  • assess what is not recovered in order to have it redesigned.

This approach connects with the 4 R’s strategy, and has already proved to be a powerful driver to minimise leakages of resources from their circular use.

Sometimes the term “Zero Waste” is misused, either

  • in a simplified way (“no production of waste”, and “no need to have waste processing sites, whatever their nature”, which doesn’t show the need to manage reusable materials and reprocess recyclable and compostable waste), or

  • including technologies and processes (e.g. incineration, pyrolysis or other types of thermal treatments) that do not belong in the ZW path. They destroy resources and require a long-term fixed amount of materials to burn (in other words – more waste is constantly needed) and this is in contradiction with the principle of improving recycling rates and minimising residual waste.

Actually, ZW has been defined at the international level, and a growing number of municipalities and communities have formally adopted it as the guiding strategy for the management of waste. Typically, ZW schemes include the following key points (sometimes in different order and combination):

  1. Avoid waste by reuse, repair and de-construction
  2. Encourage waste reduction initiatives
  3. Sort at source wherever waste is produced
  4. Collect sorted waste separately 
  5. Compost organic waste
  6. Recycle all materials
  7. Study residual waste to find better options for material separation and redesign.
  8. See landfilling as a temporary solution, with decreasing amounts. Minimise impacts through pre-treatment.
  9. Apply industrial design and help to change consumer behaviour.
  10. Use economic incentives to encourage all of it!


The Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) adopted an “operational roadmap” – the “Zero Waste Hierarchy of Highest and Best Use” (meaning the cascading approach) listing and describing all options to retain resources in their highest status, what to do with residual waste (mixed garbage) and what is not acceptable in the ZW approach.

The following chart visualises the hierarchy as a “funnel”, progressively minimising what is left for disposal (“residuals management”) and leaves out what is deemed “unacceptable”.

Credits: ZWIA, Certifications Committee

By its nature, ZW is a process that can also be implemented at local level, by communities (villages, municipalities, neighbourhoods, etc.). Local implementation is what “makes it happen”, and shows the way to other communities to follow. However, local initiatives can benefit from a coherent and supportive regulatory framework and ZW-oriented “top-down” policy. This can set the frame for steps towards ZW, provide for economic incentives, define clear conditions for markets for recycled materials, and/or provide the legal background for bans and restrictions to be adopted locally. 

While community-based ZW initiatives “make it happen”, ZW-oriented policies “make it possible”; good interaction between the two levels is the best way to have fast and successful implementation of the ZW approach. 

Some examples of ZW-oriented policy: 

  • EU Circular Economy Package, originally sub-titled “a Zero Waste Programme for Europe”. Although it is not fully embedding the ZW roadmap, it borrows many of its guiding principles: emphasis on ecodesign and redesigning for durability, maximisation of targets for recycling and composting (65% of actually recovered materials, net of the recycling/composting rejects, by 2035), the need to avoid any “lock-in” effect potentially caused by investments in technologies requiring a secured tonnage of mixed waste to be financially viable. For more info on the topic, read the “Communication on the role of Waste-to-energy in the Circular Economy” by European Commission. 
  • Bans and restrictions may play a major role in moving towards Circular Economy and ZW programmes, and promote innovation and new business models. An increasing number of countries (or jurisdictional sub-divisions, e.g. states in the US, cities in Germany, etc.) have banned (or taxed) or want to ban (or tax) one or more of the following: 
    • plastic bags (e.g. Italy, France, California, Kenya), 
    • cotton buds (e.g. United Kingdom, Italy), 
    • single-use plastic cutlery and coffee pods (e.g. France, Hamburg),
    • all single-use plastics (e.g. India, Costa Rica).
      More similar examples can be found here. 
  • Supportive economic tools may be a great way to move progressively away from wasteful behaviours and purchasing habits, and drive innovation: 
  • Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) can be adopted to have separate collection and recycling schemes funded by packaging producers (EPR schemes collect unit fees from producers, then the budget is allocated to compensate municipalities for the cost of separate collection, and/or to support/reward recycling activities). EPR has long been adopted in Europe for packaging waste, electric/electronic waste, and other types of goods and materials. Also important: EPR schemes should not be designed to kill local recycling initiatives, but to support them – EPR schemes must simply fund the system, not run the business. 
  • Deposit-Refunding Schemes (DRS) have proved to be the most effective way to have a high return rate of specific items: customers return the item (e.g. beverage bottles and cans) to the shop where purchased or (more commonly) any cooperating shop, to get the deposit back. This maximises capture rates of items within the DRS, boosts their reuse or recycling, and minimises littering of those items. Well-working DRS systems have been adopted for various containers by Denmark, Estonia, Germany, single states in the US, parts of Australia, etc. Good overview of all the countries can be seen here.