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UD Professor Saleem Ali did field research at a manganese mining site in Gabon, Africa, in 2022.
UD Professor Saleem Ali did field research at a manganese mining site in Gabon, Africa, in 2022.

A champion for zero waste

Photo courtesy of Saleem Ali

UD’s Saleem Ali appointed to United Nations board

Editor's note: The University of Delaware is joining the more than 1 billion people, governments, institutions, and businesses who participate in Earth Day — Saturday, April 22 — to recognize our collective responsibility and to help accelerate the transition to a brighter, greener, and more equitable future for generations to come.

Saleem Ali, Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware, has been appointed by United Nations Secretary General Antonio Gutteres to the Advisory Board of Eminent Persons on Zero Waste.

According to the U.N., humanity currently generates more than two billion tons of municipal solid waste annually, including plastics, textiles, rotting food, discarded electronics and debris from mining and construction sites. At the first International Day of Zero Waste on March 30, Gutteres claimed that we are “treating our planet like a garbage dump” and called for a “war on waste.” 

In his letter of invitation to Ali, Gutteres wrote, “It is my hope that the multi-partner and multidisciplinary, regionally and gender balanced Board will work to publicize best practices and success stories and raise awareness to promote local and national zero-waste initiatives.”  

Ali, who holds joint appointments in UD’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment and the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration, is the sole U.S. academic on the 13-member board. He joins Emine Erdoğan, first lady of Türkiye (honorary chairperson); Jose Manuel Moller, chief executive officer and founder, Algramo; Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus, co-founder and chairman, Yunus Environment Hub; Carlos Silva Filho, president, International Solid Waste Association; Laura Reyes, directora ejecutiva, Cempre – Economía Circular; Lara van Druten, chief executive officer, The Waste Transformers; Hakima El Haite, founder, EauGlobe; Gino Van Begin, secretary general, ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability; and Vijay Jagannathan, secretary general, CityNet Asia Pacific. Additionally, Melissa Santokhi-Seenacherry, first lady of Suriname, and Fatima Maada Bio, first lady of Sierra Leone, will serve as honorary members. Guy Ryder, under-secretary-general for policy, Executive Office of the Secretary-General, will be the U.N. liaison for the board.

UDaily reached out to Ali to learn more about his role on this new U.N. board.

Q: What does the term “zero waste” really mean?  

Ali: While physical laws suggest that we will always have some “waste” in either material or the energy generated in any process, such ostensible waste could potentially be used by someone else or for other purposes. “Zero waste” refers to minimizing as much waste as possible through a systems-level redesign of production and consumption mechanisms. Such a “systems-level” approach goes beyond individual solutions that respond to a particular symptom but rather looks at all the connections between various production and decision points. Such an approach to interventions is likely to prevent one solution from creating another problem. The term gained popularity in 2010 with the publication of “Zero Waste Home” by activist Bea Johnson. 

Q: What expertise do you hope to contribute to the board?

Ali: Much of my research has focused on how we can develop a more sustainable relationship with primary materials that are extracted from Earth — minerals that are an essential ingredient in everything from laptops and cell phones to electric cars and solar panels. I have also been active in science diplomacy efforts at the United Nations, so serving on this board gives me an opportunity to further amplify the role of science in geopolitics.

Q: What are some key ways each of us can help achieve zero-waste goals? And what steps should companies take?

Ali: We used to think of the three “R’s“ in waste minimization, but Bea Johnson added two more and now we have the five “R’s”: 

  • Refuse the things that you do not need

  • Reduce the things that you do actually need

  • Reuse what you consume

  • Recycle only what you cannot refuse, reduce or reuse

  • Rot (compost) the rest of your waste

This is a good rubric for all of us to follow to move closer to Zero Waste. I would also add that companies who engage in much larger scale production enterprises should always look for ways to harness energy (especially heat) that is generated when we engage in material conversion processes. So, for example, composting itself can generate heat, which could be used for other purposes.

Q: Many zero-waste products cost more than traditional products. How do you convince people to invest in them?

Ali: Ultimately, if we start to think of “waste” as either an economic liability or as a resource, we will find that it makes economic sense to move toward a zero-waste and what is often termed “a circular economy” society, where the reuse and regeneration of materials is key. Plastic bags are a classic example of this — they are a cost to someone even if it is not the direct user.

Q: What gives you hope that the world can change its wasteful habits?

Ali: Humans resist changing habits until economic incentives and education work in tandem. An example of hope, building on the plastic bags example, is how fast people have embraced a change in habits. Costco and other wholesale warehouses have done a great job with behavioral change. People have figured out that they can save money on quality products by carrying groceries in used crates or bringing their reusable cloth bags. The momentary irritation passes and you feel good about how you are helping the planet and society.

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