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Ask UN to Adopt International Definition of Zero Waste

Report from the United Nations International Day of Zero Waste

Richard Anthony, Director of Zero Waste San Diego and President of the Zero Waste International Alliance, delivered a presentation on the peer-reviewed definition during a session before the United Nations Assembly on March 30th, commemorating the International Day of Zero Waste.

May 9, 2023

As chair of the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) planning board, I got a message via from the United Nations General Assembly high level committee on climate and sustainability. They requested that I come to speak as a representative of the ZWIA in New York to the UN General Assembly about climate and sustainability and what needs to be done.  

This was an incredible opportunity to let the world know about the ZWIA and our 25 national and organizational affiliates. ZWIA is a global organization with a vision of a just world of vibrant, resilient, Zero Waste communities, in harmony with nature and a mission to work together as a global community to drive systemic change towards Zero Waste using environmental and social justice principles.

And so, we booked tickets and flew to New York for the March 30th event. This date was declared International Day of Zero Waste by the United Nations at the request of First Lady of Türkiye, Emine Erdoğan, with the resolution of support signed by 150 delegates. 

We really didn’t know what to expect at this meeting. We found a hotel near the UN and had dinner in the neighborhood. The next day I made some contacts and agreed to meet at the gate. We were ushered into the assembly hall where we were seated for the morning session which included the UN Secretary General, the wife of the President of Türkiye, and a couple official UN representees from the environmental, climate and sustainability programs. Next was a set of testimonials from nations. We counted 35 countries that got up and had up to five minutes to express their feelings about an International Zero Waste Day. From the First Lady of Türkiye, and the Secretary General on down they all supported Zero Waste and referred to a circular economy and the three Rs. 

We had lunch in the cafeteria at the UN. The whole building is just a marvel. I had my picture taken next to a statue of Mandela. We came in for the second session which began with our panel. 

Our host was François Jackman, the representative of Barbados and he introduced the panel. The first speaker was from the UN Environmental Program who spoke about the state of the planet and had a very negative outlook based on what was happening globally in terms of climate and sustainability.

I was next. ZWIA is an organization that is talking about how to shape local communities and businesses for sustainability and survival. We realized as more and more groups came to us and asked for certification for Zero Waste operations, we needed to have a definition in which we all could agree and have standards that needed to be met.  The first internationally peer-reviewed definition of Zero Waste was drafted about 10 years ago. It has since been updated and revised with input from Zero Waste organizations from around the world: 

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.

I went over our nine points of program focus: equity among our profession and our projects; banning wasteful products that don’t have an end of life plan other than into the land or air or water; we want producers to be responsible and redesign their products so they can be either recyclable or compostable, or they have to take them back. And they need to be responsible for the mess they’ve made in the past in terms of our rivers and lakes and oceans with their discards. 

We need required sorting, for technical materials that are recyclable, organic and durable goods. We need to work on the organic stream and capture edible food, sending the other organic materials for composting and soil enrichment to grow food for our communities. We need to have a repair economy where the industries that produce products must make them repairable and reusable and they must provide manuals that will basically allow us to fix our own materials. We need to look at our infrastructure and make sure it encourages Zero Waste, taking down the incinerators and getting the organics out of the landfills. These areas can be transformed into resource recovery parks where we put the  composting facility as well as an area for people who bring in their own materials to reuse and recycle.  We want the elimination of depletion allowances for companies and organizations that are exploiting global finite resources like rain forests and oil fields. We need to educate our elected officials on how we feel and how we’re going to get there. We need to stick to our programs when we deal with things like pandemics. 

After I spoke, Aditi Varshneya from GAIA spoke about their international organization that works against burning and for Zero Waste. She represents a network of 800 organizations across the world. The third speaker was Joshua Amponsem, founder of Green Africa Youth Organization and a UN Climate Specialist, and the last speaker was Kathryn Kellogg who has a Zero Waste blog – Going Zero Waste, practices a zero waste lifestyle, and produces less than a baggie of waste per year.

After the panel the testimonials continued. We sat in the audience listening to presentations from over 30 countries. Again, the support for Zero Waste, circular economy, and reduce, reuse, recycle was heralded. The bottom line is they all believed Zero Waste is a good idea.

The next step is to send a petition to the UN to adopt the internationally peer-reviewed definition so when businesses and communities use the term Zero Waste, they have a global standard in sync with the Zero Waste movement around the world.

We really appreciated the opportunity to represent our Zero Waste community and we look to the future moving together to make changes in managing resources that work towards sustainability and making a positive impact on the climate.