Guest Articles

September 7

Claire Arkin

Three Reasons Why Zero Waste is Essential to a Green, Fair Economic Recovery from COVID-19

We’ve all heard the dire statistics about the global waste problem: The amount of plastic the world produces is set to quadruple in the next 30 years, and yet we’ve only been able to recycle 9% of existing plastic. Plastic has been found in the remotest regions of our planet, and in our own bodies. It is clear that dramatic action is needed to stop the scourge of plastic waste and the environmental and health risks that come with it. 

However, waste is not an inevitability, as we’ve often been made to think, but the result of a linear, inefficient economy that discards resources that can be conserved. And as we’ve seen with this dumpster fire of a year, the world is contending with many intersecting crises — from economic inequality and racism to a rapidly changing climate — that have made the COVID-19 pandemic much worse. That’s why the recovery plans and investments that we prioritize today must address these root causes, instead of just putting a band-aid on an open wound. That’s where zero waste comes in. 

One of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives’ (GAIA) most recent publications on zero waste defines the term as such: “Zero waste is a comprehensive waste management approach that prioritizes waste reduction and material recovery. Strategies include policy interventions and business approaches to drive the redesign of products and delivery systems; and increasing access to reuse, repair, recycling, and composting. The ultimate aim is to create a circular economy, shrinking waste disposal to zero. Disposal-based systems rely on incineration (“waste to energy”) and landfills to handle the majority of the waste stream, resulting in higher economic costs and environmental consequences.”

Implementing zero-waste systems in both private enterprise and municipal infrastructure and policy can revitalize our economies, create good jobs, save money and improve the quality of life of countless people. The collapse of global supply chains during the pandemic has shown that the local nature of zero-waste businesses also makes them an essential part of economic resilience and stability. As recovery from the pandemic comes gradually into focus, we’ll explore three reasons why a zero-waste approach is key to building a healthy economy in countries around the world, and highlight some businesses that are working toward this goal.


Zero waste is good for business

There is a growing movement of social entrepreneurs, particularly in the Global South, who are not only convinced that zero-waste businesses are possible, but who are actively demonstrating it. 

These businesses are aligned with deep-seated cultural traditions in many emerging economies. Across Asia, for instance, zero-waste practices have been a way of life for generations. Packaging for many products often consists of banana leaves, woven baskets and other organic, biodegradable materials. And in countries like the Philippines, buying only what you need has long been part of consumer culture, mainly out of necessity due to people’s precarious financial circumstances.

But unfortunately, multinational companies have largely replaced this zero waste culture in the Asia Pacific with single-serve, multi-layered sachets that instantly become waste, clogging waterways and overwhelming fragile waste management systems. In response, local businesses are fighting back by providing their communities with an affordable, sustainable alternative that harkens back to a time before plastic.

NUDE, a zero-waste store in Malaysia, offers its products in whatever size/amount customers want, allowing for price flexibility. “Our prices are comparable to, if not better than, supermarket prices, which helps our customers go zero waste without burning a hole in their pockets,” says co-founder Cheryl Anne Low. ”The fact that you don’t need to buy pre-packaged quantities allows you to dictate exactly how much you need to consume and spend.” 

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of zero-waste businesses is not only their ability to spur consumer change but their tendency to have positive ripple effects throughout the supply chain. For instance Back to Basics (BtB), a refillery and ecostore in the Philippines, not only caters to customer demand for eco-friendly products but also ensures that its suppliers are aligned with its practices. The store sells almost exclusively Filipino products, and it has convinced many of the brands it works with to change their delivery models to cut waste. According to co-founder Lia Esquillo, when BtB’s team asked soy sauce manufacturer Marca Piña to take back their product containers upon delivery, “We had to explain to them how we did things at BtB, and in the end, they understood and even provided us a discount for returning their containers.”  Other suppliers have also proven to be supportive of their approach, including big manufacturers like cooking oil giant Minola. 

These are just some of the many examples of stores that have provided affordable, zero-waste alternatives to customers while pushing supply chains toward greater sustainability.


Zero waste creates good jobs

Often when we hear about environmental issues, jobs and environmental protection are framed as fundamentally at odds with one another. Especially when it comes to waste, this couldn’t be further from the truth; what’s good for the environment is also good for the economy. Studies show that zero-waste strategies score highest on environmental benefits and create the most jobs of any waste management approach: For example, material repair creates over 200 times as many jobs as disposal in landfills and incinerators, and some estimates around reuse systems have been even higher.

Other research has found similar benefits. For example, a recent report from the GAIA analyzed the job growth potential of cities around the world, if they were to divert 80% of their recyclable and compostable waste from landfilling and incineration. The numbers were impressive: For example, we found that Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, could create over 18,000 jobs each, and São Paulo, Brazil, could create an astonishing 36,000 new jobs.

What’s more, zero-waste systems not only create more jobs, they create better jobs. Studies show that jobs in zero waste go beyond basic manual labor, provide higher wages, offer more permanent positions and improve workers’ quality of life.


Zero waste fights poverty and fosters economic justice

In the Global South, many municipalities rely on the informal sector for waste collection and recycling.  Recycling rates achieved by the informal sector range from 20 to 50% in China, Pakistan, India and the Philippines, and informal recyclers collect 90% of what is recycled in Brazil and 80 to 90% of post-consumer packaging and paper recovered in South Africa. 

Yet despite their vital importance to waste management efforts, few acknowledge the critical role these workers play in society by giving them a wage, protections and a seat at the decision-making table when designing waste management systems and policies. And when COVID-19 hit, the lives of millions of waste pickers around the world became even more precarious. When the lockdown came to Warri, Delta State Nigeria, waste picker ThankGod Ogheneovo, the sole breadwinner for his family, was worried. “I pick waste for a living and my family depends on what I bring home for survival,” he says. “The pandemic took us by surprise, in such a way I could not plan for.” 

This is not an uncommon story for waste pickers during the pandemic. Between 12.6 and 56 million people work in the informal recycling sector, and they’ve faced escalating challenges since the COVID-19 crisis began. If they or their family members become ill, they cannot get sick leave, and they often work without proper personal protective equipment. Although they are essential workers, keeping their cities clean and ensuring that valuable materials are able to get a second life, their contributions are often invisible to most people. 

But despite these obstacles, waste pickers have built scrappy (no pun intended) collection and recycling networks without government support — and often against considerable odds. The deep knowledge and expertise that these workers hold earn them the right not only to formal recognition and a decent wage but also to a central role in creating a more sustainable future for cities. 

By focusing on sustainable waste management, cities can make a key contribution to environmental protection, while also saving themselves a lot of money. Waste management is the single largest expense of most municipalities in the Global South, but it doesn’t have to be that way. By implementing a better collection and recycling/composting system, municipalities can, on average, reduce waste management costs by 70% per tonne of waste And in the process, they can create better environmental outcomes and social justice for a long-neglected yet significant percentage of their populations.

Cities that have formalized waste pickers as part of their zero-waste plan have already experienced the cost and climate benefits. For instance, the SWaCH cooperative in Pune, India, provides a waste management service to the city that costs less than 1/15th of what it costs in other cities in the country. And the cooperative Amanecer de los Cartoneros, in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, prevents the emissions of about 69,000 tonnes of CO2e per year by allowing the substitution of recyclable materials for raw ones. It also prevents the release of 43,000 additional tonnes of CO2 per year by avoiding the open burning of materials, and 157 tonnes of CO2 per year by using manual carts instead of trucks. These inclusive zero waste systems have created stable jobs, transformed lives, and put cities on the path to a more equitable and sustainable future.  


Getting on the Road to Zero Waste

A common misconception about zero waste is that it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. But the good news is that zero waste is both a journey and a destination, and the process can be broken down into small, concrete steps that get businesses and municipalities closer and closer to their sustainability goals. 

Fortunately, there are hundreds of examples from around the world of what this transition can look like, so there’s no need to start from scratch — but it is important to start. Moving toward zero waste can help reduce not just the waste of resources, but the waste of money and talent — and most devastatingly, the waste of lives due both to the health effects of pollution and the risks of unsafe waste collection activities. Let’s finally tackle our waste problems, and see how we can build a world not of scarcity but of abundance, where nothing and no one is wasted. 


Claire Arkin is the Global Communications Lead at GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives).


Photo courtesy of Marcel Crozet / ILO.




Coronavirus, Environment
circular economy, COVID-19, recycling, waste