Aiming for zero waste

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 The ZeroWIN approach

 Zero waste is a unifying concept for a range of measures aimed at eliminating waste and allowing us to challenge old ways of thinking. Aiming for zero waste will mean viewing waste as a potential resource with value to be realised, rather than as a problem to be dealt with. But zero waste will not happen overnight…

by Ian D Williams and Tony Curran

Zero waste is a whole system approach that aims to eliminate rather than ‘manage’ waste. As well as encouraging waste diversion from landfill and incineration, it is a guiding design philosophy for eliminating waste at source and at all points down the supply chain. It shifts from the current one-way linear resource use and disposal culture to a ‘closed-loop’ circular system modelled on Nature’s successful strategies (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Linear and cyclical resource flows.

Targeting the whole system means striving for:

  • zero waste of resources: energy, materials, human;
  • zero emissions: air, soil, water;
  • zero waste in activities: administration, production;
  • zero waste in product life: transportation, use, end of life; and
  • zero use of toxics: processes and products. 

Waste as an industrial resource

The zero waste approach envisions all industrial inputs being used in final products or converted into value-added inputs for other industries or processes. In this way, industries will be reorganized into clusters such that each industry’s wastes/by-products are fully matched with the input requirements of another industry, and the integrated whole produces no waste. From an environmental perspective, the elimination of waste represents the ultimate solution to pollution problems that threaten ecosystems at global, national and local levels. In addition, full use of raw materials, accompanied by a shift towards renewable sources, means that utilization of the Earth’s resources can be brought back to sustainable levels.

For business, zero waste can mean greater competitiveness and represents a continuation of its inevitable drive towards efficiency. First came productivity of labour and capital, and now comes the productivity of raw materials – producing more from less. Zero waste in industrial networks can therefore be understood as a new standard for efficiency and integration.

What is ‘ZeroWIN’?

‘ZeroWIN’ (Towards Zero Waste in Industrial Networks) is a five year project running 2009-2014, funded by the EC under the 7th Framework Programme. It has 30 academic and industrial partners across Europe who will integrate their expertise and trial the chosen strategies. The consortium will investigate and demonstrate how the closed-loop philosophy can contribute to achieving zero waste by adopting a network approach, and using a combination of methods and tools, use of technology and design innovations and policy measures.

The ZeroWIN partners worked up their project proposal and recognised that research in this area was necessary. The project is divided into distinct Work Packages (WPs) as illustrated in Figure 2. Some elements of work are sequential, for example developing the zero waste vision (WP1) before deciding on which new technologies (WP2) and waste prevention methods (WP3) to apply and which tools to use (WP4), and in turn agreeing on these before developing a production model (WP5) for resource-use optimization and waste prevention. Other elements run in parallel, including nine case studies which will put the production model to use (WP6), and detailed quantitative assessment throughout to evaluate success (WP7). The policy implications of the ZeroWIN approach will be reported (WP8) and extensive dissemination of results is planned (WP9). Overall management and coordination is formally written into a work package to ensure the project operates efficiently (WP10).

Figure 2: The 10 work packages of the ZeroWIN project.

ZeroWIN will focus on high-tech electronics waste (WEEE, automotive, photovoltaic) and C&D waste.

How has it defined zero waste?

The ZeroWIN consortium has defined zero waste as:

‘A goal that is both pragmatic and visionary, to guide people to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are resources for others to use. Zero waste means designing and managing products and processes to reduce the volume and toxicity of waste and materials as close to zero as possible, conserve and recover all resources and not burn or bury them. Successful Implementation of zero waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that may be a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health. In industry the goal of zero waste will be accomplished with the aid of industrial symbiosis and new technologies.’

This definition of zero waste describes a so-called ‘whole-system approach’ to redesigning resource flows to minimize harmful emissions and to minimize resource use. It is also a unifying concept for a range of measures aimed at eliminating waste and challenging old ways of thinking. It is envisaged that zero waste to landfill or incineration in Europe can be achieved over a 10-30 year timescale, although a co-ordinated and concerted effort focused on waste prevention, minimization and reuse will be necessary. It is important to recognise that zero waste is a target to be strived for, not an absolute, and it is possible that landfill or incineration may ultimately be the best option for a very small number of wastes.

What is an industrial network?

There is no universal definition of an industrial network. Industrial networks historically have developed over time, depending on a number of factors. The current examples of industrial networks around the world can inform ZeroWIN, although it is recognised that these have often developed organically and with myriad objectives. Some good examples are the Kalundborg municipality in Denmark, the Kwinana industrial area in Western Australia and Fujisawa eco-industrial park in Japan. Regulation of the environmental impact of industry tends to be done by geographical region or by product/material type – for example the EU WEEE Directive and RoHS Directive allow individual Member States to dictate the standards required and choose which products are covered – and little consideration has been given to the potential to make improvements by encouraging symbiosis across industries to date.

The ZeroWIN consortium has sought to establish and apply a consistent approach based on a clearly defined common vision and definition of an industrial network. The scope and boundary of an industrial network for the ZeroWIN project is shown in Figure 3 as a network of potentially diverse industries working together in symbiosis; note the cross-cutting influence of design.

Figure 3: The scope and boundary of an industrial network for ZeroWIN.

The thick orange line in Figure 3 represents what will be regarded as the boundary of the industrial network under the ZeroWIN vision. It is clear that the primary sector functions, mainly supplying raw materials, and the tertiary sector functions that interface with the consumer, are outside of ZeroWIN’s scope. So too is the ‘use’ phase of the product, and the end of life of the product until the point where the materials re-enter the industrial network to be used again, whether by means of repair/remanufacture or to be recycled and used as raw materials. An ‘industrial network’ does not need to involve all players in the depicted boundary, but could be a sub-set of key actors across the supply chain.

Targets and outputs

The initial outcome of the project is the development of the zero waste vision. Many more results are expected over the duration of the project (to 2014) – there are almost 40 project deliverables in total, ranging from tangible outputs such as a prototype D4R (D4R = Design for Re-use, Recycling, Refurbishment, Repair) laptop to reports and guidance documents on new methods and systems. The project website has further details (

Ultimately the key results will be the quantitative assessment of the performance of the ZeroWIN approach by the nine case studies applying the newly-developed production model. These form the core of the project, and will each be measured against the three environmental targets of:

  • 30 % reduction of greenhouse gas emissions;
  • 70 % overall re-use and recycling of waste; and
  • 75 % reduction of fresh water use.


Other stated deliverables will be recommendations to policy-making, the creation of a Knowledge Management Platform on zero waste and the delivery of education, training and support services on this new sustainable approach in industry. More general outcomes of the project will include the impact on research and industrial practice externally, for example via communicating progress and results, and secondary impacts on employment, the economy and health of EU citizens, e.g. by creating new working methods, extending product lifetimes, avoiding the use of hazardous substances and reducing pollution.

A vision for zero waste in industrial networks

The first step has been the development of the agreed ZeroWIN approach – a vision for how all project partners will operate and what they aim to achieve. Figure 4 summarises the steps that were involved in developing the ZeroWIN vision. The vision report (which is available via the project website) is an interim statement of what the ZeroWIN consortium broadly seeks to achieve, in which areas and by what means. The Vision Conference, to be held at the University of Southampton on 6th July 2010 (which is free to attend – see the website or contact the authors for details), will enable the views and experiences of a broader group of stakeholders to be incorporated into the vision. The final step in Figure 4 is to encapsulate the enduring vision in a formal paper, which will be applied consistently by all project partners in all work packages.

Figure 4: The process of creating the ZeroWIN vision.

The creation of the ZeroWIN vision is dual purpose: it is an aspirational description of what the consortium would like to achieve in the medium- and long-term future, and it also serves as the consortium’s commonly agreed inspiration and framework for all strategic planning and future courses of action. In summary, the (interim) ZeroWIN vision is to use a whole-system approach to redesigning resource flows to minimize emissions, waste and resource use. This is comprised of: an underpinning philosophy; clearly set out methods, scope and boundary; and a call to action, all based on the notion that waste can be eliminated.

Concepts, tools and methods

There are many approaches, methods, tools and principles that have been used to tackle different problems in the field of business waste and sustainability. Many of these have sub-specialized across space, time and industry sector or material type, and some hybrid solutions have emerged. The question of which combination of these should be adopted by ZeroWIN required a thorough, systematic approach, and this was an important step in developing the vision. The ZeroWIN Literature Review document provided a full description of the concepts that were chosen and Figure 5 presents these concepts, categorised in a semi-structured mind map. This list of 24 concepts, from an original list of over 40, was agreed by the consortium to be the combination that will form the ZeroWIN approach.

Figure 5: The 24 concepts that form the ZeroWIN mind map.

The key strategies of the ZeroWIN approach are thus:

  • use of effective waste prevention methods;
  • designing waste out of the system;
  • industrial symbiosis;
  • closed-loop supply chain management;
  • use of new technologies;
  • applying individual producer responsibility (IPR); and
  • accurate monitoring and assessment of results


An international challenge

The initial outcomes of the project are a literature review covering the concepts which can potentially contribute to a zero waste approach in industry, and the development of a vision for this zero waste approach. Spending time to develop these at the start of the project has enabled a better understanding of the relevant methods and tools that can contribute to minimizing emissions, waste and resource use, and specifically how they can be combined in the framework of an industrial network to best effect. It has also ensured that project partners and stakeholders are fully aware of the ZeroWIN philosophy and intended approach, which should ensure that the vision is applied consistently throughout the project.

This activity has never been undertaken previously by such a large group of international experts and industrial organisations with such a range of different viewpoints and perspectives. As a consequence, the outputs and conclusions from this project will be of international interest and significance. ZeroWIN is an ambitious project set with difficult goals, but meeting these challenges will be necessary if society is to solve the pollution and resource problems of current industrial practices in a sustainable way.

Ian D Williams and Tony Curran, Waste Management Research Group, School of Civil Engineering and the Environment, University of Southampton
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The authors would like to acknowledge grant funding received for the ZeroWIN project from the EC Framework Programme 7.

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