The next step in the global green saga may be the ratification of a universally recognized definition of zero waste.

Environmental advocates from Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) have collaborated on a zero-waste resolution proposal, and the group’s desire is clear, no matter the locale: Let’s take it to the world stage.

Richard Anthony, chair of ZWIA, said the alliance hopes to get the resolution accepted by the United Nations during the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, which begins June 20 in Rio de Janeiro.

Public and private sector representatives from around the world will converge on the city as the U.N. marks the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit, which also took place in Rio.

The resolution was reviewed by numerous ZWIA member groups, including Zero Waste UK, Zero Waste Europe, Zero Waste Italy and Zero Waste Australia. The document received unanimous approval, Anthony said.

“I have to believe that any policy-maker, at this point, that is working on international environmental policy would have to see zero waste as a no-brainer,” he said. “It’s better to put everything back in circulation. A key part of the definition is zero waste means ‘no burn, no bury.’ The key for us is to get this to go viral.”

The alliance is listed as an observer of the conference and is waiting to hear if the U.N. will take action.

Even if the document doesn’t make it to the floor, Anthony said the alliance will push for resource managers and local and national governments to embrace it, to prove there is “worldwide consensus on this definition.”

The 566-word resolution declares, among other things, that voluntary recycling goals haven’t cut waste enough.

Other key points include:

* The placement of materials in waste disposal facilities such as landfills and WTE plants causes damage to human health, wastes natural resources and/or transfers liabilities to future generations.

* Landfills are the largest manmade source of methane in the United States and contribute significantly to global warming.

* Reduced waste and increased reuse, recycling and composting could help reverse climate change.

* Some communities assume the financial cost of collecting, recycling and disposing of increasingly complex and toxic products and packaging, which is an unfunded mandate.

Australia is already on the brink of a zero-waste wave, said Kellie Walters, chief executive of Zero Waste Australia, in an email interview.

As waste management costs soar and landfill space becomes more limited, pursuing zero waste is imperative, Walters said. Wasting things that have alternative uses is “illogical in any culture,” she added.

“I believe Australian corporations and businesses are clearly recognizing that waste disposal represents an operational cost that could be offset through a combination of better practices and creative thinking. The interest in zero waste nationally is increasing rapidly,” Walters said. “The advent of [the] carbon tax has assisted in this regard, but I think a general mindset shift, particularly in larger companies, is also happening.”

Michael Alexander, president of Recycle Away, said the zero waste term has been hijacked by some and “used to promote dubious technologies” in the waste-to-energy field. Recycle Away is a Brattleboro, Vt.-based recycling container company that also provides consultation for clients organizing recycling programs.

Alexander said WTE facilities and landfills don’t maximize the energy embodied in waste.

“There’s a lot of people trying to use zero waste to tout their environmental commitment and, in those cases, they’re misusing the term,” he said. “For instance, the zero-waste-to-landfill claim many times is, in essence, another way of saying, ‘We burn the materials,’ [or], ‘We don’t recycle,’ or ‘We’re not able to recover.’

“Other users of the term ‘zero waste’ believe recovering energy from the waste stream is part of the zero waste equation. A purist definition of ‘zero waste’ wouldn’t accept that because by burning the material, you’re not capitalizing on the embodied energy in that material stream and that resource stream. You’re just getting some crude level of energy out of it. You’re not using the innate qualities of the material.”

People have consumed a lot of resources in the past 50 years, Anthony said, and the resolution would serve to correct a wasteful course in human history. But it won’t turn things around overnight.

“Set your goals,” he said. “It’s a journey.”

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