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Confusion over 'zero waste' definition

Zero waste claims are being undermined by the lack of a centralised definition of the concept, it is claimed.

Mal Williams, chairman of the not-for-profit organisation Zero Waste UK Alliance and of fundraising for the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA), told MRW: “Many people are trying to hijack the term ‘zero waste’ to mean what they would want it to mean.”

Last week, 25 members of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) signed up to a commitment to send less than 1% of their waste to landfill by 2020.

The latest BRC report, A Better Retailing Climate, stated: “Absolute zero waste to landfill is an unrealistic target as landfill is currently the only option for types of waste such as the bottom ash from waste incinerators; hence our new target focuses on sending only 1% of waste to landfill.”

This casts doubt on companies that claim to be sending zero waste to landfill.

As MRW reported in an examination of zero waste claims last month, many of the BRC signatories have claimed this achievement ( For example, Tesco claimed zero waste to landfill in 2009.

When asked by MRW whether it should retract its claim, a spokesman said: “Our target is to divert 100% of our waste from going direct to landfill. We will still have some which ends up indirectly in landfill, i.e. the bottom ash from the incinerators that burn the material that cannot be reused, recycled or sent to anaerobic digestion.”

Mike Walters, manager waste and water resource at the John Lewis Partnership, which has not made any zero waste claims, said: “My understanding is that applications for use of bottom ash from incineration in the production of building blocks, as one example, are already being developed.

“It’s the fly ash, containing contaminates extracted from emissions and trapped in the stack filters, that are challenging to put to use.”

But Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s, which have both claimed to send zero waste to landfill, are utilising these technologies.

An M&S spokesman said: “All our waste is recycled, including the small amount of waste from incinerators we produce. Typically, we will work with the building trade to recycle this into materials used for construction.”

A Sainsbury’s spokesman said: “Our own fly-ash does not go to landfill. Instead, it goes from our incineration partners to things like road construction and foundation layers for certain buildings.”

Despite these uses for ash, Williams said the ZWIA still recommends managed landfill as being preferable to any form of incineration.

He said: “Retailers can hide a lot of potentially embarras-sing bad practice if they can simply burn waste instead of burying it. It’s a very lazy choice.”

Walters countered: “Many retailers are doing really innovative work to minimise the environmental impact from waste arising from their operations.”

Confusion at the ZWIA

The ZWIA’s definition of zero waste does not allow for any waste. It says zero waste should “conserve and recover all resources, not to burn or bury them”.

A recent MRW insight into zero waste to landfill claims said the ZWIA definition allows for 10% of a company’s waste to be sent to landfill or incineration.

But this definition was put up in error during a revamp of the ZWIA website.

Readers' comments (1)

  • From John S Glover - Managing Director of Bywaters. Are Zero Waste & Drink Responsibly oxymorons? Because of a lack of facilities a vast amount of material is ending up in landfill, particularly from local authorities. The "Government" at all levels has talked and talked, but if you have the answer you get no promised support and landfill is then often the only outlet. The banks want to see a long term contract for facilities the industry would once be able to finance internally. So failure all around and watch everyones vehicles being forced to landfill material.... EVEN IF THEY DON'T WANT TO.

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