What is ‘zero waste to landfill’?

Does ‘zero’ really mean zero? And if not what does ‘zero’ really mean?

When related to apparently simple waste claims, the questions have a surprisingly complicated answer. And use of the terminology can be confusing to the layperson.

So with an increasing number of companies now setting targets and making claims such as becoming ‘zero waste to landfill’, it is becoming important to clarify their definitions and provide a greater confidence in their veracity.

What is driving businesses to act on waste?

Companies are finding real business value in reducing waste. This is not particularly surprising. There is a clear connection between the better use of resources and direct cost savings, such as where materials are used more effectively, or assets are used for longer periods.

But this value has been on the table for a long time. Yet it is only comparatively recently that business action appears to be seriously accelerating. In part this has been down to resource cost increases, but regulation – particularly European regulation – has had a big role to play.

It is no surprise that the escalation in landfill tax costs in the UK has served its purpose in improving waste management. With landfill now costing over £80 a tonne in tax on top of the fees paid to contractors, businesses have found themselves incentivised to make rapid and significant changes. In fact between 2012 and 2014 the total amount of commercial and industrial waste produced in the UK was reduced by more than 5 million tonnes, a reduction of 15 percent in just two years.

Similarly, there have been government-backed interventions that were not mandatory, but that have also resulted in positive results. For example, more than 50 large manufacturing and retail businesses signed up to WRAP’s Courtauld Commitment collectively achieved £100 million just in food savings between 2013 and 2015.

And diverting food waste away from landfill has also become an important part of business action on the urgent challenge of climate change. Currently around 3 percent of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions comes just from the methane arising from the decomposition of biodegradable waste at landfill sites. So better segregation has contributed to the significant improvements being made in this area, where in 2014 alone emissions dropped by 16 percent.

But as businesses have strengthened their approaches to dealing with waste, they have started setting their own ambitions, goals and targets. As much of this activity has occurred in parallel, some have taken inspiration from their peers without necessarily having exactly the same meaning.

What this means is that some companies are communicating their waste strategies and achievements in similar terms, which may not be equivalent to one another in robustness. It is for this reason we recently developed a Carbon Trust certification for Zero Waste to Landfill, to provide independent verification for this type of claim.

What is waste and what is not?

In order to properly manage their waste, the first practical step organisations need to take is to collect accurate waste data. This requires a clear picture of what actually constitutes waste.

Defining ‘waste’ seems relatively straightforward, as there is a specific legal definition for it in the 2008 EU Waste Framework Directive. Waste is:

… any substance or object… which the holder discards or intends or is required to discard…”.

In practice this tends to refer to anything that is thrown away or is sent for recovery or recycling. But as with many rules, there are exceptions.

For example, there are complexities around when a substance becomes waste. This is a particular challenge when considering by-products and co-products, where something is produced which could be sold, but was not the main purpose of the production activity.

In many cases these substances are not considered to be waste. Although, in some cases market conditions can result in otherwise sellable by-products becoming waste, because no buyer can be found for them.

In order to decide if a material or substance has become waste, organisations can follow the UK government’s guidelines and decision-making tree, which covers the vast majority of situations that will arise. There are similar complexities around when substances can cease to be waste, which is known as ‘end of waste’. Again, there is a fair amount of regulation, guidance and case law on this subject.

Only once businesses are able to get a full picture of their waste categories (ideally broken down by type, treatment method, contractor and transfer dates), are they able to fully understand how they can reach zero waste to landfill.

Is ‘zero waste’ the same as ‘zero waste to landfill’?

Before looking at how to reach zero waste to landfill, it is worth addressing the confusion sometimes caused by companies that talk about ‘zero waste’. This is not the same thing and organisations that get their terminology wrong could well face criticism and greenwashing claims.

Zero waste is more of a philosophy than an immediate goal. The term is typically used by companies,such as P&G and Dell, to refer to the longer-term ambition to almost completely eliminate waste from business activities, both upstream with suppliers and downstream with customers. This has a lot of overlap with the concept of the circular economy.

But for many businesses zero waste is a long way away from becoming an economic reality. This is because the product designs, novel materials, industrial processes, business models, regulatory landscape, and public infrastructure do not yet exist at the scale required to achieve it. Although the companies currently advancing the concept are finding new efficiencies and driving innovative solutions to very serious problems caused by the take-make-waste paradigm in which businesses currently operate.

On the other hand, zero waste to landfill is a specific goal that can be achieved today and independently verified. The common interpretation of is that at least 99 percent of generated waste is diverted away from landfill. Which means that all waste produced is either reused, recycled, composted, or sent to energy recovery.

Does ‘zero’ really mean zero waste goes to landfill?

Even with the most efficient systems in place, some materials are inevitably sent to landfill at some point downstream of the waste treatment. For example, energy recovery will lead to the production of residual waste in the form of ash. And some regulated hazardous substances must be sent to landfill, because there are no other legally permitted alternative waste treatment methods.

There is also the issue of fraud in waste management. This may mean that even the best of intentions, some part of an organisation’s waste may end up in landfill without its knowledge. Although to mitigate the risk of fraud, businesses should choose good quality waste management partners and conduct regular audits.

But for all practical purposes, the fact that some waste may end up in a landfill should not distract organisations seeking to achieve zero waste to landfill. Where this is inevitable or unavoidable, it can be accepted as an inherent part of a zero waste to landfill claim.

Setting the goal of becoming zero waste to landfill gives companies a great starting point for continually improving their waste management. It sets a new baseline on the waste hierarchy, driving the implementation of data collection and internal processes that ultimately move a business towards a more circular use of resources.

However, claims of zero waste to landfill need to be credible. Our experience at the Carbon Trust is that the rigour of the definition used can vary quite considerably between organisations. So seeking independent verification should be a serious consideration for businesses that want to be seen as truly sustainable.


This article was first published in the CIWM Journal.