It’s often hoped that a future planet Earth might bring with it a society that is waste-free: a utopia devoid of garbage dumps, sewage outfall pipes or cellophane wrappers. It’s a concept that’s not totally alien to us present day humans, but which unfortunately hasn’t yet gripped society as pervasively as many wish.
The term ‘Zero Waste’ has its roots in the 1970s, and was actually coined by a California-based company Zero Waste Systems Incorporated, whose founders saw it as their mission (more for financial gain than anything else) to find a way to collect and sell on waste chemicals resulting from electronics manufacturing processes for reuse in other sectors of industry and scientific research.
The philosophy of Zero Waste has snowballed since then, and now drives many of the most salutary waste management practices today, such as a recent push by General Motors to make half of its factories worldwide landfill-free. The general idea is a holistic one of minimal impact, whereby the amount of resources consumed in both the manufacturing and use of a product is minimised and the human effort expended is reduced.
Unlike recycling, which begins after the product is used and merely attempts to curtail waste production and reduce the consumption of new raw materials, Zero Waste advocates an approach which addresses the entire process of product design from inception right through to utilisation and then re-utilisation. The objective with Zero Waste is to improve the design of a product so that a long-lifespan and re-usability is built into the item from the start, unlike recycling which attempts to find a use for things after the fact.
For example, instead of collecting waste paper cups and figuring out a way to reuse them such as for arts and crafts or to be processed into new paper, Zero Waste aims to redesign the cup entirely so that there is no opportunity for waste in the first place. This may involve designing a more durable cup made out of plastic instead of paper. As a result, each time a new cup is used, all that must happen is for the waste cups to be collected, washed and redistributed, rather than for new raw materials to be consumed and whole new cup to produced.
In this way, the Zero Waste approach attempts to better engineer the world around us from the ground up, reducing our impact on the planet by creating products and services that are better fit for use.
A good example of how Zero Waste applies to society in a non-industrial setting is seen in computing, where everyday tasks such as going to the bank can be carried out virtually by accessing an internet banking service. This reduces the energy consumed in travelling to the bank, as well as the materials consumed, as massless electrons are used, instead of massive carbonaceous materials such as paper, to document transactions.
The current trend of a world whose industrial and social processes are becoming ever more computer-reliant is towards a society where a lot of things happen virtually, with the likes of paper books and chemical laboratories being replaced by tablet computers and virtual biochemical simulators.
However, in ecological terms, the digital revolution also has its disadvantages. Moore’s Law means that computers are routinely evolving so fast that even the most cutting-edge digital technologies quickly become redundant, being replaced every few years not just by upgrades but quite often by totally new technologies. We can’t really plan for the future in such an unpredictable domain, and to do so would be counterproductive.
Likewise, in the area of implantable medical devices, the aim is to utilise technologies that are disposable in order to minimise the risk of inadvertently passing infections between patients.
However, according to Zero Waste reasoning, the approach in such cases should be no different: devices should again be designed appropriately – by, for example, being made biodegradable – such that their temporary use leaves a minimal impact on their environment.
Just this year, a research team at the University of Illinois announced the development of a biodegradable silicon chip. Professor John Rogers, head of the project, echoes the Zero Waste philosophy, explaining how, in the context of medical implants: “The ability to use materials science to engineer [appropriate] time frames becomes a critical aspect in design”.
Designing a product correctly can turn a material that might normally last centuries into something that will decompose safely over weeks or months. The key in silicon’s case is simply to make the product ultra-thin: “If dissolution rates in the body are about a nanometre a day, a 20 nm thick sheet of silicon is gone in three weeks. So that’s what we made,” explains Rogers.
In her novel The Female Man, Joanna Russ conceives of a future where humanity utilises technology in such a way that enables them to create a society that blends discretely with the world around it, metropolises and urban sprawl are replaced by highly efficient communities set inconspicuously into the oceans and jungles around it.
While this might sound a tad extreme to some, humanity is getting better at engineering the world it inhabits. We’re already designing sustainable, zero-carbon, zero-waste pseudo-arcologies such as Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. A society that works with, rather than against, the Earth’s diverse and fragile ecosystem might be closer than we think.