Envirotec

A practical guide for the zero waste movement

Paul Connett

Paul Connett’s book The Zero Waste Solution includes case studies of ambitious zero waste initiatives from around the world.

“IT was a giddy moment for all of us,” recounts Paul Connett of the meeting in October 2011 at which he first had the opportunity to pitch the philosophy of Zero Waste to the mayor of Naples.

To his surprise the message found a home, and the mayor committed the city to a zero waste program, ending a decade in which it had gained notoriety as perhaps the worst town in Italy for its handling of municipal waste (as attested by earlier TV images that showed piles of the stuff burning at the sides of residential streets).
How had it happened? The fact that the newly elected mayor was willing to stand up to the Mafia was key, says Connett, citing the criminal organisation’s previous and well-recorded involvement in murky deals favouring incinerators and other resource-unfriendly avenues for handling the country’s waste.
The influence of misguided or malign interests on waste management policy is a theme running through the 370 or so pages of Connett’s The Zero Waste Solution. Much is written about the way recycling has been criticized or discounted as “too expensive” in favour of the illusory cheapness of landfill, a philosophy that endures to this day.
In a later essay social entrepreneur Eric Lombardi writes of how a privately-run landfill site in his home town of Boulder was closed by the government because it was polluting the groundwater of a nearby community. The site was designated for cleanup, with half the costs to be paid by the landfill owner and half by the general public. “Not long ago the EPA ruled that the groundwater cleanup phase can stop but that the city would be responsible for keeping rainwater from entering the 160-acre site ‘in perpetuity’ – in other words, forever. So the question now is, “How much does forever cost per ton?” Because unless we can answer that we will never know the true cost of landfilling at that site.”
It’s a book that seems to benefit from the author’s scientific background as a chemistry professor at St Lawrence University in New York State, but it avoids getting bogged down in science. About 20 pages are devoted to outlining why incineration is the biggest obstacle to zero waste, but for a popular science or lay audience. More important than science, it seems, are the human considerations that underpin an effort like zero waste, one that requires the cooperation of everyone.
Zero waste is a philosophy that it’s tempting to view as up there with 100% employment: A nice idea but not something we should expect anytime soon. Connett insists that “we can approach this target with simple, practical and cost-effective, and politically-acceptable steps in mind” and goes onto give what seems an extremely detailed account of progress to date in this respect, with the middle section of the book devoted to a country-by-country rundown of innovative zero waste initiatives.
The third and final section contains a series of essays from supposed luminaries of the zero waste movement, covering topics such as the economics of zero waste strategies, the social dimension, the opportunities that exist for international cooperation, and the responsibility of producers.
• Review by Paul Marsh of Envirotec

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