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Empowering Our Communities To Redesign

Time to vote out waste at the People’s Design Lab

Wrapped peeled bananas

One of the most challenging fractions of waste in a zero waste vision is all that is left over after recycling—because it is either too toxic to be safely recycled or is made out of non-recyclable material. It’s the fearsome residual fraction.

It is also that fraction of waste that proponents of end-of-pipe technologies such as landfills or incinerators use as their failsafe excuse to expand, as if the residual fraction is inevitable, a given by nature that is here to stay.

Well, far from it. Instead of blind acceptance, if you take a good look at what this residual fraction is made up of, then you’ll be able to assess the most appropriate solutions. At a minimum, if something cannot be reused, composted, or recycled, it needs to undergo a proper redesign!

A good place to start is outing residual waste. Enter the People’s Design Lab, where you can nominate products that can’t be recycled, re-used or repaired; vote for the worst of the nominated products; and share better ideas. The People’s Design Lab was formally launched on April 27th at the gorgeous and inspiring Good Life Centre in London, where lots of zero wasters had a first go nominating the worst and best products for a zero waste future.

The four People’s Design Lab Award categories are self-explanatory and rather eye-opening:

–      The Weakest Link Award for Products You Thought Would Last a Long Time, but broke and then couldn’t be fixed. Maybe these items are impossible to open or take apart without inflicting terminal damage to the product, or it could be that spares just aren’t available. Take, for example, affordable headphones, which break easily and are very hard, if not impossible, to fix. That’s a nomination for the Weakest Link.

–      The Bin Again Award for Stuff You Throw Away Week After Week. What is it that you keep throwing in the bin? Black food packaging trays, multi-layer envelopes, pump dispensers? The purpose of this award for disposables is to highlight and find solutions for products that are frustratingly designed for limited use. Can they not be made out of recycled material? Is there no alternative already available or waiting to be developed? The People’s Lab not only solicits nominations, but also wants to hear what you’ve got to say about options.

–      The Russian Doll Award for Unnecessary Packaging. We’ve all seen these products that need a packaging refresh. Maybe they have too many different materials or are made of non-recyclable materials? If you are frustrated about the packaging around a product or have a great idea for alternative packaging to propose, then this is the place to share it. Don’t be shy; let’s out pre-peeled re-wrapped bananas, cereal packets whose plastic packaging and cardboard boxes are only 3/5 full, crisps and biscuit packaging, dead space in pharmaceutical products, and other ridiculous examples of unnecessary packaging in our wasteful society.

–      Award for all Other Products Needing A Redesign. If your nomination does not fit any of these categories, just submit it here! Small electronic chargers for example, just need to be re-designed. Why do they all have to be so different? So incompatible? Share with People’s Lab your discomfiture and join forces to rethink these products.

oversized packaging

Ultimately, it’s time to champion zero waste design. The People’s Lab also asks for nominations for the Best Zero Waste Design to celebrate the many ground-breaking innovations that are already being developed. See for example the reusable carpet tiles, or the ARA Chair, which has been the first chair to achieve full Cradle to Cradle accreditation.

Get involved! There is no time to waste! The People’s Design Lab will be open for your nominations and votes until May 27th. Let’s all support this creative and fun strategy to raise awareness about our fearsome residual waste fraction.

Guest article from Zero Waste World

What to do with the “leftovers” of Zero Waste

Zero Waste is about minimising waste generation, maximising reuse & recycle and redesigning the economy in order to phase out those products that are either toxic or not recyclable.

However, during the time in which we can’t stop producers from selling badly designed stuff we need to find the best option to treat the waste that today can’t be recycled or composted and which amounts to 5 to 20% of total household waste -depending on the community-. For instance in the first European town to declare Zero Waste, Capannori, this amounts to 8%. In the Gipuzkoa province the waste that is not recyclable is 19%.

So what to do with what is left? According to a scientific study recently published the disposal option with the lowest impact is MRBT to landfill, or in other words, pre-treat the waste, recover as much as possible, biologically stabilise and landfill it.

The European Commission and the waste incineration industry promote the belief that after maximizing recycling, reuse and composting, the best thing a community can do with leftover waste is to create energy with it. But this is a political choice with little science behind.

A new lifecycle analysis report, which compares the environmental impacts of the three most common disposal methods used globally, finds that the best approach to protecting the public health and the environment isn’t mass burn waste-to-energy, and it isn’t landfill gas-to-energy. The report found that, after aggressive community-wide recycling, reuse and composting, the most environmentally-sound disposal option for any waste that may still remain is a third option: Materials Recovery, Biological Treatment (MRBT). 


Graph MRBT

Material Recovery, Biological Treatment is a process to “pre-treat” mixed waste before landfilling in order to recover even more dry materials for recycling and minimize greenhouse gas and other emissions caused by landfilling by stabilizing the organic fraction with a composting-like process. Very similar to the MBT systems used widely in Europe, the goal of MRBT is to capture any remaining recyclables and then create inert residuals that will produce little to no landfill gas when buried. The system can also classify non-recyclable dry items for the purpose of identifying industrial design change opportunities, which helps to drive further waste reduction.


This report emphasizes that source separation for recycling and composting is still the best environmental option for managing all discards and should be the focus of community efforts. However, “on the way to Zero Waste” there is still the need to reduce the negative impacts of disposal and minimize the need to invest in new disposal facilities. Communities should look beyond the two traditional options—burying and burning—toward building MRBT systems that have the lowest overall environmental impact of the technologies commercially available today.


Using a tool developed by economist Dr. Jeffrey Morris called MEBCalcTM, or Measuring Environmental Benefits Calculator, the study compared the three disposal strategies—MRBT, mass burn waste-to-energy and landfill gas-to-energy—across seven environmental categories, including climate change, water pollution, air pollution and human health impacts.

The MRBT system was shown to be the best choice for a community to dispose of its leftovers because it recovers the greatest amount of additional recyclables, stabilizes the organic fraction of the residuals, reduces the amount of material to be disposed of in a landfill, and minimizes the negative environmental and public health impacts of landfilling leftovers compared to the other disposal alternatives, landfill gas-to-energy or mass-burn waste-to-energy.

MRBT Urbaser

“MRBT is not a replacement or substitution for source separation, but it is a tool for helping communities reduce the environmental impacts of managing their leftovers as they progress on their way to Zero Waste,” says Eric Lombardi, the Executive Director of Eco-Cycle and sponsor of the study.


When utilized in a community with successful recycling and composting programs, MRBT has further benefits beyond its lower environmental impacts. Because the pre-treatment process includes additional sorting and recovery of recyclable dry materials, MRBT can help support very high levels of landfill diversion. The study modeled an 87% diversion rate for the city of Seattle, Washington based on 71% diversion from current source-separated recycling efforts and an additional 16% from the MRBT process, including increased recovery of recyclables and the weight reduction of the organic materials from moisture evaporation and biogenic carbon conversion to carbon dioxide.


MRBT infrastructure is also flexible and dual-purposed, able to handle both mixed waste and source-separated recyclables and organics. This means a community is not tied to feeding the facility a continuous flow of mixed waste over the next several decades and is not investing in a future of ever-more waste. Rather, as a community’s Zero Waste efforts improve, the MRBT model can adjust to a declining volume of leftover waste and support the growth of source separated collection systems. In addition, MRBT infrastructure can be built and operational on a shorter time scale than landfills and incinerators, and can be modular in size to help communities manage their leftover waste more locally.


According to Joan Marc Simon, Founder of Zero Waste Europe, “This report is exactly what we need at the right time to help guide the debate on what to do with residuals once we reach high separate collection rates. Europe has over-invested in waste incineration and needs solutions that deliver environmental safety while still focusing on increasing recycling and reducing material consumption.”


The report was an international effort authored by Dr. Jeffrey Morris, an economist and life-cycle assessment expert with Sound Resource Management Group based in Olympia, Washington; Dr. Enzo Favoino, Senior Researcher at Scuola Agraria del Parco di Monza in Milan, Italy; Eric Lombardi, Executive Director of Eco-Cycle, a Zero Waste social enterprise based in Boulder, Colorado; and Kate Bailey, Senior Analyst for Eco-Cycle.

The full report, “What is the best disposal option for the ‘Leftovers’ on the way to Zero Waste?” is available at

Are Nespresso-type coffee capsules compatible with Zero Waste?

The coffee capsules from Nespresso, Lavazza and others have taken over the coffee market in the EU. Normally they are made of fully recyclable materials (alluminium or plastic + coffee grounds) but they are very rarely recycled. Why?

Is it bad design? is it bad take-back systems? Whatever it is the fact is that since the commercialisation of these items a lot more resources go to waste. This means more burden for the environment and more costs for citizens who have to shoulder costs which should be beared by those who introduced this product in the market.

The Cappannori Zero Waste Research Center identified the coffee capsules as the first item to remove from the residual waste after high separate collection has been reached. Indeed, coffee capsules is a new waste stream that was just non-existant only 5 years ago. Now it is yet another source of waste that could be avoided. In 2010 it was estimated that 10 billions of capsules where sold in the world, a tenth of them in coffee-loving Italy. Only in Italy 12.000 tones of capsules (plastic/aluminium + coffee grounds) were disposed of in landfills and incinerators.

The Zero Waste Research Center documented the evidence and sent a letter to Lavazza and Nespresso in which they asked for a meeting to discuss the issue. The companies’ reaction was quick and a meeting was set up not only with the presence of Capannori Zero Waste Research Center staff but also with the italian food industry. In this meeting Nespresso and Lavazza committed to find solutions to this problem.

The companies rightly claim that their products are recyclable (the capsule) and compostable (the coffee grounds), but the problem is that for that to happen the capsules need to be collected and the recyclables sepately treated. The companies have no incentive to do this and the authorities fail to make the producer pay for the waste they put in the market.

Nespresso for instance has a goal of reacing 75% recycling of its capsules for 2013 in the EU but with the current take-back systems and lack of incentives it is unlikely that recycling will go beyond 25%. A good way to make sure that coffee capsules would go back to the producer would be to set a deposit system that would encourage the consumer to get involved in the process. This would be good for the environment, for the consumers and for the local authorities… in the long run it would also be good for the coffee companies who would get back the raw materials but in the short term it is clear that the Nespressos and Lavazzas of this world prefer passing the costs to the consumers and the environment. However, these costs could be internalised only with a fraction of the budget they dedicate to marketing. Only political will is lacking to make polluter pay.

In a Zero Waste world there is no place for disposable coffee-capsules. If capsules are to stay it should be under the condition that the companies set up take-back systems that allow them to recover the coffee grounds to make good compost and the capsule to be reused –when possible- or recycled (not 75% but close to 100% like in deposit systems for beverages). In the meantime there is no better option than taking your coffee in the bar.

The first European Zero Waste Research Center – Capannori, Italy

The first Zero Waste Research Center in Europe was founded in Capannori, Italy, in December 2010. The research center is a vital piece of a Zero Waste strategy because it is impossible to slim the waste bin if we don’t know what ends up thrown in it. In order to get to Zero Waste, waste needs to be made very visible so that we can develop actions to prevent waste from ending up there.

The traditional systems of waste management are designed to hide waste. The claim that landfills and incinerators make waste disappear it’s nothing else but a myth. As Professor Paul Connett says: landfills bury the evidence and incinerators burn it (i.e. bury them in the atmosphere and in toxic ashes). If we want to act against waste, we have to make it very visible.

This is why the Zero Waste Research Center was created; to study what is left in the residual fraction of the household and commercial waste. Capannori, like many other italian municipalities where the door-to-door collection systems are applied is above 75% separate collection. Therefore it is time to look into what is left in the remaining 25% in order to advance towards Zero Waste.

The first step is to do a caracterisation of the residual waste; i.e. analyse samples of residual waste to know its configuration. See the next table to know what was found in the residuals:

As we can see 85% of what is found in the residual fraction can be prevented, composted or recycled. 28% of it are plastics, 22% is biodegradable, 16% is clothing and 13% nappies. This means that if the right policies are in place the total household and commercial waste that should be sent to disposal would be less than 5% of the total waste generated!

The ZW Research Center is composed of an operative team with industrial designers charged with the task of proposing changes to the design of badly designed products. These proposals are then sent to the producers responsible for the manufacture of toxic and/or non-recyclable and/or non-biodegradable in order to give them sustainable alternatives.

The Center also has an Scientific Committee composed of waste experts, university professors and other technical people who can provide useful advice.

Albeit its very limited resources the Zero Waste Research Center is setting an example to follow for any municipality who wants to advance towards Zero Waste.