Think of a world without junk mail and phone directories. It must be a place where newspapers are gone too. Compared to these, products like electronics are made to last much longer. Because it’s a system designed to reduce waste in the first place, it doesn’t really need incinerators and landfills.
It’s a postconsumerist society imagined in Closing the Loop: Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Creating Green Jobs Through Zero Waste in B.C., a study amusingly described by one of its authors as a “geeky” conceptual paper.
“What we’re trying to do is to think about how we can have better systems in our society that allow us to have the same high quality of life that we enjoy,” Marc Lee told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “We still can have the benefit of consuming things that add value to our lives but doing so in a way that is within the carrying capacity of the planet.”
If that last statement sounds familiar, it’s likely the influence of another of the paper’s four authors, Bill Rees, a former UBC professor who formulated the concept of ecological footprint, a measure of humanity’s demand on the planet and its resources.
Lee is a senior economist for the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which copublished the study with the Wilderness Committee.
“The impetus for the paper was to sort of say, ‘If we look at zero-waste policies, what does this mean in terms of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions?’ because you’re reducing the need to extract raw materials and [reducing as well] a lot of the energy required to process those materials into products that we consume,” Lee explained. “And what are the prospects for green jobs if we do what we’re talking about in terms of closing the loop?”
According to the 46-page paper, “zero waste” is a concept that has emerged as a “new pillar of sustainability, an ideal juxtaposed against a global economic system characterized by environmental degradation and wasteful consumption”.
Although “reduce, reuse, and recycle” programs have become commonplace, the world continues to churn out ever-increasing volumes of products in a “linear system” that goes from raw-material extraction to manufacturing, consumption,
“In contrast, zero waste places much greater emphasis on upstream, proactive solutions—aggressive materials reduction, re-design, and re-use before recycling and composting,” the paper states. “The object is to reduce the material and energy throughput of the economy—the volume of materials that flow from extraction through to disposal, and the energy used along the way.”
Governments will have a huge role in this shift. For example, they can set recycled-content standards for new products. “The percentage of recycled content in a product could be a mandatory disclosure and a materials trust fund could provide rebates to companies based on the percentage of secondary materials used in their product,” the paper suggests.
However, plans like Metro Vancouver’s proposed second incineration plant that will burn 370,000 tonnes of garbage a year “could undermine zero waste goals, as waste will be needed as a feedstock to power the facility for several decades”.
According to the authors, the closed-loop model will generate “green jobs”. They note that in 2011, there were about 5,100 jobs in waste-management and remediation services in B.C. Using an analytical tool, they estimate that there is a potential for about 12,300 “direct jobs” from 100-percent recycling.
“Employment arising from recycling materials can be 10 times higher per tonne than disposal but requires robust markets for recycled materials,” the paper notes.
The concept of a closed-loop system may sound geeky to some, but like many ideas, it may later find wide acceptance.