Praxis (Building Solutions)

Approach Zero "Waste"

GVP Performance Goal

by Max Zahniser and Terrie Lewine

Originally published in Green Village Philadelphia's newsletter


Sometimes it is very useful to define even commonly used words, as doing so can often cut very quickly to great insight on the given subject. So let’s start by defining waste:


(both selected from the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2010.)

  1. anything unused, unproductive, or not properly utilized.
  2. anything left over or superfluous, as excess material or by-products, not of use for the work in hand

Before industrialization of human societies there really was no such thing as waste. As William McDonough has been known to point out, we invented the idea of waste, and “in nature, waste is food.”


Generally, waste within a building complex can be clearly divided into two phases:

Phase 1. waste generated during construction, and

Phase 2. waste generated during the occupancy and operations of the buildings (after construction).


In both phases, it is critical to employ two general strategies in order to approach zero waste:

Strategy 1. strive to generate less “waste” to begin with, and

Strategy 2. for whatever waste generation can’t be avoided, seek sustainable forms of “disposal”, or better yet, use.


But we’ve invented a lot of stuff that is not food for any organisms on Earth, and we’ve also combined a lot of materials in our products, making it much harder to reclaim or recycle them individually. So this means that Strategy 1 above is really a process of careful selection of materials and products that do not come with packaging that is, or are not in-and-of-themselves, destined for landfill; i.e. at the end of their useful life, can they be easily reused or recycled?

 Strategy 1 there-by makes Strategy 2 much easier, because you’re only left with products, materials or nutrients that are readily reusable, recyclable, or a valuable nutrient for something else (e.g. compost).

 As a demonstration development, reducing construction waste will have a significant impact on approaching our goal of approaching zero waste.

 Consider this...40% of landfill volume in the US is made up of construction waste!

LEED projects are often easily achieving a waste diversion rate of over 90% (this means that 90% of the waste produced during construction is diverted from landfill, and would otherwise have ended up there).  

 On new construction projects the 10% that goes to landfill is largely product packaging and food waste from construction workers (technically not construction waste anyway).  During construction GVP will development systems to recycle the packaging, and compost food waste in order to divert more than 95% of their waste from landfill, usually at a cost savings, because we’ll be avoiding costly landfill tipping fees!

 Likewise, the EPA estimates that 85% of municipal waste (stuff you throw in the garbage at home or at work) could be recycled! We believe that without even addressing the community’s production of the waste to begin with, we can already approach 90% waste reduction by making the effort to get the material into systems that can use it!

 GVP will institute operational purchasing policies and practices to reduce the generation of true “waste”, material that can’t be reused, recycled, or composted. In addition we will implement aggressive operational recycling practices, supplementing what the city has in place.  This will include programs to assist our neighbors with electronics recycling and less easily recycled plastics, batteries, and products made out of more than one material. What’s left after that is largely compostable material; a.k.a. food for other organisms! GVP will develop various types of neighborhood composting to increase our use of nature’s free energy and nutrient sources, and assist in the achievement other GVP Performance Goals related to food production and healthy ecosystems.

             The above described strategies will get us very close to eliminating all material going to landfill or incinerators, and working to innovate beyond even this level could very well achieve a zero-waste community!  In a community of awareness and mindful practice, approaching zero-waste is actually one of our most easily attainable performance goals. 


A technical sustainability consulting company with clients and strategic partners including University of Pennsylvania, the Pentagon, B Lab, the U.S. Green Building Council, Autodesk, Con Edison Company of New York, Wallace Roberts & Todd, Humanscale.