Achieving zero waste means focusing on destination, not diversion

Achieving zero waste means focusing on destination, not diversion

In striving to create a waste-free world, it is important that we articulate not only our goals but the ways we plan to go about bringing them to fruition. I believe our objectives would be much better served in this regard with a simple word substitution. Rather than focusing on diversion rates as the way we measure recycling success, what we really need to be talking about are “destination rates.”

So what's the difference between “diversion” and “destination” when used in this context? To begin with, the idea of material simply being “diverted” is one that reflects a conventional waste-industry mindset. In other words, the mere fact that a consumer deposited it in a recycle bin and the material recovery facility baled it and put it in a container for export to an unknown destination -- which is for the most part the definition of “diversion” -- is far short of what it takes to achieve a zero waste objective.

In a zero waste world, every material relegated for recycling would have a specific destination, just as those liter-size Pepsi bottles are reprocessed into PET (a solid version of polyester) and then converted into new bottles. Another example: Johnson Controls thermostats that have the perfect color and blend of plastics would be continually returned to the company and reused. Likewise, key electronic components would all go back to their manufacturers – the Apples, Dells, and HPs – where they could be incorporated into the next generation of products. Even cars would be broken down by components, which would then be returned to auto plants. A focus on destination rather than diversion is the first step in the methodology of zero waste. But to accomplish this, there are certain specific things that need to be done.

Photo of hand placing bottle in recycling bin provided by Mikhail Zahranichny via Shutterstock

1. Design products to sustain the highest level of use. The first step would be to start redesigning everything for reuse and reassembly. This would allow both products and packaging to have a destination as well as be "reincarnated" to the highest and best use possible. The zero waste ideal is not one that allows for material to be degraded or devalued in its next life.

2. Ensure clean and well-coordinated recovery procedures. Implementing and maintaining a clean and efficient system for recovery and transportation is critical to success of a zero waste initiative. In most cases, this would require an adjustment or upgrade of existing infrastructure. Far more significant, however, would be the task of changing the mentality of staff, management and volunteers from diversion to destination, and instilling in them the importance of clean streams and the value of marketing recovered material at home -- rather than shipping it off to places like China for reprocessing.

3. Promote awareness of "material values." Whether the materials being recaptured and reprocessed originate in a community or a manufacturing facility, the people handling them at all points along the way must be made fully aware that these are valuable resources and not simply waste products or trash. Such education is absolutely essential in the evolution of a zero-waste society.

4. Achieve fiscal efficiency by understanding "street value:" The system ultimately needs to be financially efficient. This means, very simply, that it has to save both the consumer and manufacturer money. Is this possible? Absolutely. It's not only possible, in fact, but it has already been demonstrated.  For example, you can find used iPhones selling for as much as $200 apiece, yet being offered for two bucks or even given away at diversion-type facilities, and competitive market bids as high as $5 apiece on empty ink jet cartridges that are considered practically worthless. Yes, these are real numbers -- and they prove that real profits can be made with a little understanding of the actual “street value” of materials that have completed just one transitory phase of a useful life.

So, yes, a world of zero-free waste is not only feasible, but on the immediate horizon -- provided we're willing to do what it takes to make it a definite destination and stop allowing ourselves to get diverted.