What it means to be ‘zero waste’


Re­duce, re­use, re­cy­cle: that’s the essence of a ‘‘zero waste’’ phi­los­o­phy that aims to stop things end­ing up ‘‘in a hole in the ground’’.

Nelson En­vi­ron­ment Cen­tre’s Karen Driver says the idea is to cre­ate a ‘‘cir­cu­lar econ­omy’’ for prod­ucts and waste. Rather than some­thing be­ing made, used, and dumped in land­fill at the end of its use­ful life, it’s about re­pur­pos­ing it so parts are reused, not thrown out.

‘‘To achieve zero waste prop­erly you need ev­ery­one in the chain think­ing about it, but it re­ally comes down to the de­sign of prod­ucts.’’

Man­u­fac­tur­ers and prod­uct de­sign­ers need to have a prod­uct’s end-of-life in mind when they make it, giv­ing thought to how it might be reused, fixed, or re­cy­cled when they’re choos­ing ma­te­ri­als. But ev­ery­day con­sumers have their part to play too.


Driver’s first tip is don’t buy it if you don’t re­ally need it. Avoid prod­ucts that are sin­gle-use, like plas­tic bags or bot­tled wa­ter. Even if some­thing is able to be re­cy­cled, it’s best to cut down on any­thing that cre­ates waste, as re­cy­cling isn’t with­out its own en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts.

‘‘If you’re need­ing to buy some­thing, just think about the life­time costs of it,’’ Driver says.

She sug­gests buy­ing things that can be re­paired - wood­en­han­dled gar­den tools in­stead of plas­tic, for ex­am­ple - and spend­ing a bit more on items like clothes, choos­ing qual­ity gar­ments that will last longer, rather than cheap items that need re­plac­ing ev­ery year.

Buy­ing un­pack­aged fruits and veg­eta­bles is a big one too. It not only cuts down on plas­tic from pack­ag­ing and bags, but it can be cheaper for the con­sumer, as loose items of­ten have lower perk­ilo­gram cost than pack­aged goods. She says buy­ing loose items means you’re more likely to only buy what you need.

Re­cy­cling is just part of the equa­tion.


Any­thing you do own, in terms of plas­tic con­tain­ers and bot­tles, re­use as much as pos­si­ble.

‘‘Re-use it un­til it’s not re­us­able any­more and then re­cy­cle it,’’ she says.

Glass jars and more durable con­tain­ers can be bet­ter in the long-term, how­ever. Driver says places like Bin Inn or or­ganic coops will let you bring your own con­tain­ers to be re­filled, to avoid re­ly­ing on sin­gle-use con­tain­ers.

Prod­ucts like beeswax wraps for food and sand­wiches are avail­able as al­ter­na­tive to plas­tic wrap that only gets one use be­fore it’s tossed in the waste. Biodegrad­able bam­boo tooth­brushes are more sus­tain­able than their plas­tic al­ter­na­tive.


Driver says where peo­ple of­ten came un­stuck is think­ing they have to change ev­ery­thing at once. She says a bet­ter ap­proach is to take it a step at a time.

‘‘Like com­post­ing for in­stance. If you put all your vege scraps in the bin, just think about if you could com­post it,’’ she says.

Worm farms, com­post bins, and bokashi are all pop­u­lar sys­tems. The Nelson City Coun­cil of­fers a $20 dis­count for com­post­ing ma­te­ri­als.

She says the Nelson En­vi­ron­ment Cen­tre is happy to ad­vise peo­ple as to how they could man­age their food waste based on their liv­ing sit­u­a­tion. Bokashi sys­tems work well for apart­ment­d­wellers or those with­out gar­dens, for ex­am­ple.


If some­thing can’t be bro­ken down by na­ture’s pro­cesses, isn’t able to be reused, and can’t be re­paired or re­pur­posed, the last op­tion is to re­cy­cle it.

The En­vi­ron­ment Cen­tre took old elec­tron­ics, in­clud­ing cell­phones, and where they couldn’t use the parts to re­make new de­vices, they would re­cy­cle them.

The new gov­ern­ment is go­ing to look at ways to charge a levy on ve­hi­cle tyres, to help cover the cost of re­cy­cling them at their end-of-life, she says.

Both cen­tral and lo­cal gov­ern­ment had a role to play in pro­vid­ing a frame­work for man­u­fac­tures to be re­spon­si­ble with end-of-life man­age­ment for prod­ucts, and give in­cen­tives where nec­es­sary to en­cour­age com­pa­nies to think about ‘‘prod­uct stew­ard­ships’’.

In Kaiko¯ura, the coun­cil re­alised its land­fill was nearly full and didn’t want to have to dig a new one, so has been en­cour­ag­ing zero waste prac­tises. Auck­land Coun­cil has also been set­ting up com­mu­nity hubs to teach res­i­dents how to re-pur­pose things and en­cour­age them to think dif­fer­ently about what is waste.

Driver says, the first step is for con­sumers to look in their own bin. ‘‘Have a think about what’s the big­gest thing you’ve got in your bin and think about how could you re­duce that.’’


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