Since the industrial revolution, the world, in particular the global North, has experienced an incredibly rapid growth of industrial production and urbanization, which has created a massive demand for raw materials and energy resources to create and sustain urban centers. This mass consumption of natural resources has brought forth serious consequences, such as climate change, the depletion of natural resources, and waste generation.

However, it is important to note that the consumption of natural resources looks different throughout the world. We’re currently in a situation where 20% of the world’s population, mostly from the Global North, consumes 80% of the world’s resources. In addition to this, global North nations ship their waste overseas to nations in the global South, which exposes communities to toxic chemicals that leach from electronic and solid waste, creating severe health and environmental impacts.

In the current global paradigm, “waste materials have no immediate use, need, value, are economically redundant and the users want its immediate disposal”.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act defines the most common waste, solid waste, as any garbage or refuse, sludge from a wastewater treatment plant, water supply treatment plant, or air pollution control facility and other discarded material, resulting from industrial, commercial, mining, and agricultural operations, and from community activities. Solid waste is not limited to waste that is physically solid, it can also be liquid, semi-solid, or contain gaseous material.

Nearly everything we do leaves behind some kind of waste.

Waste sites like transfer stations, materials recovery facilities, incinerators, and landfills all adversely impact local and global communities and systems in land and food, energy and minerals, economics, health, migration, and security or governance leading to the further depletion of the earth.

Source/Credit: Laura Langner - “Landfill” Udaipur, India 2015

This process has been amplified during the anthropocene, where elitist, capitalist, and colonial systems are rapidly diminishing previously efficient and effective earth and Indgineous community symbiotic regenerative systems. Continuing a growth-based extractive economy will only exacerbate the problems we see today, thereby, it is essential to have a global paradigm shift in our approach to natural resource usage and waste.

Waste is nutrients. Waste is precious. We should learn from Nature: Nature doesn’t know ‘waste’. In Nature, one species’ waste is another species’ resource. We ought to begin to re-think of waste as a ‘mislocated resource’ that needs to be recovered. 

Way Forward

Way forward 1:

Zero Waste

Zero waste directly challenges the common assumption that waste is unavoidable and has no value by focusing on waste as a misallocated resource that has to be recovered. Zero waste also focuses on the avoidance of waste creation in the first place. This means that products, packaging, and materials are produced, consumed and recycled in a responsible manner. No waste is incinerated and toxic materials do not end up in the ground, in the water or the air. Zero Waste makes the current linear supply chain circular and regenerative.

‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of recycling’

Embedding zero waste policies requires strong industry leadership, new policies, and effective education curricula, as well as raising awareness (education) and refocusing research agendas to bring about attitudinal change and the reduction of wasteful consumption.

Organizations leading the way in Zero-Waste:

GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives)

GAIA is a worldwide alliance of more than 800 grassroots groups, non-governmental organizations, and individuals in over 90 countries. GAIA advances successful, community-driven waste solutions through systems change and policy advocacy. Their efforts focus on three initiatives: promoting zero waste, reducing problematic waste streams like plastic, and putting an end to the ineffective and hazardous practice of burning waste.

GAIA sees waste and its resulting pollution as a symptom of a larger, profit-driven extractive economy, and promote zero waste as a holistic solution and an economic shift toward justice and sustainability.

Break Free From Plastic

BFFP holds consumer-goods companies and plastic producers accountable for the waste they generate and champions zero waste communities and lifestyles

Zero Waste International Alliance 

ZWIA has been established to promote positive alternatives to landfill and incineration and to raise community awareness of the social and economic benefits to be gained when waste is regarded as a resource base upon which can be built both employment and business opportunity.


Precycle works with local farmers and distributors on a one-on-one basis. Customers know where their food originates and are given the choice of reusable instead of disposable packaging.

Californians Against Waste

The mission of Californians Against Waste is to conserve resources, prevent pollution and protect California’s environment through the development, promotion, and implementation of waste reduction and recycling policies and programs. Californians Against Waste is a non-profit environmental research and advocacy organization that identifies, develops, promotes and monitors policy solutions to pollution and conservation problems posing a threat to public health and the environment.

Zero Waste California

ZWC is about providing the best information available so our readers can make informed decisions about sustainable practices that work for their lifestyle. Whenever a plastic package is left on the store shelf in favor of loose produce or a bulk food, that’s a zero waste victory. Whenever a food scrap gets composted instead of ending up in landfill, that’s a zero waste victory, too.

More Resources on Zero Waste:

Books, Articles, and Reports:

Way Forward 2:

Reduce Food Loss/Waste

Reducing food waste is a critical component in tackling the issue of waste. It’s been shown that “of the 4 billion tonnes of food [industrial agriculture] produces per year, 33-50% is wasted along its processes.” There’s literally tons of food being “wasted” in the industrialized production of food – this waste is not a mistake, but rather a fundamental feature of capitalism and by extension industrial food production.

Abolition of capitalism, the industrial food system, and linear production must be front and center for ending waste. In the meantime, diverting as much food away from the trash and into the homes of families in need is a top priority.

Furthermore, community composting programs are critical as composting prevents anaerobic decomposition which produces methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas and a significant contributor to climate change. Instead, composting engages aerobic decomposition, which eliminates release of methane.

Organizations leading the way to reduce loss/waste:

Reclaimed Organics

Reclaimed Organics is a local, decentralized way for individuals to take an active role in recycling organics in their community. By providing convenient pickup by bicycle, with local consolidation and processing at community gardens, they further reduce the impact that trucking trash normally has on local communities and greater environment.

Food Not Bombs

Food Not Bombs is a global, all-volunteer organization dedicated to nonviolent social change. Food Not Bombs has no formal leaders and strives to include everyone in its decision making process. Each group recovers food that would otherwise be thrown out and makes fresh hot vegan and vegetarian meals that are served outside in public spaces to anyone without restriction. Many Food Not Bombs groups also share groceries and organize other efforts to support their communities. Each independent group also serves free meals at protests and other events.

Food Bank of the Southern Tier

Through partnerships and community, the Food Bank of the Southern Tier acquire and distribute over 10 million pounds of food and other grocery products to people in need through a network of more than 160 partner agencies including food pantries, meal programs, shelters and other hunger relief organizations in Broome, Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Tioga and Tompkins Counties. The Food Bank also administers several direct service food distribution programs including the BackPack Program™ and Mobile Food Pantry Program

City Harvest

City Harvest is New York City’s largest food rescue organization, helping to feed the more than 1.5 million New Yorkers who are struggling to put meals on their tables. They rescue millions pounds of food each year and deliver it, free of charge, to hundreds of food pantries, soup kitchens and other community partners across the five boroughs. Their programs help food-insecure New Yorkers access nutritious food that fits their needs and desires; increase our partners’ capacity; and strengthen the local food system, building a path to a food-secure future for all New Yorkers.


Copia™ makes healthy food more accessible to people in the community by helping businesses redistribute high-quality excess food to feed people in need. Businesses use our technology platform to feed the community, save money, and reduce waste.


Foodshare is the regional food bank serving Connecticut’s Hartford and Tolland counties, where 118,000 people struggle with hunger. Foodshare is a member of the national organization Feeding America, along with more than 200 other food banks nationally. In partnership with the food industry, donors, community leaders and volunteers, Foodshare works to maximize access to nutritious food and other resources that support food security

412 Food Rescue

412 Food rescue uses technology to match excess food to agencies in need. They partner with food retailers, volunteer drivers, and nonprofit organizations to connect surplus food with individuals and families who are experiencing food insecurity.

Boston Area Gleaners

Boston Area Gleaners organizes volunteer trips to local farms to harvest high-quality fruits and vegetables that would otherwise go to waste. They distribute the nutritious produce to agencies serving families facing food insecurity.

Boulder Food Rescue

Boulder Food Rescue aims to create a more just and less wasteful food system. They facilitate the sustainable redistribution of healthy food that would otherwise be wasted to low-income communities, by bicycle. They work with communities to facilitate their own food redistribution and create decentralized systems to bypass barriers to food access. Their work envisions a world in which everyone has equitable access to healthy food

Second Bite

SecondBite is a leading food rescue organisation in Australia.They work with a range of food suppliers to rescue surplus fresh food from across the network, and redistribute it to local charities and non-profits around Australia. These groups run food programs to support people in need in their communities

More Resources on Food Loss/Waste

Way Forward 3:


Composting feeds the soil, prevents greenhouse gasses and reduces the impact of landfills by redirecting food waste to productive uses. Compost is an important source of plant nutrients and is a low-cost alternative to chemical fertilizers. It uses reverse supply chain principles, giving organic components back to the soil, thus improving the quality of the land for agriculture.

Compost is an important source of plant nutrients and is a low-cost alternative to chemical fertilizers. It uses reverse supply chain principles, giving organic components back to the soi, thus improving the quality of the land for agriculture.

Furthermore, community composting programs are critical as composting prevents anaerobic decomposition which produces methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas and a significant contributor to climate change. Instead, composting engages aerobic decomposition, which eliminates release of methane.

Organizations leading the way in composting:

Institute For Local Self-Reliance

ILSR is a national research and advocacy organization that partners with allies across the country to build an American economy driven by local priorities and accountable to people and the planet.
  • Composting for Community Initiative: This initiative works in diverse communities to create jobs, protect the climate, and reduce waste by advancing local, neighborhood-level composting programs

Common Ground Compost

CGC is an NYC organization dedicated to the reorganization of composting and waste management in NYC, providing zero waste consulting and events services to businesses, including education, program development, waste audits, and more.

BK Rot

BK ROT is New York City's first community-supported, bike-powered, fossil fuel free food waste hauling and composting service. Our project is staffed by young people of color who haul organic waste from small businesses and transform it into high quality compost. Our operations provide accessible jobs and sustained professional development for emerging environmental leaders.

Way Forward 4:

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)

EPR places responsibility on manufacturers for the entire life-cycle of their electronic products, including recyclability. This leads to the practice whereby an increasing number of manufacturers include in the sale of goods a service for the future recovery and the processing of the product at the end of its usefulI life. It also includes extending responsibilities to consumers to participate in recycling/reuse schemes. (Lehmann, 2011)

Organizations leading the way to implement Extended Producer Responsibility:

Basel Action Network (BAN)

BAN’s mission is to champion global environmental health and justice by ending toxic trade, catalyzing a toxics-free future, and campaigning for everyone’s right to a clean environment
  • Electronic Stewardship: BAN’s e-Stewards helps everyone – citizens and businesses alike – tackle the toxic footprint left behind by their old electronics. e-Stewards defines and promotes responsible electronics reuse and recycling worldwide. e-Stewards certification differentiates truly responsible recyclers from those who merely claim to be going green.
  • e-Trash Transparency Project: This project was designed to once and for all get real data to find out what really happens when you drop your old computer, monitor or printer at a charity or at an electronics recycler. Read their latest report. 

The Electronics TakeBack Coalition (ETBC) 

ETBC promotes green design and responsible recycling in the electronics industry. Our goal is to protect the health and well being of electronics users, workers, and the communities where electronics are produced and discarded by requiring consumer electronics manufacturers and brand owners to take full responsibility for the life cycle of their products, through effective public policy requirements or enforceable agreements.

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC)

SVTC is a diverse organization engaged in research, advocacy and grassroots organizing to promote human health and environmental justice in response to the rapid growth of the high-tech industry. They envision a toxic-free future, where each new generation of technical improvements in electronic products includes parallel and proportionate advances in social and environmental justice. Their goal is environmental sustainability and clean production, improved health, and democratic decision-making for communities and workers most affected by the high-tech revolution.

International Campaign for Responsible Technology

ICRT is an international solidarity network that promotes corporate and government accountability in the global electronics industry. They are united by a mutual concern for the life-cycle impacts of this industry on health, the environment, and workers’ rights. By sharing resources, they seek to build the capacity of grassroots organizations, local communities, workers and consumers, to achieve social, environmental, and economic justice.

More Resources on Extended Producer Responsibility:

Way Forward 5:

Design for Destruction/Disassembly 

Design for disassembly means the possibility of reusing entire building components in another future project, possible 20 or 30 years after construction. It aims to deliberately enable ‘chains of reuse’ in the design, and to use light-weight structures with less embodied energy, employing modular prefabrication. Through re-use, the energy embodied in waste products is retained.

Organizations leading the way in Design for Deconstruction/Disassembly


Customizable tech-hardware to prevent upgrades, thus waste.

Moss Design

Moss is a full service architecture and urban design studio in the Chicago neighborhood of Logan Square. We’re LEED accredited and licensed in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and California. Our work is diverse by design, allowing us to explore the best design solutions across varied project types including residential, commercial, hospitality, breweries and wineries, interiors, urban planning, and custom furniture.

AutoDesk Sustainable Building Design

Autodesk Sustainable Design helps you imagine, design and make a better world by equipping you with knowledge to improve material and energy efficiency, enabling us all to live well and within planetary limits.

Cradle 2 Cradle

Cradle to Cradle Certified™ is a globally recognized measure of safer, more sustainable products made for the circular economy.   Product designers, manufacturers and brands around the world rely on the Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard as a transformative pathway for designing and making products with a positive impact on people and planet. From fragrances to flooring, t-shirts and jeans to water bottles and window treatments, thousands of products are Cradle to Cradle Certified. What’s more, a growing number of brands, organizations and standards also recognize Cradle to Cradle Certified as a preferred product standard for responsible purchasing decisions.

More Resources on Design for Destruction/Disassembly:

Books, Articles, and Reports:


Way Forward 7 (Approach with Caution):


Recycling is recommended to be employed with caution. Although recycling has room for improvement it is one of the main sources of revenue for waste pickers around the world. Therefore, implementation of recycling facilities should be employed according to local context.

Recycling presents considerable economic and technical challenges, which is why only 10% of all discarded plastic has been recycled.

According to GAIA’s Zero Waste Master Plan, policies, education, and infrastructure for proper sorting should be improved. Policymakers should prioritize the implementation of policies for upstream waste reduction to reduce the volume of waste being created, increase usage of refill and reuse facilities, and phase out production of hard-to-recycle products and packages.

Who’s In The Way

Obstacle 1:

Petrochemical Industry

The petrochemical industry is dominated by a handful of giant corporations. As early as the 1950s, chemical corporations like Dow and petroleum producers like ExxonMobil held discussions about the negative impacts of plastic pollution, however, these same corporations have strongly resisted efforts to limit plastic output and the damage it causes.

Often the petrochemical industry pushes for the narrative that plastic litter is a problem of the consumer, diverting from their responsibility as producers of plastic.

Top plastic producers:

Organizations leading the fight against Plastic: 

Break Free From Plastics Movement

BFFP aims to bring systemic change through a holistic approach tackling plastic pollution across the whole plastics value chain, focusing on prevention rather than cure, and providing effective solutions. BFFP holds consumer-goods companies and plastic producers accountable for the waste they generate

In 2019, “brand audits” conducted by Break Free From Plastic collected a total of 476,423 pieces of plastic waste from locations around the world

Source: Plastic Atlas: Facts and figures about the world of synthetic polymers

Source: Plastic Atlas: Facts and figures about the world of synthetic polymers

Basel Action Network (BAN): Plastic Pollution Prevention

Basel Action Network is now engaged in policy challenges, market campaigns and trade investigations on Plastic Waste. Here you can follow a quick snapshot of their work.

More Resources: 

Obstacle 2:

Waste-to-Energy Incinerator Industry 

When dumping waste in a landfill becomes impractical or politically unpopular, societies have typically burned that waste in machines called incinerators, most of which are usually located in communities that are culturally, economically, and politically marginalized. The location of incinerators in the United States is a clear issue of environmental inequality and environmental racism.

During the incinerator boom of the 1980s and 1990s in the US, the Environmental Justice movement and the Antitoxics movement rose up in resistance to meet the threat of this industry to local communities. They challenged and shut down multiple incinerator projects and proposals nationwide, however, this success gave industry an incentive to export waste beyond the United States and set up incineration facilities in the Global South and Eastern Europe.

Waste incineration has proven to yield poor economic results for local communities, have hazardous working conditions, and they generally emit the following toxins: persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as dioxins, furans, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); heavy metals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.

Organizations leading the fight against Waste-to-energy incinerators:

Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC)

ICC’s mission is to engage and empower individuals, families, and groups in realizing their aspirations and, together, work to create a just, vibrant and sustainable community. ICC upholds and builds upon the principles of “Justice and Equality for All.” We strive to practice and build equity, work towards a Just Transition, and organize community on the basis of the Jemez Principles.
  • ICC’s Environmental Justice Program works with the community and partners across the city, state, and country to advance the cause of Environmental Justice 
  • The Sacrifice Zone is a documentary film, by Talking Eyes Media, features ICC’s fight against environmental injustice and environmental racism in the Ironbound.

The Sacrifice Zone Trailer from Talking Eyes Media on Vimeo.

People for Community Recovery

PCR's mission is to enhance the quality of life of residents living in communities affected by pollution. PCR educates and advocates policy and programs in an effort to coordinate local residents on issues of the environment, health, housing, neighborhood safety, and economic equity.

GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives)

GAIA envisions a just, zero waste world built on respect for ecological limits and community rights, where people are free from the burden of toxic pollution, and resources are sustainably conserved, not burned or dumped. GAIA’s efforts focus on three initiatives: promoting zero waste, reducing problematic waste streams like plastic, and putting an end to the ineffective and hazardous practice of burning waste.
GAIA supports community-led organizing because they believe only work that is grounded in the needs and realities of impacted communities will be successful about real and lasting change.

Incinerators in Decline

Interactive map of Municipal Solid Waste by Tishman Environment and Design Center and GAIA. This is an interactive map of municipal solid waste (MSW) incinerators in the United States that depicts the location of each incinerator, along with:
  • Demographic data (% minority, % poverty) for the surrounding community within a three-mile radius)
  • Environmental justice community designation (per the demographic data)
  • Stack emissions data for several air pollutants, specifically: PM2.5, NOx, lead and mercury
  • Daily tonnage
  • Year constructed
  • Operator

The map shows that the majority (79%) of the MSW incinerators currently in the U.S. are located in environmental justice communities. These communities have rates of poverty and people of color that are above the national average

More Resources:

Books, Articles, and Reports:

False Solutions 

False Solution 1:


Bioplastics come with the implicit assurance that these products will biodegrade more quickly than regular plastic products, however, bioplastics only shift the problem of single-use plastic consumption and draws attention away from the real solutions.

They come in two main types: bio-based and biodegradable:


Bio-based plastics are based on raw materials such as sugarcane, potatoes, and maize, which are grown as monocultures in large-scale industrial farms and use considerable amounts of pesticides, some of which are banned in the European Union.

Only a small portion of the plastic may be renewable . To be called a bioplastic, a material only needs 20 percent of renewable material; the other 80 percent could be fossil fuel-based plastic resins and synthetic additives.

Although replacing fossil materials with agricultural commodities seem unproblematic, this industry is projected to grow in the coming years, which means that the pressure on available agreeable land will rise - adding on to the already existing water shortages, species extinction, desertification, deforestation, and the lost of natural habitat from intensive industrialized agriculture


Biodegradable products are designed to be degraded by the natural environment through the action of naturally occurring microorganisms under specific conditions (Heinrich Böll Foundation et al, 2019), although there are no promises about not leaving toxic residues behind.

There is an assumption that a biodegradable product will biodegrade within a single season, but the process depends on where the item ends up and the temperature of the location.

More Resources:

False Solution 2:

Waste-To-Energy Incinerators

When dumping waste in a landfill becomes impractical or politically unpopular, societies have typically burned that waste in machines called incinerators, most of which are usually located in communities that are culturally, racially, economically, and politically marginalized.

Waste-to-Energy facilities are among the most aggressively promoted incinerators, which claim to ‘disappear’ waste and generate energy during the process.

More Resources:

Books, Articles, and Reports:

False Solution 5:

Chemical Recycling

This section was curated in collaboration with Doan Moon from GAIA.

Industry is now pushing for a new technological fix for plastic waste, called “chemical recycling.” New proposals are popping up in Australia, the EU, Indonesia, Malaysia,Thailand, and the U.S., increasingly supported by favorable legislation.

Research shows that chemical recycling is polluting, energy intensive, and has a track record of technical failures. In a society that urgently needs to transition from an extractive, fossil fuel economy to a circular one, chemical recycling is a distraction at best. Far more mature and viable solutions are to be found in upstream, zero waste strategies which focus on reducing the production and consumption of plastic.  

Evidence illustrates that “chemical recycling” is not a viable solution for the plastic problem.

Below are technical, economic, and environmental problems abound:

  1. “Chemical recycling” releases toxic chemicals into the environment. Plastic contains a wide range of toxicants, and treating plastic with high temperature creates even more. The toxicants remain in both the products and byproducts, and end up released into the environment as air emissions and toxic residues, especially if outputs are burned.
    • CR/PTF facilities place a heavy toxic burden on communities and workers, impacting people at plastic waste processing sites, in the end use of the products they produce, and at the facilities where the waste created by the process is dumped, destroyed, or treated.
    • For economic and regulatory reasons, chemical recycling operations are mostly likely to be co-located with existing petrochemical facilities. This will further increase the environmental health impacts on communities that are already subject to disproportionate, cumulative environmental burdens.
  2. “Chemical recycling” has a large carbon footprint. The processes are energy intensive and rely on external energy. In addition to the direct GHG emissions from the process and burning the outputs, chemical recycling further aggravates climate change by perpetuating continued extraction of fossil fuel for plastic production.
    • In addition to CO2 emissions associated with the external energy inputs, the chemical conversion process generates significant quantities of CO2. This is particularly the case for gasification, which loses more than half of the carbon in the plastic feedstock during the output upgrading phase. -- Over 53% of feedstock carbon would be lost in oil upgrading and 48% in gas upgrading.
  3. “Chemical recycling” has not yet been proven to work at scale. Chemical recycling is not equipped for commercial scale-up, nor is it able to take a leading role in tackling the rapidly growing global plastic waste problem. Commercial operations are rare, and the plants face technological hurdles in each phase of the process, from feedstock processing to cleaning and upgrading the resulting gas and oil. Solvent-based technologies are even less mature compared to pyrolysis and gasification.
    • Of the 37 plastic “chemical recycling'' facilities proposed since the early 2000’s, based on publicly available information, only 3 are currently operational and none are successfully recovering plastic to produce new plastic (as of July 2020).
    • Even in the industrial sector, some have estimated that it is optimistic to consider that chemical recycling of waste plastics will be viable within the next decade.
  4. “Chemical recycling” cannot compete in the market. The industry has a track record of major failures, and both plastic-to-plastic repolymerization and plastic-to-fuel require costly energy inputs. The final outputs are unable to compete with virgin polymers 
  5. “Chemical recycling” does not fit in a circular economy. Most operations burn the outputs as fuel, and even with the most advanced technology, very little of the waste plastic actually becomes new plastic. As such, chemical recycling does not have a place in a circular economy, unless it displaces virgin plastic production. In a society that urgently needs to transition from an extractive, fossil fuel economy to a circular one, chemical recycling is a distraction at best. Far more mature and viable solutions are to be found in upstream, zero waste strategies which focus on reducing the production and consumption of plastic.

Cities and states must focus on what actually works: reducing the amount of plastic produced and transitioning to zero waste systems.