A zero waste world doesn't make sense

Picture of Michael Braungart
Michael Braungart

Chemist and Founder of EPEA International Umweltforschung in Hamburg

Many cities and communities want to be climate-neutral, and aim to become low-carbon societies by reducing their ecological footprint. But there is only one way to achieve this goal, and that is by not existing on this planet at all. Have you ever seen a climate-neutral or a low-carbon tree? Of course not. Trees are not a problem of course; they are beneficial, they clean the air and water, and they support bio-diversity. There are still more than 600bn trees left in the Amazon region, and thankfully not one of them is climate-neutral.

Most people seem to think that the world would be a better place if we weren’t here at all. Yet goals like “zero waste” are bizarre, because aside from being unachievable, it isn’t even desirable. Thinking about “zero waste” means you are still thinking about waste. We need to begin thinking in a completely different way.

Almost everyone now talks about closing the loop. Maybe closing the loo sometimes makes sense, but why would we want to close the loop? It means that products will be recycled when they shouldn’t even exist in the first place. Old PVC-plastics with cadmium and lead-stabilisers will be recycled into new PVC-products. Old plasticisers, which destroy fertility and contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals, are now finding their way into new products with recycled content.

Closing the loop is naïve – we shouldn’t be re-using the same materials and products over and over again. Instead of closing the loop with products containing the wrong substances, it makes much more sense to follow an approach which manages products either for the biosphere or the technosphere. Goods that are solely used for services, like washing machines or TV sets aren’t actually consumed, so they need to go back into the technosphere so they can be permanently re-used. On the other hand, products and materials that are consumed, like food, shoe soles, brake pads or detergents, need to be designed to go back into the biosphere, because their chemical, biological and physical composition was changed when they were used. What we need is to reinvent all our products to be “good” instead of merely “less bad”.

Environmental protection should go beyond minimising damage. Traditionally, protecting our earth has been defined as “destroying a little less”. You hear phrases like, “To protect the environment, you need to reduce your water consumption, your energy bill and your waste production”. But this has nothing to do with protection – it is only minimising damage.

Many existing products are terrible because by “optimising” them, we make products that are inherently bad seem perfect. Tires, for example, today last twice as long as they did 30 years ago, but the materials have never been optimised for abrasion. Nowadays, their abraded particles are much smaller, making them more easily available for the biosphere and for the technosphere. Yet this also means they can be inhaled much more easily. About 500 chemicals used in making tires were never intended to be inhaled, so we are causing a massive health problem by exposing people to such fine dust. Inhaling fine dust reduces our life expectancy twice as much as does drinking alcohol.

Neither a zero waste world nor the concept of closing the loop therefore makes sense. What does make sense would be to celebrate the human footprint on this planet instead of trying to minimise it. The northern approach, where every footprint destroys the soil in Sweden, should not be the global standard. When you walk along a river in Italy, water will stay longer in the meadow because your footprint created retention space for the rain. So why not make a large footprint that becomes a wet land, creating a new habitat for other species along the way?

If there is no sense in becoming neutral or closing the loop, the traditional eco-sustainability way of thinking must be reformed. We need to look past eco-efficiency and instead consider eco-effectiveness. Efficiency means doing things right. But when they are wrong from the beginning, they become perfectly wrong when we optimise them further. Effectiveness means doing the right thing, which is to reinvent everything to be good (great, even) instead of “less bad”.

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