While there is no doubt that the prevention of municipal solid waste (MSW) generation should sit at the top of any public policy, industrial strategy and individual behaviour, just like reducing the consumption of energy, this proposition might mislead the public into thinking that waste can suddenly disappear if only we had the will to make it happen.

by Peter Quicker, Stefano Consonni, Mario Grosso

Despite these unattainable expectations, the ‘Zero Waste’ concept has become a viral and omnipresent phrase in recent years. A Google search of this term shows around half a million hits, as of March 2020, and countless government and non-governmental organisation initiatives worldwide. Zero Waste seems to be the only acceptable aim for today’s politicians who embrace an environmentally friendly platform. As a result, countries and municipalities all over the globe have committed themselves to achieving the goal of Zero Waste. So far, however, nobody has managed it, and given the many scientific and practical roadblocks, no one ever will.

In many respects, the Zero Waste concept in the waste management realm seems akin to those seeking to create a perpetual motion machine, and to sell the idea to uninformed citizens. People are fascinated by the idea because it envisages the inspiration of consuming with a good conscience, leaving no garbage behind. Several hundred years ago, they were similarly captured by the idea of producing energy from nothing, using a perpetual motion machine. While the possibility of the latter has often been debunked, the potential to attain a Zero Waste state is still too broadly accepted by citizens and their government officials.

Against this background, this editorial addresses the idea of Zero Waste and the impossibility of its realisation, as well as the essential necessity of (a certain amount of) waste generation as a consequence of economic activity and consumption, due to its function as a sink for non-recoverable toxic and harmful substances.

First, an introduction to modern waste management is given, to clearly show that even the most sophisticated and well-developed programmes for waste reduction, collection, recycling, and treatment systems for waste cannot prevent the formation of at least a moderate, if not significant, residual waste stream.

Since the Zero Waste philosophy is often grounded in ideological environmental prejudices and opposition to proven and cost-effective elements of waste management – naturally, landfills and waste-to-energy (WtE) facilities – the (mostly unsubstantiated and often willingly wrong) related arguments are reflected on in the second part.

Well-performing waste management systems rest upon three main technical pillars:

  • Recycling, including composting;
  • Energy recovery;
  • Landfilling.

All these elements are inevitable for the effective and efficient function of the entire MSW management system, but their relative ratio can change to a very wide extent. Waste reduction and material recycling are the main targets, aimed at retaining as many resources as possible in the loop. Only those residual waste fractions which are no longer available for material utilisation should be treated in WtE plants, especially if they are harmful or hazardous. For inert and mineral waste and hazardous concentrates from other waste treatment processes, specific landfills are needed as final sinks.

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published: Waste management & Research, 5|2020
Keywords: Landfilling, Material Recovery, Policy Tax Instruments, Reuse, Reduce, Germany