Ten Steps to Zero Waste

Ten Steps to Zero Waste.

There are  ten short videos here one for each of the ten steps.  They are:

  1. Source separation
  2. Door to Door Collection
  3. Composting
  4. Recycling
  5. Reuse, repair and de-construction
  6. Waste Reduction Initiatives
  7. Economic Incentives
  8. Residual Separation and Research
  9. Better Industrial Design and changed consumer behaviour
  10. Temporary Landfill

First of all thanks to Professor Paul Connett for making the original talk.   Other material by him is available at the American Health Studies website.

Step 1 Source Separation


Professor Paul Connett starts with the idea that if we have a pile of unwanted paper, a pile of empty glass bottles and a pile of empty tin cans we have resources.  If we mix the piles together we create wasted resources.  “What we refer to as ‘ waste‘  consists of resources in the wrong place.”  “Waste is a verb not a noun.” 

This means that our bins may be full of paper, cardboard, metal, and glass, but none of that is actually waste but rather wasted resources.  Hence separation at source is the key to recycling.  Separation is what turns waste back into resources.


Step 2 Door to Door Collection

Professor Paul Connett talks about examples of door to door collection in 2 different countries.

In San Francisco there are three bins per household, for recyclables, compost and residuals.

In the Basque Country there are 4 containers, mixed recyclables, paper, organics and residuals. No extra trucks are required as the same trucks pick up different items on different days.  Rubbish is hung in bags on numbered hooks off the ground, avoiding rodent infestations and the amount each household is recycling is visible to neighbours which engenders accountability.


Step 3 Composting

Paul insists that lack of recycling is not a problem at individual household level but due to proper systems not being in place.

The organics are the most important item to be separated because they are what cause the foul smell at landfills. Once they are mixed they cannot be salvaged while other materials such as metal and glass can. However, when organics are separated and composted almost 100% pure compost can be attained which can then be used to grow fruit and vegetables.

He stresses the importance of getting restaurants and farmers involved in recycling organic waste. In San Francisco staff from solid waste department actually visit the restaurants and train the kitchen staff about proper separation.  It is important to get the community involved at all levels and not to leave the issue of waste to be solved by “experts” who are predisposed to look for unnecessary and problematic technological solutions.


Step 4: Recycling

Having eliminated organics, a Materials Recovery Facility is the next step towards zero waste.

Paul suggests rewarding people for separating recyclables and even making people who mix their waste pay for it.  Recyclables will be brought to a Materials Recovery Facility where both human and mechanical labour will be employed, with conveyor belts and machinery that can separate cans with magnets, aluminium from steel, etc.

In remote areas where transportation is a problem, a solution in Canada is the use of barges. In the case of Yukon recovered materials are stockpiled during winter months when snow makes transportation impossible and then transported in large quantities when the snow subsides.

He explains that incinerator projects trap communities by adhering them to a 25 year commitment to burning resources that may be in great demand at a later stage.  Finances will be based upon the tipping fee and contracts will be signed to produce X amount of waste/year/tonne, to be paid for whether or not supplied.  As the market price of fuel rises, proportionately little energy is produced in return however the community must honour the contract.


Step 5 Reuse, Repair and Deconstruction


Deconstruction” refers to taking down buildings in the reverse order that they were constructed in order to salvage materials.

There is great value in deconstructing buildings as materials can be recovered that today would be considered rare and much more valuable than when they were first used, such as maple and redwood.  Builders and architects must be involved in Zero Waste, deconstruction is the best way to learn how to improve on building the next time around. Secondly it is important for them to be aware of how and where they can access recovered building materials.

The difference between “reuse” and “recycling” is that recycling is high volume/low value, while reuse is low volume/high value.

Paul refers to the table showing the value of discarded materials in Los Angeles where reusable items account for 2% of volume but the value of these items is almost 40%.

Jobs and business are created by setting up Reuse and Repair Centres. He talks about the highly successful centre, Urban Ore, in the city of Berkley California. Dr Dan Knapp started this centre 30 years ago by scavaging the San Fransisco landfill for reusable items.  Their total sales come to 3 million dollars a year and they employ 27 well-paid, full-time workers.

There are Reuse and Repair Centres whose layouts are akin to a shopping mall (8.51 photographic examples). These centres can be for profit, as in the example of Urban Ore, or non-profit such as the case of Burlington Vermont where people on low or no income receive coupons from social security to purchase furniture from Reuse and Repair Centres.

He finishes by talking about timescales of achieving 70% recycling, in San Francisco it took a decade while in some communities in Italy took a year to 18 months.

He refers us to a series of videos that he created: Pieces of Zero and On the Road to Zero Waste some of which are still available on the American Health Studies website.


Step 6 Waste Reduction Initiatives

The next step is tackling the residual fraction, the % that can’t be reused or recycled. In Ireland the 15cent tax on heavy supermarket plastic bags reduced their use by 92% in one year! In Italy and the UK social activists are collecting food just inside its sell-by date, diverting it from landfill and redistributing it to homeless charities. Italy seems to be leading the way on waste reduction. Some Italian supermarket chains provide refill dispensers for shampoo, detergent and fresh milk. Effecorta in Capannori (supplying 95% of its products from within a 70km radius) dispenses both solids and liquids including wine. Enlightened entrepreneurs in the town are making carrier bags from broken umbrellas (waterproof).

Paul suggests the need to change our definition of progress so that it includes wisdom and experience, not just technological advances.


Step 7 Economic Incentives

Although commercial waste is less complicated than domestic waste, there is more of it, and changing habits requires a variety of approaches, both stick and carrot.

The ‘pay as you throw system’ charges business for materials going to landfill. These fees are generally too low to act as deterrents. A more positive incentive is to set a rate for the (annual) quantity going to landfill and then give rewards for keeping under that rate. Ursubil in the Basque Country increased their diversion rate from 28% to 86% in 7 months with a combination of door to door collection and ‘keep it out of landfill’ rewards.


Step 8 Residual Separation & Research Facility

This is the most important step in getting close to zero waste. It brings the community and industry face to face and makes the residual fraction visible. Paul proposes placing the residual separation and research facility in front of the (temporary and safer) landfill site. On delivery, the residual fraction is screened by well-protected workers, more material is separated, toxics are removed, dirty organics are stabilised (above ground) and the non recyclable materials are studied. To design the best zero waste systems, we need to have constant feedback and the involvement of universities. In an analysis of the 17% residual fraction in Capannori, textiles and leather topped the list (these are now collected separately), followed by disposable nappies (a local pharmacy is now giving out reusable nappies) and kitchen waste (organics are now collected separately).

Step 9 Better Industrial Design

The message to industry is:
      “If we can’t reuse it, recycle it or compost it, industry shouldn’t be making it!’
We need: design for sustainability; clean production; extended producer responsibility (EPR).

It can be done. In Ontario,Canada for the past 60 years, a beer manufacturer has been recycling beer bottles. The cost is covered by the beer industry so there is no municipal cost.  Xerox collects old machines and sends them to Dundalk, Ireland for repair or the re-use/recycling of parts.  The repaired machines meet the same specification as new ones and save the industry $76 million per year.


Step 10 An Interim Landfill for Biologically Stabilised Dirty Organic Fraction

Landfills need to be regarded as temporary measures, while we set the 10 steps to zero waste in motion. With the involvement of industry and universities, we can create low-tech, local jobs, bring people together, reduce global warming and offer hope to our children for the future. It isn’t just environmentalists living on this planet!


Recently, at “9th Zero Waste International Alliance Conference” Paul Connett  presented a version of his 10 steps that concentrated on examples from around the world.  That is a good follow-up to watching these videos.

If you want to learn more about Zero Waste a great place to start is Paul Connett’s book:
“The Zero Waste Solution: Untrashing the Planet One Community at a time”. Available from all good bookshops and Online