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The Future of Zero Waste Lies in the Circular Economy

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Read time: 4 minutes

Zero waste is on the rise, and while many people still associate the movement with the mason jar challenge popularized by Instagram influencers and social media mavens, there’s a whole lot more behind its increased popularity. In fact, it is underpinned by nothing less than a dramatic restructuring of our entire “take, make, trash” economy.


Many people understand this restructuring as the circular economy and participating in the zero-waste movement means adopting many circular concepts. However, while both share a range of fundamentals, they also differ in several ways. Here, we explore the two concepts and why the future of the zero-waste movement lies in adopting even greater circularity.

How zero waste implements circular economy concepts

Both the zero-waste movement and the circular economy share the idea that, to stop the impacts of waste, it must be designed out of our existing systems (or loop) while also recovering valuable resources and ensuring polluting elements are kept out of the environment.


However, for the zero-waste concept specifically, this means focussing on a globally agreed hierarchy that expands on the already widely familiar three Rs. Currently, the Zero Waste International Alliance defines this hierarchy in the following way:


  • Rethink/Redesign products and materials to create less waste
  • Reduce consumption of new products and materials
  • Reuse products and materials before disposing of them
  • Recycle/Compost products and materials and avoid landfilling
  • Recover materials from products that cannot be recycled
  • Manage residuals using best possible approach from above
  • Unacceptable incineration and landfilling of products and materials


The circular economy, on the other hand, takes a more systematic approach to the way we consume to design closed-loop systems that promote the circularity of resources to design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use for the entire lifespan, and regenerate natural systems. 


The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines it as this:


“restorative and regenerative by design, and aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times. … It is a continuous positive development cycle that preserves and enhances natural capital, optimizes resource yields, and minimizes system risks by managing finite stocks and renewable flows.”


Clearly, there is plenty of shared ground between the two concepts, and the zero-waste hierarchy itself acts as a circular guide to waste management. Additionally, both concepts look towards the cradle-to-cradle concept (as opposed to cradle-to-grave), going further than simply dealing with waste at the end point and focussing, instead, on addressing waste generation at the source—i.e., the point of manufacture.


However, since circular economy concepts predate the zero-waste movement by a few decades, its influence on zero-waste thinking cannot be understated. Today, it is fair to suggest that the zero-waste movement is a branch of circular thinking, most notably aimed at consumers and businesses who want to reduce waste, while the circular economy encompasses our entire existing system of consumption. 

How zero waste can be improved by circular economies

Interestingly, the zero-waste movement’s appeal to the mainstream may, in fact, be its greatest detractor. With increased consumer demands for more eco-friendly products comes an increased interest from businesses to meet that demand. Invariably, this means that some products are more “eco-friendly” than others, and without careful regulation and monitoring of those claims, we have no way of knowing which products are best for the environment.


For example, the recent proliferation of zero-waste products has the potential to create greenwashing problems where products are manufactured that fail to account for future impacts. Simply labelling a product as “zero-waste” to appeal to business and consumers is not enough, and whether through good intentions or simply used as a unique selling point, integrating a more rigid circular approach must become the priority if we are to truly achieve zero waste.


Biofuel is a good example, and today palm oil plantations used to create this “green” product are a leading cause of deforestation. This effort to replace fossil fuels looks like a good idea on the surface, but the reality is that it is now a significant ecological issue that a truly circular approach may have been able to avoid.


In addition to issues that fail to take future impacts into account, the zero-waste movement is, arguably, still much too reliant on disposable mindsets. In essence, this means that too many products are manufactured that do not address the single-use issue, placing unnecessary demands on waste management infrastructure.

For example, bamboo toothbrushes do a wonderful job of reducing the billion or so plastic toothbrushes that go to landfill each year in the US alone, addressing a huge waste issue with a simple change of materials. However, fast-forward a decade or so and a few billion bamboo toothbrushes is barely a better scenario, since a large proportion will still end up in landfill where they will contribute to methane emissions, even if recycling infrastructure is improved.


True circular thinking can improve these products. For instance, manufacturing separate bodies and interchangeable heads could cut the amount of waste generated significantly. Even better, a return to naturally grown chewing sticks or other products that require fewer manufacturing inputs while also focussing on natural renewable resources.


The same could be said of paper-based water bottles to replace plastic, or compostable packaging for goods that, in fact, could just as easily be distributed in without packaging entirely. The zero-waste movement could lean on the circular economy further by promoting reusable water bottles and easily accessible water dispensers or, for example, by equipping supermarkets with bulk dispensers that consumers can use to refill their own containers time and time again.

The future of zero waste

At this point, it’s worth acknowledging the many good things that the zero-waste movement has achieved. It has bought the concept of proper waste management and the need to reduce waste at all levels to the mainstream. It has fuelled growth in more sustainable products and provided consumers with access to more choice. It has also aimed to set an easily relatable yet comprehensive hierarchy


However, by adopting higher level thinking based on circular economy concepts, the zero-waste movement can still grow and become increasingly efficient. In fact, it has the potential to be the front-facing movement that drives a truly sustainable economy where circularity is the foundation.


Finally, with increased adoption of circular concepts, the zero-waste movement can shake off its critics who would label it simply as another form of greenwashing, creating a movement that not only promotes sustainable products and habits, but that also continuously develops its thinking around closed-loop systems that are to the benefit of everyone.


About the author: 

Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED Green Associate, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, as a sustainability operations manager. Shannon consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices.