A Zero Waste World

Joan Marc Simon, Executive Director of Zero Waste Europe, works on a wide range of projects and policy areas with the single objective of advancing a zero waste future for Europe. Among other publications, he has authored the Zero Waste Masterplan for cities as well as the book Zero Waste: How to Reactivate the Economy Without Trashing the Planet. The Journal of International Affairs spoke with Simon about the zero waste philosophy and its ties to climate change. 

Joan Marc Simon
February 15, 2020

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): What does Zero Waste Europe do? How did you get started doing this work?

Joan MArc Simon (JMS): Zero Waste Europe is an NGO. We do three things: one, we influence policy making, providing new narratives such as a circular economy or the need to move away from single-use plastics; two, we facilitate and coordinate processes, such as work on zero-waste cities; three, we do implementation work, for example coordinating 30 national groups around Europe in the quest for zero waste.

My background is in economics but through my studies I realised that there was a mismatch between theory and reality. Something wasn’t working when in order to make the economy function we had to destroy the very foundations of it. As an economist, I needed to understand how the production system works but I also wanted to fit the economy within ecological boundaries. And by developing zero waste models, I found a way that actually puts economics within the boundaries of an ecological system and allows communities to live in a system without destroying it. 

JIA: What does zero waste mean and how does it tie into climate change?

JMS: Zero waste is a goal and philosophy. It seeks to emulate nature, and nature produces no waste. A zero-waste system allows for an economy that works in the long term. It ties into climate change through emissions, which cause climate change. Emissions are a residue, a waste, from a combustion process. From that perspective, zero waste also means zero emissions. More scientifically, we produced a study that demonstrated emissions associated with end-of-pipe solutions like landfills or incinerators are far worse than recycling and how prevention and reuse measures are much better than recycling. 

JIA: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges currently facing zero waste initiatives? 

JMS: There are two kinds of challenges. One is political, because you need to have the political will - be it from a company owner, a city authority or policymaker - to implement these changes. The second part has to do with economics. Many people tend to think, for example, that zero waste policies are more expensive than wasteful policies, which is an oxymoron from an economic perspective because managing waste is a net cost whereas managing resources is what makes the economy thrive. Winning the argument on the economics front is one of the key challenges. 

JIA: What do you think is the best way to get political will to implement these changes? 

JMS: From a municipality level, for a city, the best way is to present the arguments and mobilize society to achieve this change. In the 400 municipalities that we’re working with in Europe, society has driven a political agenda, that was then introduced to different political parties. In the end, the local government adopted the goal to move towards zero waste. At the company level, it is a matter of making the CEO understand that it is in their economic interest, and in the interest of the survival of their company, to be more efficient in production. It’s also about convincing the CEO to think in a more ecosystemic way of how the company is producing goods that serve society instead of damaging it. 

JIA: How does zero waste tie back into economics? Often, we hear arguments that it’s not possible to take certain ‘green’ measures because it might harm the economy, slow down development or slow down businesses. What do you think of this argument and how do you respond? What are the actual costs associated with zero waste programs? 

JMS: What you’re asking is really the key question. For me, it all stems from a wrong understanding of economics. Economics needs to be part of the ecological system and current economics don’t do that. It is true that if you implement zero waste, some businesses are going to suffer, specifically the companies that profit from the linear economy. Those whose revenues depend on generating waste or those who externalise the costs of their activities while reaping the benefits. 

But if we generate less waste there will be fewer landfills, and less trafficking of waste to other, poorer countries. Less waste also means redistributing money from one part of society to another. If instead of generating waste we generate products that can be reused and keep their value, what we’re doing is keeping the jobs in the community, providing for the supply chains, and so on. 

In the end, it is a political question: what kind of economy and society do we want? If you want a society that depends on waste and all the economics of waste, in a linear economic society, you will use things only once and produce a lot of waste that eventually turns into a liability. That is one economic model that is clearly failing and is causing climate change today. The other option is to go for a zero waste system where you get the opposite: where products have value and people do not waste them, we manage resources, and we provide jobs at the local level. 

JIA: Can you break down the differences and similarities between a circular economy and zero waste? 

JMS: They have many similarities and complementarities but they also differ in some issues. A circular economy does not need to be zero waste, whereas a zero waste system needs to be a circular economy. What that means is that you could have a circular economy that is collecting waste and recycling all of it. That makes it circular, but not zero waste for it is still energy and resource intensive. Additionally, recycling has limitations. For example, you cannot recycle plastic bottles more than five or six times. So, a circular economy faces issues when it comes to dealing with entropy. In a way, a circular economy could be run by and for robots. Whereas zero waste looks more into emulating nature, it is a more ecosystemic approach that puts people at the center. Zero waste is something that starts and ends with the community because it is a system that needs to serve the community. 

JIA: How do issues of social and environmental justice tie into zero waste? How can cities that are at an economic disadvantage or developing countries incorporate these elements of zero waste or circular economies into their communities? 

JMS: Zero Waste Europe uses the same principles in Europe as we use in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and so on. So the philosophy is the same, but the implementation is different. Our approach to environmental justice is that we need to put the community at the center of the issue, because we don’t want to copy/paste systems from the Global North into the Global South. That is something some multinationals are trying to do, but we believe we need to respect the local characteristics and build systems that work for the local communities. Communities must participate in defining the society in which they want to live in. 

What we are seeing today is the model of copying/pasting Western development into the rest of the world. This results in the oppression of many communities, and they are being colonized by these practices. But what Zero Waste does is work to see how we can respectfully help and create useful systems, rather than making things worse. 

What we’re seeing in the developing world is that they are dealing with a lot of the waste that developed countries in Europe or the US try to export. So these countries need to deal with their own waste, plus our own waste, and they don’t have the systems to deal with either. That is deeply unfair. Additionally, the Global North has been blaming the Global South for being dirty and unorganized, and I think it is three times unfair from that perspective. 

From the point of view of environmental justice, we should deal with our own waste and we should help other countries develop their own independent systems. It is extremely unfair that Western companies go to Global South countries and start selling products that they know very well the locals do not have the infrastructure to manage. Then they are surprised to find their brands littering the environment and they blame the locals for not having the waste collection systems. Even if you were to copy and paste the waste collection system that we have in the Global North, many countries in the Global South don’t have the requisite recycling capabilities. First we throw a problem at those societies (waste) and then come up with a solution (recycling). So in a way it’s like giving them the poison, and then an antidote that we know doesn’t even work in the Global North, and that is extremely unfair. 

What we’re seeing when it comes to, for example, single-use plastics, is there are these big corporations like Nestle, Coca Cola, Pepsi, that have been going into emerging markets in Southeast Asia and Africa. Coke is everywhere but many countries do not have recycling facilities, nor do they have the means to collect the bottles, which means that effectively all of that is becoming waste. I think it is hugely irresponsible from the side of the companies. But it is also the responsibility of the Global North as a whole. 

JIA: Zero waste began as a concept for companies and governments but lately in the U.S. it has switched to an individual movement focused on consumers. I have noticed that this movement is predominantly women who operate on Instagram or Pinterest. Is this something you have also seen or thought about? How does this tie into the systems we’re thinking about with governments or businesses? 

JMS: Yes, that has been very interesting to watch. Zero waste is a concept that has been around for decades, since the seventies. The way it started in Europe is very different from the way it started in the US. In Europe, it has been a bottom up movement, starting from communities that opposed landfills and incinerators. These communities then came up with solutions to actually alleviate the problems of a wasteful society. Whereas in the US, it has predominantly been a movement led by white women of a certain social class. It is quite different. We were quite surprised but satisfied to see this movement emerging because it was amplifying our message. It became a way for average people to connect issues like climate change with their everyday lives. We believe that that is very positive. Europe also now has thousands of families embracing a zero-waste lifestyle and this has been key to pressure the European Union to propose a single-use plastic directive. So it is very complementary. 

Zero waste as we see it from our organization goes beyond individuals. The question is how do you actually make the world move in this direction? We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly, we need millions of people doing it imperfectly. We need millions of people living almost a zero waste lifestyle if we are to have a real impact. 

What we’re seeing in Europe, in the US, and other parts of the world is that companies are listening. Issues like plastic have gone into the media and there are now many things happening on this front. Companies are trying to redesign their business models, thanks to the pressure exercised by zero waste influencers, but also thanks to zero waste groups that know a lot about how systems work. For example, how production systems work, how supply chains work, how city authorities operate. Spending time talking to authorities, designing zero waste plans, implementing waste collection and prevention plans, and working with businesses are all very complementary.