What is Zero Waste? Zero Waste principles and examples

What is Zero Waste? Zero Waste principles and examples

Waste is a by-product of human economic development, so thriving economic development will generate more waste. Some of this waste consists of reusable resources while other waste forms harmful contaminants. How to dispose of waste adequately has become a major dilemma for people. In the 21st century, people proposed the concept of Zero Waste, hoping to achieve the ultimate goal of zero waste through the formulation and implementation of circular economy ideals such as the Zero Waste Hierarchy and cradle-to-cradle (C2C). This article will elaborate on the specific details of zero waste, Zero Waste Hierarchy, and C2C, as well as take a look at some case studies.

What is Zero Waste?

What is Zero Waste?

Since the Industrial Revolution, products that were once deemed luxury items in the past such as cars, refrigerators, and televisions have become an integral part of people’s homes to cater to the ever-growing consumer culture. As the composition of consumer products becomes more complex, manufacturers begin to use more composite materials and chemicals in an effort to constantly enhance the products’ performance. As a result, recycling these products has become increasingly difficult, forcing policymakers to adopt low-efficiency resource utilization methods such as landfills or incinerators to dispose of waste. With advancing technologies and increasing environmental awareness, zero waste has progressively become the ideal goal for solving the problem of waste disposal, and it is being recognized by more administrations and organizations.

According to the latest definition published in 2018 by the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA), zero waste means to “The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.” It is clear from this definition that the core philosophy of zero waste is the circular utilization of resources to prevent them from ending up in landfills and incinerators after use, or from being discharged as environmental pollutants into the soil, air, and water.

Zero waste is the ultimate goal of waste disposal, but it relies on the concerted efforts of various relevant departments including waste management, waste disposal, the mining industry, the manufacturing industry, and city planning. At the same time, zero waste also facilitates sustainable production and consumption, encouraging producers to devise the most eco-friendly waste disposal solutions to foster a circular economy. This can replace the discard after use approach of the traditional linear economic model. In doing so, people can prevent problems including resource depletion, habitat destruction, soil degradation, environmental pollution, and climate change.

Previously, most people focused on the fourth R of the 4R principle—Reuse, Reduce, Recycle, Recover—by sending unrecyclable waste into incinerators for power generation purposes. Efforts were also made to increase the efficiency of power generation and pollution control. As a matter of fact, the first three Rs are even more important. This is why the Zero Waste Hierarchy was devised in the hope of increasing resources invested into the first three Rs, thereby realizing zero waste by injecting resources into the most beneficial areas.

The history of Zero Waste

The history of Zero Waste

Before the Industrial Revolution, people’s waste usually consist of organic waste such as seeds, fruit peels, or bones that are easily returned to the natural circulatory system in the environment. However, artificially processed products such as coins, clothes, furniture, or buildings were scarce items that were passed down the generations and reused.

With the dawning of mechanization after the Industrial Revolution, a new business model based on cheap synthetic materials and mass production to reduce cost emerged, and product life cycles have become increasingly shorter. Examples include the rapid advancements in consumer electronics and the fast fashion trend in the clothing industry. Plastic bags, bottles, and tableware—nonbiodegradable materials such as plastics and metals are used in large quantities. Since people cannot adequately dispose of these products, they are left to turn into waste and pollute the environment.

According to Zero-Waste: A New Sustainability Paradigm for Addressing the Global Waste Problem, the term zero waste was first coined by Paul Palmer in 1973. The term gradually gained traction in the 1990s, with numerous prominent cities in the world like Dubai, Milan, San Francisco, Tokyo, and Vancouver all making efforts towards becoming a zero waste city. The ZWIA convened its first official meeting in 2003 announcing its establishment, and it is now one of the most influential international zero-waste organizations. In 2004, ZWIA adopted the first peer-reviewed and internationally accepted definition of zero waste: “Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.” Through dynamic adjustments, the definition has become more concise and specific, and it is accepted and used widely by other organizations striving to realize zero waste.

Zero Waste principles

The five principles of zero waste consist of the 3R principle plus Refuse and Compost to provide the public with a general principle and reference to achieve zero waste, which is similar to the Zero Waste Hierarchy that will be introduced later:

Zero Waste principles


Refuse to accept free but unnecessary gifts such as fliers, small souvenirs, and plastic shopping bags. Before accepting them, think about if you will use them over time, and whether they can be disposed of properly at the end of their life cycle, or will they simply become additional waste that will end up in landfills or incinerators?


The Reduce principle can be best practiced through a minimalistic lifestyle. Before purchasing a product, make sure that you do not have a product that serves the same purpose, and choose more durable products to extend the life cycle of every product.


Many products are reusable, including disposable tableware and plastic shopping bags that are made of thicker material. In addition, items that you no longer need can be sold or donated to other people to maximize the use efficiency of every item.


When a product reaches the end of its life cycle, recycle the reusable parts as much as possible to that they can be reproduced into new products without the resources ending up in landfills or incinerators.


Composting is a general recycling method that enables organic matter to return to the Earth through biological decomposition. The recycling process of many products such as plastics is a form of downcycling because they cannot be used to produce the same product. Composting, on the other hand, allows organic substances to return to the soil. Waste can thus be reduced significantly by replacing plastic products with compostable products, thereby minimizing the impact on the quality of life.

For more information about composting, see: WHAT IS COMPOSTABLE WHAT TO AND NOT TO COMPOST.

What is the Zero Waste Hierarchy?

The Zero Waste Hierarchy provides a zero waste guideline from the demand/product manufacturing end at the source to the final disposal and recycling end, allowing consumers to take action from the top and reduce waste in a hierarchical order. According to the ZWIA, zero waste is divided into seven steps:

What is the Zero Waste Hierarchy?

Rethink / Redesign

This Zero Waste Hierarchy adopts a design guided by systematic thinking, hoping to move from a linear system towards a closed loop system. Examples include designs that employ reusable, completely recyclable, compostable, or renewable materials, as well as easily disassembled and repaired products. Furthermore, comprehensive product information is provided to consumers to allow them to make informed decisions.


Measures taken to reduce the quantity and toxicity of resources, products, packaging, and materials as well as the adverse impacts on the environment and human health, with the prerequisite that people’s basic needs should be met.


The essence of reuse is to use the materials and products repeatedly as much as possible and to extend the product lifespan through maintenance and modular replacement of components, or repurpose the products for other uses, thereby maximizing the product usage frequency.

Recycle / Compost

Recycling refers to mechanically reprocessing unreusable products into the same products, while composting refers to the breaking down of products through biomass circulation and returning them to the soil, preferably using the home composting method to reduce energy consumption associated with transportation.

Material Recovery

Unrecyclable or uncompostable products can only be processed through material recovery, which includes separating composite materials and recycling the usable materials, which are chemically processed in the form of repolymerization to produce other products. Alternatively, inert materials such as stone, brick, porcelain, or glass are backfilled into excavated areas.

Residuals Management

Examine the final residuals and contemplate how to reduce them through redesigning, in turn minimizing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills or incinerators. At the same time, hazardous gases produced during the process are recycled.


Refuse half-hearted resource recycling measures such as constructing new incinerators or landfills, using waste in products or materials that risk or cause adverse environmental or human health impacts, processing waste into fuel, or mixing waste in cement kilns.

Cradle-to-cradle and cradle-to-grave

Cradle-to-cradle and cradle-to-grave


Devastated by the enormous amount of waste generated by the cradle-to-grave business model, chemist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough officially coined the term cradle-to-cradle in their book Cradle-to-Cradle.

The essence of cradle-to-cradle is the realization of a circular economy by mimicking a natural circulation process in industrial production so that everything becomes nutrients and no waste is produced. This means that products must be conceived through systematic thinking from the design stage, making sure that all materials are harmless to the environment and that the products are easy to disassemble to facilitate their transition into an appropriate new cycle.

Compostability certification is one example of cradle-to-cradle. The certification body verifies through material analysis, decomposition, and toxicity tests that compostable products can return to the soil within a certain period and that they are harmless to the environment.


Cradle-to-grave is the original linear economic model of humankind. After the resources in the cradle are excavated, they are made into products, sold, and eventually end up in the grave (usually a landfill or incinerator, with the worse scenario being the natural environment). The cradle-to-grave model helps to stimulate consumption and economic development while reducing the product life cycle. Minor design or performance upgrades are released in quick succession to encourage consumers to discard their old products and buy newer models instead of spending a large amount of money repairing them. Examples include cell phones and computers, the beneficiaries of Moore’s Law, or fast fashion that sees the launch of new collections every season. These are iconic examples of cradle-to-grave.

22 Examples of Zero Waste

Zero Waste at home:

  • Use compostable cling wrap, food waste bags, and cotton swabs, and compost food and home compostable products at home.
  • Sort recyclables properly, put them in separate containers, and send them to a recycling organization.
  • Avoid using disposable tableware and use sturdy ceramics, wood, or steel products instead, and look after them properly.
  • Choose family-size products with less packaging and use them before the expiration date.
  • Choose classic garments with good weaving and quality to reduce the rate at which clothing is replaced.
  • Use vinegar or baking soda instead of chemical detergents.

Zero Waste in the office:

  • Digitize paperwork as much as possible and use double-sided printing to lower the quantity of paper used.
  • Ask suppliers to send electronic forms instead of paper forms.
  • Subscribe to e-books and e-magazines instead of physical copies.
  • Use a ballpoint pen with replaceable cartridges that are sold separately.
  • Use rechargeable and reusable lithium batteries instead of dry cells.

Zero Waste when eating out:

  • Bring your own reusable cups and tableware.
  • Choose restaurants that use compostable tableware when taking out.
  • Bring your own handkerchief instead of using napkins and paper towels.
  • Only order as much food as you can finish.
  • Choose restaurants that provide reusable plates, bowls, cups, and tableware when eating in.

Zero Waste while traveling:

  • Make use of public transportation or carpooling, and avoid taking a taxi alone or driving.
  • Bring your hotel toiletries such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, and razor, do not get them from the hotel.
  • Choose hotels that offer wall-mounted soap dispensers rather than single packages.
  • Do not accept paper fliers or little gifts that you will never use in the future at festivals or fairs.
  • When waste is produced, look for a public waste bin and put it in after sorting it properly. Do not discard waste haphazardly.
  • Carry a reusable cup with you when you go out, do not purchase bottled water.

For more zero waste methods and details on how to proceed, please read: 2023 ZERO WASTE LIFESTYLE: 20 WAYS TO LIVE A ZERO WASTE LIFE.

Five Zero Waste communities

Zero Waste International Alliance, ZWIA

The Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) is currently one of the most credible zero waste-related international organizations. It regularly invites experts and scholars from different countries to engage in dialogue about zero waste, and it continuously updates the definition of zero waste and the Zero Waste Hierarchy. ZWIA’s zero waste definition, zero waste business principles, and global zero waste community principles are currently adopted by Brazil, Canada, the US, Costa Rica, Uruguay, and New Zealand to guide their respective affiliated bodies.


Slums Going Green and Clean (SGGC-KENYA) is a community-based organization dedicated to improving the sustainability and greenness of Kibera in Kenya, one of the largest slums in Africa. Specific actions include solid waste management, environmental education, work skill training, and infrastructure construction. The aim is to recycle 100% plastic waste in the most eco-friendly manner and establish micro-recycling centers to recycle waste at the source and create employment opportunities at the same time.

Health Environment and Climate Action Foundation, HECAF 360

The Health Environment and Climate Action Foundation (HECAF 360) focuses on the medical waste management system in a bid to realize the vision of a toxin-free Nepal, effective management and recycling of medical equipment, pathological waste, and pharmaceutical waste, as well as promote such technologies globally.


Zero Waste France was established under the name of Centre national d’information indépendante sur les déchets (Cniid) in 1997. Its funds mainly come from public donations. In the early stages, the organization advocated for the regulation of facility waste gas emissions. Now, it strives to achieve zero waste from the source through public education and policy advocacy in place of back-end pollution prevention and control.

Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives: Home, GAIA

The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) aspires to achieve zero waste through non-incineration. Its actions include preventing the World Bank from financing incinerators, persuading numerous Argentinian cities to ban incinerators, and persuading Korea to ban the burying of organic substances, thereby allowing organic substances to be recycled or composted. Other initiatives of GAIA include recognizing waste pickers as legal workers.

Why Zero Waste in 2023?

Zero waste is a grand waste management concept that encompasses initial product design, the extension of product lifespan during use, and final disposal through composting or recycling. It is not simply about recycling and reusing or the incineration of waste to generate power. True zero waste can only be realized by following the Zero Waste Hierarchy to reduce unnecessary waste and reusing products as much as possible, thereby minimizing the environmental impact of waste.