Busting the myth of zero waste

Robert Lilienfeld in Sustainable Packaging on February 12, 2015

Zero waste is the new black. Is it really possible, and is all waste bad? Eco-Insights blogger Robert Lilienfeld busts the myth.


An inclusive and prosperous future without waste is just ahead!

That’s what the Zero Waste Alliance of Portland, OR, claims on its website. Many other organizations, including Eco-Cycle and even Walmart, have jumped on the zero waste bandwagon. Sounds great, right?

Let’s think critically and scientifically about this objective.

The second law of thermodynamics states that there is an increase in the sum of the entropies in a participating system. In other words, systems move from order to disorder.

Besides being synonymous with disorder, entropy can also be defined as waste. Along with heat, the most common forms of waste in our everyday lives are unwanted gases, liquids and solids. These occur when work is performed—when matter or energy are used and then turned into other forms of matter or energy.

So, according to the basic laws of physics—upon which all other sciences are based and to which all other laws must ultimately apply—whenever or wherever work is being done, there will be waste. Sorry, folks. The facts are the facts.

Why is it important to bust this myth?

First, we don’t want to mislead the public regarding the fact that consumption-based waste of some sort is a given. A good example relates to food packaging. It is generally accepted that when the results are looked at in aggregate, 90% or so of the environmental impact is related to the food, and only 10% is related to the package. Thus, if a little bit of packaging helps preserve the resources both within the food it protects as well as the resources used to produce and transport that food, shouldn’t some level of packaging discards be recognized as both necessary and acceptable?

Second, the myth categorizes all waste as bad, which in my opinion is simply not true. Back to our food example: While it may not be the politically correct answer, a little bit of packaging sitting in a landfill is better than a lot of wasted food rotting in that same landfill: Ultimately, the food will break down and release methane, carbon dioxide and/or water vapor, all of which are greenhouse gases. Frankly, I’d rather have a small pile of inert packaging sitting in a landfill than a large pile of greenhouse gas-generating food waste decomposing there.

So, the next time people ask for your philosophy regarding packaging and zero waste, you might want to remind them of this: What we really want to achieve is minimum waste, and the best way for packaging to do this is by ensuring that 100% of the product contained is used as intended, with the minimum amount of packaging resources needed to do so.

What do you think? Please comment below.


Missed one of Bob's blogs? Read them here.

Robert (Bob) Lilienfeld has been involved with the concept of sustainable packaging for more than 20 years. He is currently editor of The ULS (Use Less Stuff) Report, a marketing and communications consultant to AMERIPEN and other organizations, and is a professional photographer.

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I resonate with the point that food packaging can have a net positive impact on the life cycle analysis of food production, distribution, consumption and disposal. An LCA would also bear other environmental impacts in areas such as land use, water use, contaminants and the impact on ecosystems. Environmental progress is most effective by performing an LCA and first addressing the aspects with the greatest impact. In short, reduced packaging might fall lower on the list of green priorities.
I could not agree more. LCA shows us where the impacts are actually occurring and therefore helps us in reducing those impacts. Unlike the vague ideas that somehow by picking up a paper bag we reduce our burden on environment.
I concur that zero waste is accurate and that we all strive for minimum waste. Companies need to do a better job of quantifying and translating their tangible sustainability results to their consumers. It is important to communicate accurate information to consumers in a way that helps consumers understand the real threats and how everyone plays a role and can benefit from green packaging efforts. Than Nguyen https://www.protectivepackaging.net
The largest fallacy is that we can continue to increase our population both nationally and world wide. An achieved 10% reduction per person in consumption, waste, pollution, green house gas, etc, Is overrun by a 20% increase in population. None of the environmental issues can be solved if we continue to increase population, even with technological innovation. Yet, increased population is generally considered necessary for economic growth.
Bob, I agree. However, from the Marketing Side of the table the problem is that 'minimum waste' does not sell like 'ZERO WASTE'. Hopefully, those trumpeting Zero Waste are doing so with the idea that if we aim for Zero, we will hit minimum and have an impact. But, being a realist, I think it is simply the Marketing Group is driving the Sustainability bus.
You have hit the essence of the argument for zero waste. We need stretch goals that inspire and give purpose to our lives. Minimum waste is not an inspiring goal - it is an intellectual clarification of the nuances of waste reduction that we experience on the road to zero waste. Of course, the achievement of zero waste benefits from a life cycle analysis of the waste streams that are generated within our society. That way, we make the most efficient use of our energies by focusing on priorities
Zero waste is a utopia, a theoretical aim to strive for in ordre to teach a circular economy. Packaging should be reusable. How is that a myth? Plus living off organic farming was considered a myth just a decade ago