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A world without waste

The 'zero waste' movement imagines a future where everything is a renewable resource. Sound impossible? From New Zealand to New England, it's already changing the way governments and companies do business.

IMAGINE AN INDUSTRIAL system in which nothing ever really dies or gets discarded. The highly "unnatural" processes of chemical engineering, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, and disposal would all aspire to a state of nature, where anything and everything is a renewable resource. The familiar three R's of "reduce, reuse, recycle" would apply not just to products at the end of their life span, but to the materials and methods that created them.

In this perfect system, each unit of energy consumed would be somehow offset. Every industrial byproduct would reassemble into something useful and benign. Every beam of sunlight, scrap of garbage, and flush of the toilet would be pressed into service. No exceptions. Humankind would make obsolete the very concept of "waste."

This is the environmental philosophy of "zero waste," a total vision of sustainability for our eco-panicked age. "Zero waste looks at what nature has given us as a model," says Larry Chalfan, executive director of the nonprofit Zero Waste Alliance in Portland, Ore. "Everything at the end of its life, whether it's a flower or a dead body, is recycled; there are no toxic substances or 'waste' built up anywhere to cause harm to future generations. Everything is a resource to be used again."

Zero waste may seem more of a Platonic ideal than a realistic objective. But a growing number of communities and businesses worldwide are adopting its principles, drawn to both its environmental and economic advantages. Corporations such as Wal-Mart, Nike, Toyota, and Ford have all set zero-waste targets for their operations, and so have the cities of Oakland, San Francisco, and Seattle, among others. Outside the United States, New Zealand and regions of Australia and Canada have committed themselves to the zero-waste challenge, and Great Britain is touting the 2012 Olympics in London as the first "zero-waste games."

With its faint ring of the incredible, zero waste is in some ways still more of a buzz phrase, a branding concept for a big idea, than a reality. "We see it as an educational tool to get businesses thinking about what's in their trash," says Adam Mitchell, a partner in Save That Stuff, a waste management company in Charlestown.

But the idea it's selling is a vital one, challenging businesses not only to think about what is in their trash but also to rethink their definition of what trash is. As William McDonough and Michael Braungart wrote in their eco-design manifesto, "Cradle to Cradle" (2002), that stuff we throw away "is just the tip of a material iceberg . . . contain[ing] on average only 5 percent of the raw materials involved in the process of making and delivering it." As Chalfan puts it, "Recycling doesn't change what's already there. We have to rethink how products are made in the first place."

"The whole concept of zero waste may be unattainable -- it may be a mythical goal," says John Warner, director of the Center for Green Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. "That doesn't mean it's not worth working toward the goal."

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What does zero waste mean in practice? It depends on whom you ask. For example, most municipalities that have declared themselves "zero waste" take the phrase at face value, concentrating on diverting all of their garbage from landfills through recycling and composting. Others push harder, such as companies seeking to eliminate all forms of waste from each stage of the manufacturing process. Nike is arguably the leader among multinationals for zero-waste product design, using recyclable polymers, water-based solvents (which reduce both toxins and energy consumption), and fabric woven from used soda bottles. The household chemical manufacturer SC Johnson evaluates the ingredients in every product using their "greenlist" test, which rates raw materials on the basis of biodegradability and toxicity.

The zero-waste mindset is particularly strong here in Massachusetts. In Boston, the Massachusetts Office of Technical Assistance and Technology (OTA) is researching methods using ultraviolet light and digital technology that would radically reduce the energy, water, and chemical costs that are currently required for printing on textiles.

The energy savings would be a boon to the state's textile businesses, which have taken a severe beating from low-cost Asian imports. But the zero-waste approach might have other, less apparent business advantages. According to OTA director Paul Richard, local firms would gain an edge in the European market, which has more vigilant restrictions on the use and disposal of toxic materials than the United States.

The microelectronics industry is also experimenting with a zero-waste approach. At the Center for Green Chemistry, Warner has developed a process for creating printed circuit boards that works at room temperature, using a nontoxic polymer that mimics the self-assembling properties of DNA. All unused materials can be recovered from the rinse water -- no harmful solvents, reagents, or hazardous waste products required.

Such a clean, closed-loop process could potentially have a major impact on a sector that produces startling amounts of waste at the manufacturing level. In a much-discussed 2002 paper, Eric D. Williams of the United Nations University in Tokyo found that 1.7 kilograms of water, fossil fuels, and chemicals are required to produce a typical 2-gram microchip. Williams concluded, "The environmental weight of a microchip belies its tiny size."

The same might be said about many products of the pharmaceutical industry. "The typical efficiency factor for a pharmaceutical process is more than 100 kilograms of waste for every kilogram of product," says Berkeley "Buzz" Cue, who formerly led the green chemistry team at Pfizer. Cue says he's seen impressive improvements in such processes in recent years -- up to tenfold reductions in waste. But he also cautions that eliminating waste completely is not realistic.

"You're not going to see zero waste," Cue says. "But zero waste is useful as an ambitious, aggressive goal." A good analogy might be the four-minute mile, once perceived as an impenetrable barrier for mere mortals. "We'll never run the mile in zero minutes, we probably won't run it in one minute, but you've got to push the envelope to get the most talented people excited about coming close," Cue says.

There are significant costs to getting there, however, and the rewards are not always obvious. "Accounting practices don't necessarily deal with the cost of waste," explains Kira Matus, who is a doctoral candidate in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a doctoral research fellow at the Center for International Development. "The EPA will penalize you for polluting, but there's very little incentive even to think about how you would go no-waste."

Revamping the manufacturing process is also a daunting proposition given the high costs of compliance with the EPA and, for pharma companies, FDA regulations. "Once you're invested, you don't want to tear the whole thing down -- you could be abandoning millions of dollars in environmental control technology," Matus says. As Cue puts it, "Nobody wants to get FDA approval and then change their manufacturing processes. It would be like getting an A on a test and then asking the teacher to re-grade the exam."

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Yet for businesses further along on the supply chain, the environmental benefits of zero-waste methods can seem virtually incidental to the economic rewards. This is especially true for those companies that start out green rather than ones trying to change in midstream.

"It wasn't my original intention to open a business with a particular dedication to environmental goals," says Bill Bridgeman, CEO of the Dry Cleaning Station, a chain based in Portland, Ore. "But it soon became obvious that it could be a competitive advantage. It's a marketing tool that we've been able to use very effectively."

The Dry Cleaning Station invested $85,000 in a machine that uses, filters, and recycles GreenEarth, a biodegradable, silicon-based solvent; for the same money, Bridgeman could have purchased five or more machines fitted for perchloroethylene, or "perc," the kerosene-like chemical deployed in traditional dry-cleaning processes.

"If I poured perc on my floor, it would eat through the carpet and concrete; it seeks groundwater and ends up in the water table," Bridgeman says. "If I poured out GreenEarth, the next day I'd have a pile of common beach sand." And precisely because GreenEarth is a safer, gentler process, Bridgeman says, it reduces the muting of colors that often results from the harsh chemical processes of conventional dry cleaning. According to Bridgeman, the Dry Cleaning Station's combination of green credentials and superior technology has helped to result in 400 percent growth over two years in business.

The Longfellow Clubs, a group of fitness centers in the MetroWest region, has also made considerable financial investments to reduce waste. President and general manager Laury Hammel reckons it will take a year and a half to make back the $15,000 he invested in an ecologically-sound saltwater purification system for his pool facilities (the quick turnaround owes to the high price of chlorine). The waterless urinals in the Longfellow men's rooms, which cost a total of $1,600 each for purchase and installation, will take longer to pay for themselves: about five to six years. But they'll save 45,000 gallons of water per year and postpone the inevitable date when Hammel will have to replace his septic system.

In terms of achieving zero waste, Hammel says, "If you're just talking about physical waste, that's very doable, but if you're talking about the whole enchilada, that's another story."

"It's great to strive toward zero waste," concurs Tedd Saunders, executive vice president of the Boston-based Saunders Hotel Group, "but I don't know how anyone in the modern world gets there." The Saunders hotels, which include Back Bay luxury spot the Lenox, use energy-efficient lighting and vending machines, composting of food waste, infrared sensors that adjust heating and cooling according to whether a room is occupied, and a chlorine-free ionization process for pool-cleaning duties.

Green and sustainable, yes -- but a long way from zero waste, says Saunders, who is also the president of the consulting firm Ecological Solutions. "A company would have to look at the sourcing of their materials, how their food was grown, the means of transportation -- how far back to the cradle do you go?" he asks.

It may be that the vision of zero waste is "a function of perspective," as Bridgeman puts it. He provides an example: "Our locations run 100 percent on wind power. It's far more expensive than regular power -- so from an economic standpoint, is that really 'zero waste'? Somebody had to make a wind turbine; did they use recycled material? What about when they shipped it and put up the turbine? You could go on and on."

Perhaps the path to zero waste might be pictured best as an asymptote, forever curving toward its destination. The goal isn't to arrive there, Bridgeman says, but to come "as close as you can get."

Jessica Winter is a writer in New York.