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The Wastiary: Zero Waste


Zero Waste

by Pushpa Arabindoo

Over one year, in 2019-20, the IAS and the UCL Urban Laboratory interrogated the theme ‘Waste’ across the arts, humanities and social sciences. The start of the pandemic in early 2020 however meant that many of the planned events and the programme of research could not take place and it was then that the book project Wastiary was born.
Three years later, the Wastiary is an illustrated volume of short contributions, the themes of which are prompted by each letter of the alphabet and the numbers 1 to 9. They are written by researchers from across the arts, humanities and social sciences, reflecting from their various disciplines and perspectives upon the multiple meanings and manifestations of waste.
The echo of the bestiary resonates widely in the Wastiary, this compendium of ‘beastly’ objects, creatures and artwork. Most vividly, the ‘beast’ evokes how waste cannot be tamed,
confined or managed.
To celebrate the launch of the Wastiary, three chapters will be published on Think Pieces as well as other contributions that are inspired by the subject of waste.

zero waste, noun, a situation in which no waste material is produced

zero-waste, adjective (also zero waste), not producing any waste material

In December 2018, the planning group of Zero Waste International Alliance adopted an updated, peer-reviewed and internationally accepted definition of ‘zero waste’ as ‘[t]he conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water or air that threaten the environment or human health’. Aligning with the guiding principles of a zero-waste hierarchy that goes beyond recycling, reusing and reducing to rethinking and redesigning product consumption as a top priority, its pithy, globally accessible doctrine-style statement is comparable to popular definitions of ‘zero waste’ such as that by the Cambridge English Dictionary cited above.

And yet, can zero-waste calls for eliminating waste be plainly interpreted as ‘no waste’, as these definitions suggest, lay or scientific? Can such a profound and important idea requiring a remarkable investment of sociopolitical change really be that simple? In non-mathematical contexts, ‘zero’ might seem synonymous with or even a more emphatic alternative to ‘no’. But as linguistic scholars would argue, ‘zero’ as a numeral is semantically and pragmatically distinct from ‘no’ as a generalised quantifier. So, if zero waste cannot be interpreted as no waste, what does it imply? Are we referring here to a kind of net zero, where waste generated is somehow eradicated (albeit sustainably)? Or to a more entrepreneurial possibility of waste neutrality, offsetting it by whatever means to balance its generation? If it is about making waste disappear, then, in all likelihood, this is done by moving it elsewhere, not by eliminating it. Also, can we talk about the eradication of waste when, under the continued capitalist influence of reformist ideals, this ignores the economic vitality of waste as a resource (of a different kind) to millions of informal waste pickers around the world, particularly in the Global South?

What is the intended meaning of ‘zero waste’, and how can we interrogate it, beyond the obvious? We can perhaps start by asking what the purpose is of adding ‘zero’ to ‘waste’, as this odd conjugation poses a double problematic. For, instead of the dialectical synthesis one might expect, the two terms problematise each other – zero’s cardinality of counting and ordinality gained by ordering and placing zero first is compromised by its nominal or a namesake attachment to the problem of waste, while waste as a problem is hardly resolved by the invocation of zero as a fetishised solution. They are both caught in a teleological fix wherein these two great modern inventions risk being bound by a narrow conception of limit, ignoring zero’s nuanced bridging of the finite and the infinite as well as waste’s materiality, which is more indeterminate than determinate. Thus, a zero totality is a notion that does not assume the numeric and is undefined, but in being indefinitely degenerate, that is, infinitely capable of reinterpretation, it renders the nonzero state undesirable. Any statistical noise that zero makes in this context vis-à-vis waste stems from a consolidation of aggregate measures that will struggle to be a justifiable basis for strong empirical claims.

While zero waste definitely addresses an ontological reality, whether it provides new kinds of epistemological insights is uncertain when you consider that both metonymy and metaphor are at work in its often crude knowing. Thus, the etymology of the term ‘waste’, which is derived from the Latin vastus, meaning ‘unoccupied or desolate’, suggests a lack which might, in a raw sense, equate to zero value. Caught between the semantic of a metonym and a figurative reading of a metaphor, what we are left with is a contingency where a synecdochical reading of zero waste creates a discomfort around its discursive consequences, exposing it as rhetorical and making a critical reading of zero waste even more urgent.

The Wastiary. A Bestiary of Waste was edited by Albert Brenchat-Aguilar (The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL and former IAS Events Curator & Communications Officer), Timothy Carroll (Principal Research Fellow in Anthropology, UCL), Jane Gilbert (Professor of Medieval Literature and Critical Theory, UCL), Nicola Miller (Director of the IAS) and Michael Picard (International Environmental Law, University of Edinburgh and former IAS Junior Research Fellow). It will be launched officially on 31 October 2023 with a launch party at the Institute of Advanced Studies. To attend the event, please register here.

PUSHPA ARABINDOO is Associate Professor on Geography & Urban Design at the Department of Geography, UCL. She is codirector of the UCL Urban Laboratory leading the priority research theme ‘Wasteland’. She is also the co-convenor of the interdisciplinary MSc Urban Studies programme.


Collage: Nina Mathijsen, Collage Z, 2021. © Courtesy of the artist. The Lead image is a detail of this collage.