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What is Zero Waste?


Key Takeaways

  • We are in a waste crisis
  • Landfills and incinerators are bad for the environment and contribute to climate change
  • Zero waste means eliminating the unnecessary, reusing what you can, recycling and composting the rest.

What you can do to help

  • re-use where possible,
  • compost your food and yard waste
  • recycle everything that can be recycled
  • support policy changes requiring producers of products to be
  • responsible for their products’ disposal (Extended Producer Responsibility).
  • Encourage your municipality to enact a Zero Waste plan

We have a waste crisis

The constant global rise in production of waste, particularly plastic, has greatly outpaced all waste methods. And with China refusing any imports of waste or recycling since 2018, the cost of disposal has skyrocketed. Furthermore, as the climate report from the UN indicated, we are in a climate crisis RIGHT NOW, and solid waste is a big contributor.

So what is Zero Waste?

According to the Zero Waste International Alliance, Zero waste is:

“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.”

Or more simply, eliminate the unnecessary, reuse what you can, recycle and compost the rest.

How does our waste crisis affect climate change?

Production of Plastic

The release of greenhouse gases is associated with every step along the plastic production pathway. For example: cutting down trees to make space for fracking; fracking itself; the transportation of the fracked gas to the cracker plants; the operation of the cracker plants; the production of plastic nurdles; the transformation from plastic nurdles to plastic bottles.


Landfills, our historic go-to option for waste disposal are incredibly destructive and dangerous. 600 acres of land need to be destroyed to create them. They release noxious gasses including CO2 and huge amounts of methane from the decomposing organic matter which contributes to climate change, and dangerous chemicals like PFAS leach into the groundwater.


Furthermore, as landfills reach capacity, incineration has been utilized more and more to reduce the volume of non-recyclable items, many of which are plastics. There are two main processes for using high heat to reduce waste volume: Waste-to-Energy incinerators, and Chemical Recycling. Both methods create toxic ash and air emissions which damage our environment, lead to climate change, and put our health at risk. And neither of them produces enough end value to make them worth the risks.

How can we move toward Zero Waste?


Zero Waste promotes reuse wherever possible. We already reuse when we take our canvas bags into the grocery store or return bottles for the deposit we paid. But what if we didn’t have a throw-away society at all? What if all our bottles were sanitized and refilled by the manufacturers? What if restaurants were required to give you durable containers for takeout that were brought back and sanitized when done? What if every cafeteria and restaurant used durable washable dishware? What if manufacturers of appliances took more care to make their products last longer and be easier to service? What if, when you refurnished your house, there was a ready market to purchase your used but functional furniture? These are all actually lower cost options than our current disposable options, and can keep large amounts of material out of the waste stream, lessen the need for new production and substantially lower our carbon footprint.


Organic waste (kitchen scraps and yard waste) comprises about 20-30% of trash collected every week. Eliminating it from the trash would be a huge step toward Zero Waste. Brookline currently partners with Black Earth Compost to collect organic waste at the curb, which is turned into valuable compost that can be used to enrich soil and drawdown carbon from the atmosphere. However the program is voluntary and paid for by the individual. At this time less than 5% of households participate. An effective Zero Waste Plan will ban organics from the trash and provide curbside pickup for residents alongside their trash and recycling bins.


Our world’s recycling system is ineffective. Theoretically, paper, cardboard, glass, aluminum, and #1, 2, and 5 plastics can be recycled and turned back into similar products. However they frequently are downcycled instead into products that can have no future recyclable life. Furthermore, because sourcing new materials is incredibly cheap (especially for plastics) the demand to improve our recycling system has been minimal. In addition recycling itself is an energy intensive process, and a better solution would reduce our need to recycle because we were reusing and refilling when possible.

Extended Producer Responsibility

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) attempts to decrease the total environmental impact of a product and its packaging by making manufacturers responsible for “end-of-life” management of their products. These policies can incentivize manufacturers to design more durable or reusable products and packaging, increase recycling rates and recyclability of a wider array of products, lower the cost for local government and taxpayers, and fund pollution prevention/mitigation programs. Due to their complexity, EPR policies and laws need to be explicit, thoroughly formulated, enforceable and meticulously written. Excellent EPR for packaging laws have recently been signed into law in Maine and Oregon, and MA has a few EPR bills in this legislative session.

Zero Waste Planning

Recently Brookline, like many municipalities, initiated a planning process to move our town toward Zero Waste to address both the climate emergency and the rising financial costs of solid waste disposal. It is in the early stages, but the town’s plan is eventually likely to eliminate organics from the waste stream, advocate at the state level for Extended Producer Responsibility, and have a robust plan for educating the public.

Written by the Zero Waste Team of Brookline Mothers Out Front