Friday, 22 March 2013

Zero Waste - The international scene

So, my adventures in Zero Waste continue in California and on Wednesday I attended the Zero Waste International Alliance Dialog, which brought together representatives and interested parties from the USA, Canada, British Columbia, Brazil, Colombia, Sweden, UK, Italy, the Philippines, Bhutan, India, Australia, China and Hong Kong.

Rick Anthony, Chair of the ZWIA, (pictured above), opened the conference with a history of how the Alliance was developed and how things have moved on from what started as a passion to protect resources from landfills through recycling facilities, to a multi-action programme of now diverting those resources from incineration and reducing waste at source through redesign.  The international Alliance now provides a sound umbrella group for supporting national programmes through the sharing of knowledge and solutions that demonstrate Zero Waste in its true form (i.e. without the alternative of burning) is possible.

The programme of presentations featured experts who have embedded successful solutions in their own countries, working with communities, politicians, manufacturers and technologists to ensure the development of waste management solutions that protect the resources for recycling back into the system.

This is a great slide from Ruth Abbe, from the US, which simplifies the keys to achieving better resource management to a rate of 90% though physical & social infrastructure, with the remaining responsibility for the journey towards Zero Waste in the hands of the manufacturers and legislators to redesign products and ban those materials that cannot recycled or broken down through organic treatment.

Paul Connett, a chemist and international speaker on the topic of Zero Waste, who many now know from his contribution in the Trashed Film, explained in more detail the 10 steps to Zero Waste, which are summarised as follows:

A key theme that I've picked up from the success stories in Paul Connett's presentation and the those that have been highlighted in my trips to San Francisco and Europe is the significance in making waste visible. i.e. to really find out what is being burnt or buried.

Once communities have a handle on that and the associated volumes, debates can then lead to solutions, whether through front end source separation, better community communications, waste hierarchy interventions or feedback to manufacturers for redesign.  It was reinforced again that if there is a political will to adopt this pathway towards Zero Waste, it is possible to embed alternative solutions to those that involve burning resources.

According to Paul Connett, the three international areas that are leading the way with embedding the true Zero Waste goals are Italy, Spain and California.

Again, like the NCRA conference, there was much to learn from the information exchange and here are some of the key points I picked up.

1. Canadians create the most municipal waste in the world, with only 33% being diverted through recycling and composting, but they are tackling it and Zero Waste Canada was created in January 2013.  As well as the challenges of developing its infrastructure, it looks like Canada will also have to protect one of the great things that already exists which is its deposit-based bottle reuse programme, which is currently at risk from centralised recycling schemes.  Elsewhere there are some great collaborative consumption schemes being implemented, including Toronto Toolshare.  Also Canada was the first place to declare BPA as toxic.

2. Great strides are being made in South America, including Bogota's Zero Waste plan, which has fought for its 20,000 waste pickers to be an official part of the recycling value chain.  Zero Waste Brazil has made significant progress too, creating a community based take-back model for recycling that pays participants in credits.  At a higher level, Zero Waste Brazil was invited by the UN peacekeeping force to find solutions for solid waste during the 2010 earthquake disaster in Haiti.  It will also be involved in pushing plans through for the Zero Waste Olympics in Rio.

3. Reports from the US showed how far Zero Waste commitments are spreading around towns and cities across the States and how the Solid Waste Association of North America has now changed the focus of its annual conference from 'Beyond the Blue Bin' to 'The Road to Zero Waste', following the Alliance's guiding principles.

4. From Europe, we saw the great examples once more coming out of Italy with 123 towns and cities that have now signed up to become Zero Waste communities.  It was also highlighted how business and government strategies in Europe have been heavily weighted towards the 'Zero Waste to Landfill' goal, which risks taking away the focus and opportunities for a future down the line that is actually Zero Waste.  Fellow trustee of the Zero Waste Alliance UK, Jane Green, highlighted the development of the Museum of Bad Design as an action-based research response to the need to design out waste.  Elsewhere, Mal Williams warned that whilst planning future models in consumerism and wastage, we also need to prepare for economic shrinkage and make communities more resilient in managing the potential of their resources in a way that also develops social capital.  

5. Froilan Grate of the Philippines spoke of how their strategy for Zero Waste was born out of a terrible tragedy in Payatas in 2000, where over 200 wastepickers died during a sudden landslide on a landfill site.  Since then his organisation has been instrumental in creating over 1000 MRFs to better manage the resources and have developed Zero Waste programmes for management of waste and environmental issues at community level.  The Philippines was the first country to commit to a ban on burning resources and is hence committed to striving high for zero waste goals, so much so that the Minister for Environment was also in attendance.

6. With Hong Kong facing an end to landfill in 2029, Lisa Christensen of Hong Kong Cleanup, called for the need for a Zero Waste Hong Kong strategy to be developed and has committed to sharing the ZWIA expertise locally.

As well as the need for managing rubbish from a resource perspective, various speakers at the conference on Wednesday highlighted that it is a human rights issue too, striving to change infrastructures that move from a world where practice is many areas is simply dangerous to local communities and those who work with with waste.

Examples from Mexico showed how much work has been done to stop the practice of burning waste in cement kilns and from China we heard an urgent call for better management of recycling where evidence has seen untreated plastic medical waste being recycled into poor quality children's toys.

This conference certainly taught me how there is still so much we don't know about the global problem of waste.  It was most definitely an eye-opening event that demonstrated not only how many amazing solutions there are out there if only we take time to look, but also if we look for long enough we realise too how many issues still need resolving.

However, what I saw on Wednesday was a room full of experts including resource managers, chemists,  designers, technologists, campaigners and professionals who are now Zero Waste managers, all sharing their expertise to address these issues. 

One of the key initiatives also announced at this year's Dialog was the development of a new Zero Waste Youth organisation, which held a successful conference of its own in San Francisco on Sunday.  It highlights that the issue of waste is also inter-generational and that the innovation of graduates and young people are needed too to help develop the research and technical skills to implement solutions now and in the future.

And of course, I welcomed the opportunity to share my very own Rubbish Diet story and the details of the forthcoming Rubbish Diet challenge.  It was a real privilege to have the opportunity to profile this blog and my projects on an international platform and hear the amazing responses that followed.  Something tells me that once my Nesta Waste Reduction challenge is over and having the right support in place for the UK programmes, I'd better get ready to roll up my sleeves to help support Rubbish Diet communities internationally.  With interest already coming in from the US, Canada, Hong Kong, it looks like life could get very busy!

But the week's not over yet, and there's still much more to learn and report back on, including the development of international and national zero waste standards and a visit to a MRF that has its own pig farm.

But first, breakfast!


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