Zero waste has become a buzzword in recent years, and is now a widely used term to help drive reduction efforts up the hierarchy. However the definition of ‘zero waste’ is open to interpretation – often it means simply diverting all waste away from landfill, rather than preventing no waste occuring in the first place.

Thus there is a danger that setting zero waste targets as the first step in working towards a circular economy will send out mixed messages about the end goal, especially if its definition is taken to mean different things by different societies and stakeholder groups. Given this, there is a strong argument for developing a zero waste global standard that can act as a valid milestone for circular economy realisation.

It is also worth considering that ‘zero waste to landfill’ is not a particularly ambitious strategy if it just means most materials are sent for energy recovery, rather than being recycled or reused. There is emerging evidence that energy recovery is being actively discriminated against by some circular economy thinkers, who want to see an acceleration in closed loops for materials, rather than energy.

So how might we align the more achievable goal of ‘zero waste to landfill’ – where there are established goals and targets – with circular economy aspirations to design out waste? Will those nations with more mature waste treatment infrastructure find themselves locked into conventional recycling and disposal options going forward, while developing countries seize the opportunity to cultivate restorative industrial economies from scratch?


  1. Zero waste could be circular economy by another name, but the term has been muddied somewhat and linked to landfill diversion – do you feel there is a need for cohesion now on the language surrounding this whole agenda?
  2. Do you see zero landfill, or landfill diversion, as a logical first step in working towards a circular economy?
  3. The waste hierarchy is a very useful and understandable model – it is easily translated across the world – does it need meddling with at this stage do you think to take account of more circular thinking?
  4. Would you like to see a zero waste global standard developed? Could this prove a useful tool in determining cross-border strategies?
  5. What about the discrimination of energy-from-waste from some quarters of the circular economy movement?
  6. Is it unrealistic to expect we can do away with closed loop energy recovery systems altogether, especially for certain waste streams, such as food?
  7. Industrialised nations have invested a lot of time and money into waste treatment infrastructure that might not be fit-for-purpose 20 years from now. Could developing nations take the lead here, build in system redesign for material flows, and effectively become circular economy front-runners?
  • Maxine Perella

    award-winning environmental journalist

    Maxine Perella is an award-winning environmental journalist and commentator working in the field of ...
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