Trash-free communities have shown garbage is handled better if residents, from politician to common man, join hands, says Dharmesh Shah

Zero waste is both a goal and a plan of action. The goal is to ensure resource recovery and protect scarce natural resources by ending waste disposal through incinerators, dumping, and landfills. The plan encompasses waste reduction, composting, recycling and reuse, changes in consumption habits, and industrial redesign. In a zero waste approach, waste management is not left only to politicians and technical experts; rather, everyone impacted - from residents of wealthy neighbourhoods to people living around city’s waste dumps, private, and informal sector workers who handle waste - all have a voice. Let us look at some zero waste communities.

Flanders, Belgium

The Flemish region of Belgium, Flanders, has become the torchbearer of waste management in Europe. Through various policy and community interventions, it has achieved the highest waste diversion rate in Europe - almost three-fourths of residential waste produced in the region is reused, recycled, or composted, and it has managed to stabilise waste generation. Approximately 4,900 tons of organic materials were composted or treated through anaerobic digestion every day. By 2010, approximately two million people started composting at home. The most unique aspect of the model is that the per capita waste generation has held steady since 2000, showing a rare example of economic growth without increased waste generation.

Pune, India [1]

Over the last two decades, Pune’s waste pickers have created a remarkable transformation in their city’s municipal waste management system and in their own lives. These informal sector collectors of recyclable materials formed a union to protect their rights and bring dignity to their work. The union has been so successful that it has allowed them to implement door-to-door collection covering nearly 500,000 homes. As a result, the rates of source separation, and separate treatment for organics is progressively improving across Pune. The cooperative of waste pickers diverts enough waste to avoid 640,000 tons of greenhouse gas emission and saves the city corporation nearly Rs.90 lakh annually [2].

Taiwan, China

The island of Taiwan faced a waste crisis in the 1980s because of lack of space to expand its landfill capacity. When the government turned to large-scale incineration, the community’s fierce opposition not only stopped the construction of dozens of burners, but also drove the government to adopt goals and programmes for waste prevention and recycling. Since then, waste generation in Taiwan dropped from 8.7 million tons to 7.95 million tons between 2000 and 2010, despite a 47% increase in GDP in the same period. The Taiwan Environmental Protection Agency (TEPA) adopted zero waste goals in 2003 which among other measures laid strong emphasis on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) - making producers responsible for changes in design and production to reduce the waste generated by their products and packaging.

Alaminos, Philippines [3]

Alaminos is at the forefront of implementing the Philippines’ decentralised waste management law. Through an NGO partnership, village leadership has established comprehensive zero waste strategies, including backyard and village-level composting, source separation programs, and small-scale sorting facilities.

As a result, open burning and dumping have virtually ended, and informal sector recyclers are recovering more materials, under better conditions, and selling them for better prices than before. All this was made possible by a bottom-up planning process that brought together local officials and stakeholders to generate zero waste plans at the village level.

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[1] On the Road to Zero Waste – Successes and Lessons from Around the World. GAIA, 2012.

[2] Report on Scrap Collectors, Scrap Traders and Recycling Enterprises in Pune. ILO 2001.

[3] On the Road to Zero Waste – Successes and Lessons from Around the World. GAIA, 2012.

Dharmesh Shah is a researcher and environment activist, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA)

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