Hesperian Health Guides

Hesperian Health Guides

Getting to Zero Waste

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 18: Solid Waste: Turning a Health Risk into a Resource > Getting to Zero Waste


Communities around the world are finding ways to reduce their waste to almost nothing, with the goal of producing zero waste. Zero waste means reducing waste and recycling the rest back into nature or the marketplace in ways that protect health and the environment.

To reach the goal of zero waste, industries must take responsibility to produce less or none of products used only once, such as plastics. Cities and towns can develop solid waste programs that compost, recycle and reduce waste. To be successful, planning must include the people most affected by waste. (To learn more about zero waste, see Other Environmental Health Resources.)

A town struggles with solid waste and wins

Kovalam, a beautiful beach town in southern India, is a popular place for tourists. But tourism in Kovalam nearly ended because of too much trash.

During 30 years of tourism, Kovalam never had a safe way to get rid of waste. No trash bins, no recycling program, little use of compost, and thousands of visitors year after year left Kovalam buried in garbage. Plastic bags clogged the town’s water pipes, mosquitoes bred in piles of trash, and the town grew ugly and unhealthy.

Local government officials decided to start a waste collection program and to install an incinerator to burn the waste. But many people argued that burning would only turn the waste into toxic smoke and ash that would fill the air. After much debate, the incinerator was not built, and the government asked the groups that opposed it to suggest an alternative.

Led by an organization called Thanal Conservation Group, the community proposed a zero waste system. People from other communities visited to share ideas about their zero waste programs. One woman, Murali, showed how she made and sold bowls, cups, spoons, bags and other useful items from discarded coconut shells, palm leaves, and scrap paper. By promoting composting and new ways of reusing discards, Zero Waste Kovalam was born.

Within a few years, Kovalam was clean and beautiful, and more prosperous than ever. It now has a new tourist attraction: the Zero Waste Center. Many local restaurants now use coconut shell cups and plates made from leaves. The women of the Zero Waste Center grow vegetables and bananas in soil enriched with compost, and the town built a plant that uses human and animal waste to make electricity.

Kovalam has become an example for all of India and the world by showing how zero waste can restore and improve a community’s health and natural beauty and protect the environment for future generations.

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