Consider the extraordinary efforts we undertake to secure a barrel of oil: lives lost from wars; oil-rig blowouts, cancer clusters downwind of refineries; 100,000 premature deaths a year in America alone when we combust the stuff in our engines.
Consider the 28 million tons of plastic waste we send to landfills each year, essentially reburying the oil in the earth, but this time in places that make it virtually impossible to recover.
Then we repeat the process over and over again.
What if we could mitigate at least some of this madness by putting those waste plastics to productive uses? What about the other 140 million tons of other types of waste that we send to landfills each year? Bottom line — is a zero waste society plausible and profitable or just a pipe dream?
In 1989, California passed a law that mandated diversion of 50 percent of solid waste away from landfills by 2000. Reducing wasteful packaging and other materials, re-using as much as possible and aggressively recycling any useful commodities like glass and aluminum resulted in California achieving that goal on schedule. This success led to the passage last year of a new target of 75-percent diversion and inspired a lot of people to start thinking about a zero-waste society.
Down to Zero
Around the world, communities, governments, and companies are beginning to dip a toe in the waters of the zero-waste movement and the surprising results are that new technologies, businesses and jobs are being created.
For example, old carpet remains one of the biggest contributors to landfills. In California, The Carpet Recyclersare actually disassembling old carpet into its constituent commodities (including harvesting the components in the glue), and selling the resulting materials back to the manufacturers.
Other building/demolition wastes are also disproportionate contributors to landfills, but Urban Minersin Connecticut has found a way to disassemble that debris and return it to the construction industry for remodels and new buildings.
Of course, not all waste has quite so obvious a path from “cradle to cradle.”
For example, Americans dump over three million tons of used disposable diapers into landfills each year, but may yet learn something about turning, uh, “waste” into wealth. UK-based Knowasterecycles soiled diapers and converts them to energy and recovered fibers and plastics.