Joan Marc Simon: Waste is a resource! (Feb 07)

Joan Marc Simon, one of the engines behind Zero Waste movement, had an inspiring speech at Let's Do It! World Cleanup 2012 conference in Tallinn. We asked him to share the philosophy behind Zero Waste movement and talk about the possibilities to turn waste management into resource management.

What led you to your work for zero waste - was there any specific moment or event?


I’ve always been interested in sustainability issues. I’m an economist by training and it always puzzled me how we have associated development to trashing the planet... weren’t be supposed to be making the best use of the resources in order to leave a better world to our children and grandchildren? Our generation has had everything except sustainability. Having said that I was worried that sustainability was always about empty words by politicians and didn’t know how to help until I run into Zero Waste in a conference in Naples. Yes, in a place famous for all the bad things around waste I discovered a bottom-up international movement that was putting into practice sustainable solutions. I saw that finally there was something I could do for sustainability.

What does zero waste mean? Is zero a realistic goal?

Zero Waste means that we design a world where everything we produce has the minimum impact on the environment and society; that all the products are designed so that they last and at the end of their lives they can be reused, repaired, recycled or composted and that we have systems in place to make sure that this actually happens.

Is it realistic? Well, think about the option of continuing our throw-away society that is causing so many problems. To anyone who says that Zero Waste is utopic I ask them “how much waste are you for?”  and when you think about it you see that only Zero Waste is acceptable as a goal. For companies waste is a sign of inefficiency, a cost that they want to bring down to zero; why should it be otherwise for societies?

Zero Waste is a philosophy but it is also a goal, a goal that shows a direction and helps you to walk.

Do you believe we could arrive to a world without landfills and incinerators? When would it happen?

Of course we can live in a world without landfills and incinerators! This is how humankind lived during all history until the industrial revolution. When this happens this will be the sign to our civilization that we have achieved sustainability. We will not be sustainable until all incinerators are closed and landfills are closed.

When will it happen, depends up to us. There are civilizations in the world that live without waste, sadly the more developed a society is the more waste it generates. But this doesn’t need to be like this, we should be able to keep our quality of life reducing our material consumption and creating virtuous cycles of materials and energies. If we manage to act as consumers, as producers, and citizens, as voters, etc we can make it happen. What I like about all the Zero Waste experiences I know is that they start with non-partisan motivated citizens that push for a change, after all it is just a matter of will.

What are the most crucial steps in the larger scale that need to be taken to get to zero waste?

There are many. At a global level it would be necessary that single-use and badly designed products are penalized or banned so that sustainability is incorporated in any new product. Also, there should be a ban on subsidies to incinerators and landfills and instead this funds should be directed to prevention, recycling systems and facilities, composting plants... but subsidies should go for the good stuff not for the bad. The cross-border producer responsibility is also a challenge that we have to face.

What steps can local communities take now to move towards zero waste society?

At the local level, the municipalities we work with first of all make the system and the costs very transparent so that the problems can be seen and corruption avoided. Then it is important that they implement good source separation strategies, around 80% of all the waste is fully recyclable or compostable, it is just a matter of collecting it separately. Then for this 20% that cannot be recycled we need industrial responsibility so that the producers take the responsibility to design products that can be recycled. Finally it is vital that investments go to waste prevention and recycling not to incinerators and landfills because experience shows that once these disposal facilities are built the municipality has not an incentive to recycle more because by contract they have to feed the burners or the dumps.

But if you don’t want to wait for your municipality you can start from your own home. We have Zero Waste people and families in Europe that despite having to cope with lots of stuff that is designed for the dump they still manage to live a life without waste. In Sweden a Zero Waste family of four generates less than 1kg of waste per month and in England a family managed to throw out only one plaster after two months. Why not start your Zero Waste experience now?

A zero waste family is possible »

A zero waste month in Sweden »

Any good examples?

There are many examples of communities and individuals who are moving towards Zero Waste. In Italy 72 municipalities -4% of the population- committed to Zero Waste and most them are recycling more than 70% of the waste. Around the world communities are pushing their elected representatives to make bold steps in the Zero Waste direction.

Zero Waste is a movement of people who care about the world we are living to our children, is a philosophy that empowers citizens to take action for sustainability instead of relying solely on the initiatives from above. Be the change you want to see in the world!

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