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Zero Waste is Key to Fighting Inflation & Supply Chain Shortages

By Alfred Twu

Besides the environmental benefits, zero waste also helps ease the shortages and inflation driven by supply chain issues. A disposal-based supply chain requires a constant extraction of new raw material to feed the making and delivering of new product. This supply chain often spans the whole globe. After a short lifespan, the products are discarded and new ones are needed. If any component or part of the chain has a problem, production comes to a halt and there are shortages, which then drive up costs. In contrast, a zero-waste supply chain, or  circular economy, is more robust, as it requires less new stuff, and materials and inventory stay closer to where they’re used. 

Recently, energy, food, building materials, and vehicles have been the main contributors to inflation. Unsurprisingly, these are also the products most affected by supply chain issues. Famously, lumber prices tripled in 2021, and remain well above pre-2020 levels. With energy prices remaining high, food, vehicles, building materials, and other products that require a lot of energy to make will also remain scarce and expensive.

Zero waste addresses shortages and inflation in two ways: by reducing demand, and also by increasing the supply by putting existing product back into stores rather than to the landfill.

The hierarchy of zero waste is Reduce, Reuse, Recycle — meaning the biggest impact is from using less stuff, followed by reusing it, and only after that recycling. Reduce in particular can address the vehicle shortage. When households reduce the number of cars they need to own, by switching to public transportation, bikes, or carshare, that reduces the demand for cars as well as the demand for the materials and energy used to make and drive them.

Reuse has a lot of potential to ease the building materials shortage. Some cities, such as Portland and Palo Alto, have deconstruction ordinances that require certain buildings to be taken apart instead of simply bulldozed. This allows the lumber, doors, and other materials to be reused. At a reuse store, inventory is available right now, in contrast to new fixtures that might be back-ordered, adding weeks of delay to a project.

For food, there’s another R to add to the zero waste system: Recovery. In 2016, California passed SB1383, a law to reduce short-lived climate pollutants such as methane, a greenhouse gas that comes from food rotting in landfills. On January 1, 2022, the food recovery section of SB1383 went into effect, requiring wholesalers, distributors, foodservice providers, and large supermarkets to donate food that is still edible but would otherwise be landfilled. These donations are sent to food recovery organizations such as food banks. In 2024, the second phase of SB1383 will take effect, applying to large restaurants, hotels, event venues, schools, and other major food facilities. Food recovery both reduces waste, and also eases the impact of high food prices on low-income households.

With slowdowns in international trade, rising global demand for products, and a continuing energy crisis, the supply chain issues of the last couple of years need to be viewed as not just a blip, but the start of a new normal where US consumers can no longer use and waste an oversize share of the world’s resources. There’s no supply chain shorter or stronger than reuse.

Alfred Twu is the Chair of the San Francisco Bay Chapter’s Zero Waste Committee.

 

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