As landfills fill up and incineration rises in both cost and scale, cities worldwide are looking for more ways to deal with waste. In addition to adaptation measures, we need prevention of waste- but how does a city go Zero Waste at scale?
We asked Dr Wang Tianyi, Chairman of China Everbright Environment Group Limited, some questions about Zero-Waste Cities and how real-world cities are making zero waste a reality.
Q: Could you define a zero-waste city?
A: Although there is no global uniform definition of “zero-waste city”, the one adopted by the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) is widely recognized - “Zero Waste: the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health”. This can simply translate into “three zeros”, namely: zero abandon, zero landfill and zero incineration, which is an ideal status of zero-waste cities.
Achieving that will certainly be a long and challenging journey. Considering the current situation and global practices, in my opinion, as long as a city fully reuses and recycles waste and transforms that waste into energy or resources without any impact to environment, it could be considered to have achieved the “zero-waste” target; especially if the cities’ incineration rate is lower than 10%.
Developing zero-waste cities is a tough challenge in the on-going global urbanization process. It is also a development goal promoted by China Everbright Environment Group Limited (“Everbright Environment”).
Q: How does a zero-waste city deal with food, water, and plastic waste?
A: A zero-waste city could apply the five Rs to manage food, water, and plastic waste.
Refuse – Refuse to order or use excess food, water, and plastic goods, embracing mindful consumption.
Reduce – Reduce generation of those waste at the source as much as possible, if the consumption is absolutely needed, such as through renewable packaging or sustainable alternatives.
Reuse – Develop a circular reuse process that fully collects waste to achieve its repeated use (i.e. reuse) directly or indirectly, such as glass containers reused by drink shops, or reusing worn-out clothing as rags.
Recycle – Recycle waste through simple treatment, for example, reusing household wastewater for irrigation after simple filtration, and reusing plastic bottles after cleaning and sterilization.
Recover - Extract materials and energy from waste by a relatively more complex treatment process, for example, transforming plastic waste into new raw materials through physical and chemical treatment, and turning food waste into fertilizer with bio composting methods.
Q: Industrial waste can include many by-products that we commonly consider unrecyclable or need a lot of processing and handling, like batteries, hazardous chemicals, gases, and sludge. What are some solutions that we can implement to handle these types of waste?
A: The industrial revolution has brought huge convenience to humans, but it has also generated more and more types of industrial waste. Such waste should be controlled and managed at both the front- and back-end.
At the front-end, in designing and manufacturing industrial products, we could use raw materials and production techniques that are less dependent on dwindling resources and less harmful to the environment and human health, such as replacing coal-fired power with clean energy to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions during production, or applying innovative technologies and processes to reduce energy consumption during the manufacturing process.
At the backend, we need to have clear understanding of the types and characteristics of industrial waste and then tailor a treatment system with appropriate methods for them. For instance, solid industrial waste needs to be sorted and segregated before it can undergo further treatment, but for gaseous waste, small particles need to be removed through physical methods and gaseous pollutants such as dioxins and other gases need to be removed through combustion, through adsorption into solids and various other methods. Each waste must be treated differently to be disposed safely.
Q: What are some of the integrated innovations that can help realize zero-waste cities?
A: Many countries and cities are exploring methods to develop zero-waste cities based on their own unique conditions. I would like to take this opportunity to share an innovative model of Everbright Environment in domestic waste management.
Everbright Environment developed a “Five Points in One Line” model for waste treatment, which includes waste sorting directly at the source, then waste collection and transferal, waste sorting and segregation, waste recycling, and treating the unrecyclable waste which is left over. By doing so, our goal is to establish a closed-loop cyclic pathway for municipal waste, so that waste in a city can be firstly reduced at the source, reused as resources, and finally treated in a harmless way to the largest extent possible, thereby helping the city to become a zero-waste city.
Q: In your opinion, which cities in the world are close to or have achieved the zero-waste ambition? What are the lessons we can learn from them?
A: Some cities are moving close to “zero-waste cities”. Their experience is valuable to us, as it helps us to enhance government policies around waste management and waste management systems and teaches us how to use market-oriented methods to boost recycling rate. Their inspiring stories also help to strengthen public awareness and engagement in waste management.
Vancouver, Canada: Since the launch of its first waste management plan in 1995, the city has effectively reduced waste generation through waste sorting and Extended Producer Responsibility approach, with a goal of achieving zero waste landfills and zero waste incineration by 2040.
Kamikatsu, Japan: Making the “Zero Waste Declaration” in 2003 and since then, gradually developing a comprehensive resource recycling system, the village has achieved a recycling rate of over 80% of their waste.
China only started developing zero-waste cities in recent years. Considering its circumstances, China is expected to first transform from “more landfill, less incineration” to “less landfill, more incineration” and then evolve to “zero landfill, less incineration”, before achieving the goal of “zero landfill, zero incineration”.
Singapore designated 2019 as the Year Towards Zero Waste and launched its inaugural “Zero Waste Masterplan” in the same year, with the objective of becoming a Zero Waste Nation with climate resilience, resource resilience and economic resilience. Singapore has achieved a nearly 100% recycling rate for construction and demolition waste, ferrous and nonferrous metals, and it targets to achieve a 70% overall recycling rate by 2030. I have great hopes that Singapore can make valuable contributions to the world in developing zero waste cities and provide its valuable related experience for other countries and cities to learn.
Dr. Wang will be speaking at CESG 2022 at the Clean Environment Leaders Summit. Join us at CESG 2022 to identify, develop and share practical and scalable solutions to address environmental challenges, including those caused by climate change.