In nature, there is no waste; everything cycles through the biosphere, endlessly. One organism's waste becomes another organism's food. Now after three centuries of an industrial system that produces wastes in such quantities that they can't be recycled by the biosphere, people are starting to try to imitate nature.
San Francisco now recycles 68% of its garbage--best in the nation--and has a goal of achieving 100% recycling. Other cities have adopted this goal as well, including Boulder, Buenos Aires, and Canberra, and businesses such as Toyota, Nike, and Xerox. San Francisco director of the environment department--Jared Blumenfeld--calls garbage "a design flaw," saying that "from our perspective, waste doesn't need to exist."
In recent years, however, recycle rates have leveled off as the economics won't support higher levels. It's cheaper just to throw the rest out.
The economics are different in Dharavi, a massive slum in Mumbai, India. Thousands of slum residents have created an industry recycling the discarded waste from Mumbai's 19 million citizens. Hundreds of children haul bundles of plastic, cardboard, or glass to workshops where aluminum cans are smelted, waste soap retrieved, car batteries, computer parts, flourescent lights, ballpoint pens, wire hangers, and other items are sorted for recycling.
Dharvai is spawning a new middle class of trash. But it comes at a price. Hi tech items such as computers or cell phones are not designed for easy recycle, containing heavy metals such as mercury that leak into the soil causing dangerous pollution.
A truly sustainable economy will only come when the zero waste philosophy is designed into products from the very start so that 100% recycling will be economically competitive and non toxic.