Rethinking Waste – What Is Zero Waste Energy?

Zero waste energy

Zero Waste movement was introduced in the 80s, which means preventing waste by making the best choices, starting with the extraction of raw materials, product manufacturing, and disposal to a landfill. A zero-waste system approach focuses on redesigning the product life cycle so that the end-product can be reused or recycled, thereby enabling a circular economy.

According to the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA), Zero Waste: 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. Other definitions for zero waste given by various organizations and communities are very close.

Zero waste is a systems approach to eliminate waste through recycling and reusing it by redesigning of resource lifecycle. The United States Conference of Mayors adopted a Hierarchy of Material Management, which includes:

  • Extended Producer Responsibility and Product Redesign
  • Reduce Waste, Toxicity, Consumption, and Packaging
  • Repair, Reuse and Donate
  • Recycle
  • Compost
  • Down Cycle and Beneficial Reuse
  • Waste-Based Energy as disposal
  • Landfill Waste as disposal

When something can’t be reused it will enter the landfill, the landfill sites produce huge amounts of methane gas as organic compounds such as food scraps decompose.  This gas is captured and then able to be reused as combustion material to produce electricity.

Why Is Zero Waste Important?

As mentioned above, zero waste means that at least 90 percent of the waste must be diverted from incineration and landfills. Landfills are the least expensive municipal waste management, and this is the most commonly used method in the United States and many other countries. However, landfills have a huge harmful environmental impact, in the form of leachate which can contain harmful metals and chemical pollutants, and this can get into the groundwater.

Landfills also accumulate greenhouse gases, from the decomposition process, which contribute to global warming. There are other alternative methods of municipal waste disposal that can be more environmentally friendly, and some can be used for conversion to energy sources. Recycling municipal waste can be done in several ways, including some alternative ways that have less of a harmful impact on the environment.

Waste Management

Rubbish recycling has developed over decades in many countries with the goal of eliminating waste that is harmful to the environment. Implementing the latest technologies, zero waste communities, businesses, and individuals strive to recover as much waste as possible so that up to 90 percent of the waste is diverted from landfills.

Municipal waste management services are using the latest technologies, such as Material Recovery Facilities, to recover as much waste as possible to divert waste from landfills and turn it into resources.

What Is Zero Waste Energy?

Zero Waste Energy is referred to as renewable energy obtained through anaerobic digestion of solid organic waste and resource recovery processes.

Emerging technologies can be used to further generate energy from non-recyclable waste. The proper application of these technologies in combination with the extraction of expensive goods and organic substances for energy and compost production makes the best use of an integrated waste management system.

Recycling municipal waste helps the environment by removing greenhouse gases from landfills. Utilization of municipal waste using the latest technologies can generate alternative energy. Municipal solid waste is a sustainable and renewable source of energy.

Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT)

MBT plants are designed for the treatment of mixed domestic, commercial and industrial waste. The process combines a front-end sorting facility with biological treatments such as composting or anaerobic digestion.

The MBT facility has one line that sorts single-stream, commingled and source-separated recyclables, and the other line sorts residential and dry commercial waste. It can handle a wide variety of materials, including municipal solid waste, C&D debris, single-stream recyclables, and source-separated OCC, paper, electronic scrap, and white goods.

Anaerobic digestion plant
Anaerobic digestion plant. Credit: Wikimedia

Anaerobic Digestion

Biodegradable organic waste can be treated with or without air access. The aerobic process is composting and the anaerobic process is called digestion.

Anaerobic digestion is a low-temperature thermal process of decomposing biodegradable materials into gas, also called biogas, mainly composed of methane and carbon dioxide.

Biodegradable materials are broken down by microorganisms in the process of anaerobic digestion without the use of oxygen using Anaerobic Digesters. The end result of anaerobic digestion is valuable by-products such as compressed natural gas (CNG) and electricity.

Waste-to-Energy Is Not Zero Waste

There is confusion with Zero Waste and Waste-to-Energy approaches. Although both strive to reduce CO2 emissions and landfills, their goals and technologies are quite different.

Waste incineration is not part of the Zero Waste strategy. In fact, the waste-to-energy approach has been criticized as wasting energy and producing the most expensive form of electricity compared to other resources (including coal, natural gas, and oil).

Zero Waste only accepts anaerobic digestion as the technological process for making sustainable energy resources from waste. Waste-to-energy practices such as incineration, pyrolysis, gasification, and a plasma arc system  are considered as “waste-of-energy.”

“Zero Waste to Landfill” Is Not Zero Waste

“Zero Waste to Landfill” is not the same as the Zero Waste system approach. The former focuses on producing energy by burning waste and thus eliminating landfills. Burning waste is considered as the destruction of resources and ends up with a lower amount and more expensive energy. “Zero Waste to Landfill” approach does not reduce waste and protect natural resources.

Contrary, a zero-waste system approach focuses on reuse or recycles of the products by redesigning of resource lifecycle. According to ZWIA, any term including “zero” means at least 90 percent diversion from landfills, incinerators, and the environment. However, Zero waste does not mean achieving absolute zero.

Zero Waste Cities

Zero-Waste City is a program adopted by cities for phasing out waste without incineration or landfill but using a zero-waste strategy that prevents waste in the first place.

Cities around the world including Auckland, Catalonia, Copenhagen, Dubai, London, Milan, Montreal, Navarra, New York City, Newburyport, Paris, Philadelphia, Portland, Rotterdam, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Monica, Sydney, Tel Aviv, Tokyo, Toronto, Vancouver, and Washington D.C. announced their commitment to achieve “zero-waste” signing C40’s Advancing to Zero Waste Declaration.

The International Zero Waste Cities Conference (IZWCC, 2018) at Bandung, Indonesia with the theme ‘Circular City is the Future City’ presented the zero-waste approach of municipal waste management to reduce their waste by redirecting it to other purposes, extend recycling and composting and increase the overall sustainability of the cities.

Thus, Zero Waste aims to help people change their habits and lifestyle, minimizing excess consumption and maximizing their recovery. Could you reduce your waste or live a zero-waste lifestyle? Please leave your comment below.

Author: EcoDesign&EcoLifestyle

Researcher, entrepreneur, and artist at heart.

6 thoughts on “Rethinking Waste – What Is Zero Waste Energy?”

  1. Wow! That was a very thorough article on what waste is and what the different programs are that seek to change the way waste is dealt with. The Zero Waste system sounds like a direct and far-reaching way to create a cycle where the waste we actually end up with is minimal compared to the things that can be reused/recycled in some form or another. The city I live in does have a recycling program, but I feel there is more that I can do to reduce the amount of waste that comes from my house!

    1. It sounds great that you feel that you can achieve more with waste reduction and recycling. I am sure that everyone can do this and be a responsible customer before buying things. All the best in changing your shopping habits and rethinking waste!

  2. Hi,
    Thanks for a great article. I knew about zero waste systems, but not in the detail that you’ve presented here.

    It’s good to know that as little as possible will end up in a landfill somewhere.

    I already do what I can to minimize my waste production, and I don’t buy anything that can’t be recycled. I always avoid plastics.

    Thanks again for taking the time to write this.

    1. Thank you, Judy! It’s great that you are working on your waste and try to minimize it. These skills and habits should be thought in school so people will change their consumeristic habits and stop buying unnecessary things that will end in landfills or in the ocean killing all living beings there. We should understand that we are responsible for our own waste. Best of luck!

  3. Wow! This article was informative, I even learned a couple of things here and there. I’ve been aware of the issue you discussed but never heard of the Zero Waste Movement. It’s good to know several cities around the world have adopted their own recycling programs.

    I’m not sure if there should be national programs in every country, but doing programs at the local level is a good start. The videos were educational as well- I enjoyed watching both videos provided.

    Thanks for sharing- very eye-opening and much-needed information.

    1. Thank you, Eric! Indeed, many people don’t know about the details and differences between various concepts. I agree with you that we need to start at the local level. Or even start from our own recycling habits first and teach our children. Please share and come back again. All the best!

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