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Two Environmental Buzzwords, Same Meaning?

“Zero waste” and “circular economy” are often used interchangeably.

zero waste
(Alan Levine)
A typical big-city landfill can receive up to 300 old mattresses each day. Laid out end-to-end, those mattresses will stretch more than a third of a mile. So imagine, then, a full week’s worth of old mattresses. 

Phoenix did, and it realized it needed to do something about them. It partnered last year with Goodwill of Central Arizona to start diverting the old, bulky mattresses from the city’s transfer stations to facilities where Goodwill workers strip them down to their basic components -- fiber, wood and metals -- and repurpose those materials to create new products.

The city’s partnership with Goodwill is just one of many such collaborations under its waste diversion and sustainability initiative, Reimagine Phoenix. The city launched the initiative more than three years ago, proudly proclaiming at the time that it intended to turn trash into a resource. That’s actually the tagline of the program, which aims to reduce the amount of trash sent to city landfills by 40 percent by 2020 and to achieve zero waste by 2050. It’ll do this by focusing on the “5 R’s”: reduce, reuse, recycle, reconsider and reimagine. “With our population projected to double by 2050, it’s not sustainable for us to keep burying trash,” John Trujillo, then the director of the city’s public works department, told Governing back in 2015. “With this program, we are trying to create a circular economy. We want to create a system where the material gets used over and over again here in Phoenix.”

The two phrases that define Reimagine Phoenix are “circular economy” and “zero waste.” They are getting thrown around a lot these days -- and often together. But it’s not entirely clear at first blush how they’re different. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy is “restorative and regenerative by design, and aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times. … It is a continuous positive development cycle that preserves and enhances natural capital, optimizes resource yields, and minimizes system risks by managing finite stocks and renewable flows.”

Meanwhile, zero waste involves “designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them,” according to the Zero Waste International Alliance. “Implementing zero waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.”

To many, the two buzzwords are interchangeable. “Zero waste is consciously treating all materials as something that have value,” says Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “So once we introduce materials into our economy, we should try to keep them there as long as possible. Keeping them in the economy -- this idea of a circular economy or zero waste -- is really grabbing people’s attention.”

Indeed, while there’s no official count of how many communities have adopted circular economies or zero waste goals, a simple search shows it includes states -- California, Connecticut, Hawaii and Maryland -- big cities and counties -- Austin, New York City and San Francisco -- and even smaller cities, such as Asheville, N.C.; Fort Collins, Colo.; Fresno, Calif.; and Middletown, Conn.

One explanation of the difference is that zero waste is something policymakers use to communicate waste diversion goals and the tools needed to achieve those goals to the public. And the circular economy is a mechanism for manufacturers and businesses. 

In Phoenix’s case, it shakes out like this: The desert city currently sends 1 million tons of trash to the landfill every year. It’ll reduce that number to zero by 2050. And it will achieve its zero waste goal through a circular economy, or one in which, according to Phoenix, products are purposely designed and manufactured to be repurposed or recycled. 

But whether it’s zero waste or the circular economy, one thing is certain: “It’s aspirational,” says Hoover. “It’s a philosophy to help set benchmarks to reduce waste and reimagine how we even think about waste.”

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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