The Barriers to the Zero Waste Region


Given that the global circular rate is about 6% and many cities around the world are seeking to reach Zero Waste goals by 2030, it is important to analyze the challenges of going from a highly linear economy to a full Zero Waste one. The main question that arises is, how feasible are Zero Waste goals when it has been estimated that global consumption will increase significantly despite having already passed all ecological boundaries?

Global resource use is growing at high rates and has even accelerated in the last decade [1]. At the current pace, total demand for limited resource stocks, like metals, biomass, minerals, and other materials, would reach 130 billion tons by 2050, up from 50 billion in 2014. Global resource extraction is expected to grow from 50 billion in 2014 to 82 billion tonnes in 2020, and 130 billion tons by 2050 [2]. At this rate, we will have exceeded the Earth’s total capacity by a physically impossible 400 per cent and passed the safe boundaries for four of the nine key ecological processes and systems by 2050 [3].

Prominent scholars believe that a 100% Zero Waste city is not near possible. The main challenge to the Circular Economy is that we will produce more goods and continue to discard them at a fast rate. Consumption rates will increase faster than population growth, as the amount of tonnes consumed per capita will increase to 10.6 by 2050, up from 8.7 in 2002 [4].

The Zero Waste city concept is being misrepresented as landfill free. Those cities and regions that are advertising themselves as future Zero Waste city do it solely on the bases of increasing waste diversion rates. Big cities such as San Francisco, London (UK), and New York are promising to divert up to 95% of waste from landfills by 2030. The flaw with this promise is that the product that is disposed of only represents about 5% of the total waste produced during its Life Cycle. Most waste takes place in the form of mining of virgin natural resources, manufacturing, and transportation from factory to market, and these activities usually take place outside the boundaries of the respective Zero Waste cities. For this reason, waste diversion activities will have little to no impact if they are the principal objective of Zero Waste goals . In fact, many waste diversion solutions may actually speed the linear economy, as is the case of incineration. This is because these solutions do not affect the rate of product replacement or virgin resource extraction. While cities can use the by product of incineration to provide energy from a waste source rather than finite oil and gas, much more energy is required for the market to produce whole new products.

1- Higher Consumption Driven by Technological Advancement

Rapid technological advancement is a significant barrier to the Zero Waste region. Following Moore’s Law, the power of computer technology has doubled every two years since 1975 as the size of chips halved.  The number of IT devices that have been produced and discarded is significant and it is growing.  According to a 2017 report by the United Nations, 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated in 2016, an increase of 3.3 million metric tonnes, or 8 per cent, from 2014. Experts foresee e-waste increasing a further 17 per cent to 52.2 million metric tonnes by 2021.

Rapid technological advancement has serious pressures on resources. Studies show that whereas 11 elements of the periodic table were used in the 1980s by our consumer society, this number has been tremendously increased to 60 elements by the early 2000s (McManus, 2006). It is also reported that General Electric (GE), a huge international industrial group, uses 70 of the first 83 elements listed in the periodic table. Rare earth elements are in particular necessary for healthcare, lighting, energy, motors, and transportation products (Duclos, 2010). With the advent of Internet of Things technology and Smart City devices, connectivity is increasingly becoming an integral aspect of every product experience. Both product complexity and rapid technological obsolescence will create higher levels of waste.

Rapid technological advancement requires higher productivity, so AI technology is increasingly automating manufacturing. The July 2018 MIT Technology Review provides a good expose of the social impacts of AI research and automation. In Ohio, where the Toledo AI Research cluster is thriving, automation has replaced 671,000 state workers from 1967 and 2014. This figure is higher than jobs lost to domestic competition and foreign trade combined. The social and economic implication of Automation is significant, as more than 50% of the workforce can be replaced by machines. While automation currently increases productivity by replacing labour,  the energy and materials required to keep up with the advancements will put the planet past its limits by 2050.

At the moment, 57% of metals are recycled by less than 1%, [4], so recycling technology can improve significantly, but technological advancement in the recycling sector cannot have a significant impact on its own. The main constrain to a closed-loop model in minerals is that only 18 out of 60 metals exhibit a recycling rate higher than 50% [5].  Osses and contaminations are inevitable, as a fraction of material is lost by dissipation during the use phase[6]. Furthermore, companies have no cost-efficient way to extract embedded raw materials without degrading the product, so most of the original value is lost in current, smelter-based recycling processes. For example, a study shows that only $3 worth of gold, silver, and palladium can currently be extracted from a mobile phone that, when new, contains $16 worth of raw materials [8]. These challenges to 100% closed-loop material recycling suggest that mining of finite resources will continue to increase along with rapid technological obsolescence. For this reason, it impossible to suggest a Zero Waste region in the age of the hyper-automated Smart City.

2- An Economic Equilibrium Where Prices Don’t Reflect True Cost of Production

As the Circular Economy model created by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggests, a Zero Waste economy is possible when prices reflect the true cost of production. The problem in today’s highly global economy is that the true cost is far away from the market price. For example, Economist Raj Patel writes that if all economic and social externalities were taken into consideration, the price of a Big Mac would be $200.

Then how are businesses such as MacDonald’s able to push the prices down? Most resources come from countries that had suffered US dictatorship, invasion, or IMF programs.  Starting in the 1980’s, odious debts incurred by US-backed dictators forced countries to export their resources in mass, pushing down commodity prices and labor costs.  The extent of specialization in the Linear Economy is such that most developing countries specialize in just a few sectors: Mining, agriculture, or sweat shop labour.  Despite projected increasing commodity costs and volatility, the price of resources and labour will remain way under the true cost due to odious debts and economic centralization imposed on the developing world.

Cheap resources and labour are the fuel of the Linear Economy. The majority of externalities take place abroad because this is where most of the mining and manufacturing happens. At the same time, it is estimated that resource extraction and manufacturing produce the biggest environmental and social impacts. For these two reasons, a large consumer city like Stockholm, Berlin, Toronto, London, Tokyo, New York or San Franciso cannot claim to be Zero Waste just because there is less local pollution.

Based on projected global resource extraction and consumption trends, global externalities will continue to increase. At some point, continuing to externalize the cost of production has a significant impact on the developed world. As the linear economy depletes limited stocks, price volatility and supply chain interruptions will cost the global economy US$4.5 trillion in lost global economic growth by 2030, or US$25 trillion by 2050. The United States is a clear example of how subsidizing cheap energy and resources led to economic, health, environmental, and liberty crises. In the need to decouple growth lies the opportunity for the Economic Development field to develop the Circular Economy sector.

Despite not being able to become 100% Zero Waste, the Circular Economy model suggests that a consumer region that improves reuse, repair, and remanufacturing activities can incur great economic benefits, such as lower taxation, job creation, while having a smaller impact on the world’s resources and people.

3- Ideological Constrains on Taxes and Regulations

Another significant barrier to the Zero Waste region is the political distaste for taxes and regulations on externalities. This distaste is inherit of a North American culture that strongly values cheap new products without understanding the high cost on the region’s adaptive capacity.

This free-market sentiment is born in the USA, but also shared by the most extremist factions of the Conservative Party. In Ontario, the new Conservative Premier won the 2018 provincial election based on weak campaign promises such as eliminating the Carbon Tax to save drivers 10 cents a litre and up to $260 a year. His late brother, Rob Ford, had eliminated the 5 cent tax on plastic bags and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars deleting bike lanes when he was the Mayor of Toronto.

It goes without saying that the economic benefits of progressive policies such as Carbon tax, bike lanes, and a ban on single use plastics are much greater than the savings promised by Conservative politicians. For example, due to the poor state of public infrastructure, the people of Ontario need 2 or more cars per family at a cost of $1,000 per month. In contrast, people in the German city of Freiburg save thousands of dollars a year as 70% of transportation takes place in the form of walking, biking, or public.

Those politicians who continue to stall Zero Waste policy will do so at a significant long-term economic cost.


[1] How Circular is the Global Economy?




[5] Graedel et al., 2011; Reck and Graedel, 2012

[6] Graedel et al., 2011; Reck and Graedel, 2012

[7] Moving from recycling to waste prevention: a review of barriers and enables


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