The 2017 Zero Waste Conference will showcase the unique perspectives of keynote speakers Cady Coleman, scientist and retired NASA astronaut, and award-winning author Tristram Stuart. Stuart is a tireless campaigner on the environmental impacts of food waste, while Cady, who spent almost six months on the International Space Station, says her experiences have greatly shaped how she now views our planet.

“It’s clear that we have everything and everyone that we need to live sustainably. Our success lies in being both open and brave when it comes to working together to find solutions to our terrestrial challenges,” says Coleman. “The things we each have to share can be the keys to advancing step-by-step toward significant solutions.”

The shift to zero waste and circular economy principles will have impacts in all aspects of our lives. This year’s theme — A Circular Economy Within Reach — includes a focus on plastics in the ocean, along with sessions on textiles, food waste, business innovation, and circular cities.

By mid-century, the weight of the microplastics clogging our oceans could surpass the biomass of all fish and pose significant threats to humans, birds, mammals and marine life — unless we do something to stop it.

That’s the view of people like Mats Linder, Lead, Innovation Programme, New Plastics Economy at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, who will shine a spotlight on plastics — and the potential harm they pose to humans and marine life when they settle in the ocean — at the seventh annual Zero Waste Conference on November 1 in Vancouver.

“The exact impact on marine life is not yet fully understood, but it’s well established that it can lead to the suffocation and starvation of birds, reptiles, and mammals and impede the growth and reproductivity of fish,” Linder says in an email. “Additionally, the potential impact of microplastics on marine ecosystems, and, eventually, human health, is alarming.”

Linder will sit on a four-person panel that will debate the shortcomings of plastic recycling and the latest global developments to keep them out of our oceans.

In a circular economy, manufacturers consciously design products and packaging to be easily disassembled, repaired, reused, and recycled. End-of-life materials become inputs for new products, just as in nature.

“We have to start looking at ways to recover and reuse all products. If we continue to treat waste as a necessary outcome of production and consumption, it will continue to negatively impact our environment and well-being,” says Malcolm Brodie, conference host and chair of the National Zero Waste Council. “What’s happening in our oceans is just one example of the harmful waste we’re causing to our environment.”

Linder agrees that the circular economy will benefit the environment because it aims to decouple growth from finite resource consumption. This can be done by “designing out” waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems. Earlier this year, Linder noted that his organization launched the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, with the aim of starting an innovation journey to rethink the way we make and use plastics.

Metro Vancouver Board Chair Greg Moore maintains that pursuing waste prevention and the circular economy offers great promise for addressing the issues of waste. 

“When the cost of waste management grows, governments have to pass this onto its ratepayers. That’s expensive but waste also signifies an inefficient use of resources, and negative environmental and health costs,” says Moore. “A mind shift in thinking about waste will lead to new economic opportunities — it will provide new ways of growing our prosperity while protecting nature and natural systems.”