Like the zero population growth camp, the zero waste movement argues for a radical rethinking of humanity's relationship toward its refuse. It, ahem, throws out all notions of waste management in favor of a culture that continually re-uses. The movement's archenemy is the recycling industry. Big Think emailed the champion of zero waste principles and Founder of the Zero Waste Institute, Paul Palmer, to get the details on how to get to zero.

How have we developed a material culture that sees recycling as the cure-all disposal method?

Recycling serves the purposes of the gigantic and powerful garbage industry and so it has a huge promotion and press. The environmentalists have been asleep. They take greenwashing as a stand-in for green. They require no theory or analysis of recycling and just accept it as the end-all because it seems so intuitively simple.

How does recycling benefit the garbage industry?

1. It blunts popular the opposition to the egregious waste--whether by dumping or incinerating or producing biodegradable materials or recycling or any other method.

2. It enshrines discard as the proper fate for once-used goods.

3. It provides a greenwashing that looks like recovery and yet produces huge quantities of heavy goods to move around the country using garbage company fleets. Keep in mind that a garbage company has no physical inventory other than a fleet of trucks. Think about glass cullet, bales of cans or bales of newspaper or cardboard.

4. It successfully gulls the environmental movement, preventing any real analysis of resources.

What do you see as the proper role for recycling?

It has no role anywhere in a sane world, since discard has no role in a sane world. If you mean merely the recapture of materials, then it is a normal part of zero waste ideation but not as a discard method. Materials recapture must be planned for in advance as part of the design of products and processes. This implies many changes in the ways that materials are managed, virtually none of which play any role in today's recycling methods but all of which require advance planning for recovery such as extensive labeling. Compare, for example, the 50,000 kinds of polymeric alloys and compositions with the childish attempt to sum up plastic varieties in nine or so codes.

How can we get toward a zero waste culture in the United States?

First, challenge the notion that recycling is a progressive approach to resource conservation. Instead of recycling as an end goal, substitute planetary protection and then insist on a wide-ranging analysis of resource usage which totally eschews all garbage-based thinking.

For example, let's completely forget all of the management of garbage. It is all irrelevant to any serious discussion. All of the moaning in the world about the size of garbage cans, the colors, the number of streams, the rate structure, the politics of waste management--all of it is completely beside the point and leads nowhere except into endless contemplation of our environmental navels. Instead, study methods which lead to the elimination of all discard everywhere.

Redesign for perpetual reuse is barely in its infancy today and 99.9 percent of the choices that need to be made are not available to anyone. We need an entire enterprise including political incentivizing, university research, industrial designing and scientific funding to come up with new designs that do not rely on discard. This approach will be bitterly resisted by every marketer who sees the dump as his high throughput assistant (throw it away and buy another one). Opposition should not hold back any political movement including this one.