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Insight: Is ‘Zero Waste’ a throwaway term?

The term ‘zero waste’ is in vogue, in the same way that ‘sustainability’ or ‘circular economy’ can be found thrust casually into marketing pitches.

By claiming zero waste, a company stands to gain a favourable view in the public’s eye, strong marketing opportunities and business from customers interested in environmental credentials.

But is it fair for a company to claim this achievement when, despite its best intentions, there are still elements of its waste going to landfill?


On investigation, it seems that the definition of zero waste is not altogether clear. Purists say the term has been diluted by blatant commercial interests taking precedence over genuine environmental concern.

Nevertheless, as the table below demonstrates, various zero waste goals have become fundamental to some of the largest retailers’ strategies - the latest claim being Sainsbury’s reaching zero waste to landfill last June.

Retailer’s Zero Waste strategies

CompanyZero waste to landfill achievedZero food waste to landfill achieved
UnileverJuly 2011n/a
Marks & SpencerJune 2012November 2011
Sainsbury’sJune 2013December 2010
John Lewis / Waitrose95% diversion target 2015February 2012


Real progress has certainly been made. Food manufacturers sent just 3% of food and packaging waste to landfill in 2012, according to figures released by the Food and Drink Federation (FDF). But what is preventing 100% diversion from landfill from actually meaning 100%?

The classic example is when a company recycles the majority of its waste, but still sends a large proportion of it to energy-from-waste (EfW) plants for recovery. Around 4% of the material going in the front end of EfW plants comes out as fly ash, which generally needs to be landfilled, according to Mike Walters, manager waste and water resource, John Lewis Partnership.

Walters, who looks after the waste strategy of Waitrose and John Lewis, believes that the fly ash produced by incineration means the Partnership should not claim 100% zero waste to landfill. Instead, he realistically targets 95% waste diversion from landfill by early February this year but 100% will not be realised until a technology to recycle fly ash can be implemented.

Audit trails

As with other companies that have thorough audit trails, Walters said John Lewis and Waitrose have a policy of “retaining ownership of their waste through to its end destination”. He said the two businesses were working closely with waste contractor Simply Waste Solutions to get clear visibility and waste data.

But fly ash is not necessarily a dead end. Walters said the waste management companies dealing with John Lewis and Waitrose are confident that a recycling solution for fly ash from incinerators will be found by 2020.

So the key to zero waste may lie in technology. For example, when food waste diversion trials began for Waitrose in 2008, the project was hindered because there was only one anaerobic digestion (AD) plant in the UK, which processed commercial food waste (run by Biogen).

With now more than 100 AD plants in the UK, sending no food waste to landfill is a genuine possibility.

Meanwhile, the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA), with members from 30 countries, was formed specifically to challenge those making questionable zero waste claims.


The ZWIA definition of zero waste states: “Businesses and communities that achieve over 90% diversion of waste from landfills and incinerators are considered to be successful in achieving zero waste.”

This allows an important level of leeway, which takes into account the most troublesome factors such as hazardous waste and lack of alternatives to EfW.

Mal Williams, chair of Zero Waste UK Alliance and chair of fundraising for the ZWIA, argues that hazardous substances should not be produced in the first place.

The ZWIA has not yet challenged any company in the UK about their zero waste claims, but Williams said: “Most claims to date are mere greenwash.” He said it was likely that challenges will be made.

He added: “If a company does, or tries to, claim a zero waste policy when it is simply switching disposal methods, then it must be trying to deceive someone - and that cannot sit well with its bankers or other investors.”

But there are success stories. Vehicle manufacturer Toyota was one of the first companies to claim one of its sites in Japan to be working on a zero waste basis. Investigations found the claims to be true, with no landfill, incineration or alternative waste treatments, according to Williams.


He added: “Some big companies are quite genuine [with their claims], which is why ZWIA wants to make sure people use the term correctly.”

MRW asked the retail organisations in the table for a breakdown of their zero waste policies, because audit trails are an essential part of any genuine waste claim.

The Sainsbury’s recycling trail (see infographic above) shows that some of its packaging waste is sent for recovery. But the company claims that less than 10% of its operational waste goes to refuse-derived fuel, which is in line with the ZWIA definition of zero waste.

Where food waste is not fit for human consumption, it is sent to AD plants. Sainsbury’s has invested in Tamar Energy, a company which is in the process of creating a network of 44 AD facilities around the UK.

On the other hand, while Tesco reuses or recycles 70% of its waste, around 15% goes to EfW (see table below), which is more than the ZWIA allocation.

Retailer’s waste sent to EfW in 2013*

 Percentage of all waste sent to energy-from-waste (%)
John Lewis / Waitrose18% (2012)
Marks & Spencer1.5%

*Companies’ own estimates


Meanwhile, a spokesman for Marks & Spencer said: “We minimise any volumes of waste that we send to MRFs by working very hard on our segregation for direct recycling.”

He added that just 8.5% of M&S waste goes to MRFs.

It carries out its own audit trails through both MRFs and any waste sent to EfW to ensure that no residue is sent to landfill. The trail is audited by finance company Ernst & Young as a third party.


With similarly impressive figures, Unilever claims that, in its UK operations, less than 1% of its waste is sent to energy recovery. Tony Dunnage, group environmental engineering manager, said the company’s UK zero waste policies “have been independently assured” by finance firm PWC.

Referring to Waitrose’s successful diversion of all food waste from landfill after the emergence of the AD industry, Walters said:

“All these emerging technologies are coming along, and the great thing is all retailers can be nimble-footed in moving to the best-ability technology to do better things with waste.”


Liz Goodwin, chief executive officer of WRAP, said: “I believe zero waste to landfill is achievable for most organisations. The challenge really is to achieve zero waste overall, and that is an aspiration which we must strive for. I think it can beachieved as part of an economy where resources are kept in use for as long as possible to get best value.”


Iain Gulland Zero Waste Scotland

Iain Gulland, director, Zero Waste Scotland said: “Success really needs to be measured at the whole-system level, taking into account what enters our economy as well as what falls out of it as waste.”

Clearly there is a long way to go before zero waste can be used in its purest sense. But, as Williams points out, San Francisco and the State of South Australia have been at 80% diversion of all waste for some time, which suggests that minimal waste across society is conceivable.


Confusion at the ZWIA

The ZWIA definition does not allow for any waste: “Implementing zero waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health”

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

However, this definition was put up unauthorised and in error during the revamp of the ZWIA website.

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