Is zero waste a pipe dream?

The new European Chemicals strategy for sustainability has been launched, with potentially far-reaching impacts. But how realistic are the European Commission’s plans, and most importantly: what will they mean in practice? In a series of blog posts, various experts from Royal HaskoningDHV mull the potential effects of the Chemicals strategy. In this first post, Steven Lemain responds to the view that ‘there is no such thing as waste’. A pipe dream, or (potentially) a reality?

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For me, the question of whether a zero-waste society is a pipe dream immediately raises another question: what is waste, really? In the recent past, we answered this question differently than we do today. Oversimplifying a bit, we used to define waste as a (residual) product without use and/or value. As long as it didn’t contain any harmful or hazardous substances, we disposed of it. It was primarily a matter for the waste processing sector.

This is slowly changing. Raw materials are getting harder to find or more expensive, and it seems that circularity will grow into a key principle of economics. Our increasing attention on how we use materials is also changing our idea of what waste is and is not. To answer this question, we must increasingly explore the substances that make up waste, down to the level of the chemical composition of the individual substances. This is necessary both to determine whether the waste poses an environmental or health risk, and also how and for which purpose it can be reused. This circular thinking entails a completely different view of waste.

Total circularity would be ideal. The societal, economic, legal and policy contexts and their development will determine the extent to which this ideal becomes a reality. In theory, you could recycle practically all waste (recycling is the highest-value form of waste processing, after reduction and reuse). That would achieve a zero-waste society.

Recycling is, however, not so cut-and-dried in practice, as we know. So is zero waste a pipe dream, an unattainable goal? No, I don’t think so. With efforts such as the Chemicals strategy, we will generate and share more and more information on our waste. This information will increasingly harmonise our behaviours and attitudes around waste and products. Of course, a process will always create primary and residual products, and for much of our waste, recycling faces technical challenges. But our changing attitudes will bring a new approach to waste that will render the term ‘waste’ itself obsolete.

Zero waste | RoyalHaskoning

All of this will require efforts from many parties, but over time it will be as normal as getting water from the tap. How far we put this ideal into practice is another question entirely. So zero waste is not so much a matter of technical feasibility, but rather of societal will as well as producer and user behaviour. This means we can also break this issue down into practical terms such as costs and benefits: how much are we willing to pay for a clean world?

In October 2020, the European Commission released its Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability. This strategy focusses on protecting citizens and the environment and stimulating innovation for safe and sustainable chemicals. The European Commission draws connections with the equally ambitious European Green Deal, a major recalibration of how we, as a society, will deal with materials in the future. The overall aim is to work towards zero pollution and zero waste. In a series of blog posts, the experts at Royal HaskoningDHV ponder the implications of this.