Sep 08, 2023
by Karl Smith
Is a Zero-Waste Future Even Possible?
by Karl Smith
Sep 08, 2023

Waste. On the one hand, it’s what you make; a byproduct of the material fact of production. On the other, however, it’s also what you make of it – and those two words make a whole lot of difference.

In terms of the first point – we know this. Every day, more or less, we are confronted with news of industrial excess; photographs of mountainous landfill, discarded footwear slashed to prematurely end its life, and piles of unsold clothing burned rather than repurposed.

However, with an uptick in brand-endorsed (and, indeed, brand-owned) resale marketplaces, take-back programs, and with brand-specific repair stores being opened semi-regularly even in the world of High Fashion, there are more initiatives than ever being put in place to combat the problem of waste.

All of which is a great start. But, at this point in time, is that enough? We’ve known about wastage for a long while now, and while legislation is making it harder for the worst practices to continue and the worst offenders to continue profiting, it’s still the case that – as a global figure – 73% of materials used to create clothing find their way to landfill or to the incinerator.

(And that’s far from the only frightening statistic: while clothing sales have increased from 100 to 200 billion – yes, that’s 2,000,000,000 – units a year, the number of times each garment is worn has dipped by 36%. Of course, it’s not all on the consumer – on the production side, 15% of all fabric used is and 57% of all discarded clothes end up in landfill.)

This, of course, brings us neatly to point two: the notion that waste is only waste if it’s deemed to be. There are brands and material innovation companies whose entire foundation is the idea that waste can still be put to work. Nature Coatings Inc., for example, uses wood waste to create its Carbon Black-alternative pigment. Greater Goods repurposes its own waste as new products.

“There is no zero waste on anything. Look at any industry today and you will see very little desire to improve their practices.” – Maurizio Donadi, Founder of Transnomadica

And then there are those brands dedicated to manufacturing with a lower impact and a lower waste output – outfits like the 3D-printed shoe manufacturer Zellerfeld, working on a made-to-order basis with a process that is naturally waste-averse. Which is less a case of “waste is what you make of it,” and more a case of, “it’s only waste if you make it.” Which, as a progressive mode of production, also works.

All of which is great news – better for the planet and better for those (mostly in the Global South) who bear the brunt of the industry’s waste problem.

The question remains, though, of what we are working towards. A lower-waste world? Perhaps even a zero-waste society?

Well, Maurizio Donadi knows a thing or two about waste: WWD quite rightly refers to him as “L.A.’s Godfather of Upcycled Vintage” – although if you asked the ever-humble Donadi himself, he’d more likely say that he’s a guy with some interesting ideas about waste management.

“My personal mission and that of Transnomadica is to inspire and develop methods of for creative waste reduction through restoring valuable vintage and recycling/upcycling second hand products,” Donadi explains, discussing how his work both directly reduces waste through the upcycling process and facilitates, through shared ideas and collaboration, ways for others to do the same.

And for Donadi, collaboration has meant working not only with other likeminded individuals, but also with major corporations in the fashion and footwear space. His Transnomadica brand – both a brick-and-mortar store in Los Angeles and a platform for change on a worldwide basis – has worked with household names like Nike and even more unlikely contenders such as Dockers.

“Our collaboration with Nike was based on the simple concept of restoring vintage and upcycling their second hand products – mainly T-shirts and sweatshirts,” Donadi begins, asked how a company at the Swoosh’s level – a level which surely bears the greatest responsibility for production-generated waste – fits into Transnomadica’s mission. “During these phases we learned a lot about overall quality, from production to materials to new way to design. A small project for a large company that is seriously committed to waste reduction. Every third party project we take on is about that.”

How, then, does Donadi see the future?

“Regretfully,” he prefaces with what feels like a most genuine use of that word, “I am of the opinion that zero waste – in our society – is not possible.”

It’s a surprising statement from a man who has dedicated and continues to dedicate so much of his life to tackling waste in interesting ways. But perhaps that’s where the “interesting” part comes in – in lieu of the ideal future, there is surely some consolation in combining your cause and your artistry, finding ways to make it personal. To make it matter.

And Donadi agrees: “What is possible instead,” he offers, keen never to seem pessimistic, “is our individual commitment to find way of making things that are useful, durable, practical, possibly circular and why not, beautiful.”

It’s a much more positive and more philosophical way of thinking than it might sound initially, but it’s tempered by the fact that Donadi is also never far removed from the reality of the situation.

“There is no zero waste on anything,” he says, not frustrated exactly but certainly not under any illusion that big change is imminent. “Look at any industry today and you will see very little desire to improve their practices. Big marketing initiatives but very little action.”

So, if global corporations pushing for tangible, large-scale change isn’t necessarily on the cards, who – instead – do we look to as leaders?

“Low low waste is possible in smaller entities – individuals, artisans or smaller-scale companies – where their financial survival (and success) is strongly connected to the creative utilization of their limited resources while being in tune with their personal philosophy,” Donadi suggests. And, in doing so, he’s alluding to the kinds of companies we mentioned previously – brands and organizations who are turning waste (and turning their own waste) into a product as valuable as it was in its pre-waste form.

And sometimes even more so: what Nature Coatings is doing with wood waste, for example, creating a non-toxic and low-impact alternative to an everyday product, is of more potential benefit to the planet than many of the other products which that harvested wood becomes – like paper and chip board – before it even reaches them at the end of the chain.

“My personal mission and that of Transnomadica is to inspire and develop methods of for creative waste reduction through restoring valuable vintage and recycling/upcycling second hand products.” – Maurizio Donadi, Founder of Transnomadica

But, given that pigment issues are still fairly niche (whether they ought to be or not) and brands – like Greater Goods – with a USP of creating from waste are naturally and necessarily working on a smaller scale due to the more DIY method of production required, how does the message reach a wider audience?

Well, the answer is that it doesn’t. At least that’s what Donadi believes. But, again, this isn’t about pessimism – for Donadi’s part, it’s much more about anti-passivism.

“The message rarely gets out,” he concludes, “it’s our responsibility to find these people and help them to share their findings and innovations.”

If, then, waste really is what you make of it, then waste is potential: the potential for art, for creativity, and – most importantly – the potential for a better future. Even if it isn’t a zero-waste one.

Images: Maurizio Donadi & Hasnain Lilani / Datini Fibres & Upcycling Farm