As California edges ever farther into the 21st Century, it is becoming clear to most of us that the old "3Rs" (reduce, reuse and recycle) model of dealing with waste needs to be improved.

The simplistic 3Rs concept, launched back in the 1980s, is morphing into a much more rigorous effort called "Zero Waste." But what does that mean, and is it actually achievable?

It seems the definition of "Zero Waste" varies, depending on when and whom you ask. Back in 2002, the state of California stated that, "The literal goal of zero waste is to create a waste management infrastructure where everything is recycled, reused or composted, with nothing remaining for disposal."

Today the Zero Waste stakes have been raised. The Grassroots Recycling Network takes a more complex view: "Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them." That's nice, but what exactly does that mean?

Think of Zero Waste as a process that began with the 3Rs model. Every step of the process brings continuous improvement in the form of new knowledge, new technologies and a greater ability to reduce, reuse and recycle. In the beginning of this process, the easiest and most cost-effective materials were recovered -- mostly metals and paper. The next step was recycling of glass and plastic. Now in California we are in the era of organics, and yard clippings, food scraps and other biodegradable materials make up the largest component of the waste stream. These materials are being diverted from landfills and used to make compost, a valuable soil amendment used for a variety of applications, including agriculture.

So what's next? Single-use packaging seems to be on the short list of upcoming Zero Waste efforts, with local municipal bans on both plastic grocery sacks and polystyrene (e.g. Styrofoam) becoming prevalent throughout the state. There is even another attempt at a statewide ban of plastic bags being considered.

But is banning such products the answer? It may be reasonable in the short term, but the long-haul will require rethinking the "business-as-usual" paradigm. And that rethink is happening, in California and beyond.

This is where our second "R" really comes in handy. Reuse, as in reusable grocery bags and rechargeable batteries, is a good example of where businesses can replace outmoded materials and goods with products that consumers will embrace and are better for the environment.

Another effort becoming more mainstream is product stewardship, or extended producer responsibility (EPR). According to the California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery (Cal Recycle), "EPR is a strategy to place a shared responsibility for end-of-life product management on the producers, and all entities involved in the product chain, instead of the general public." That means product design changes that minimize a negative impact on human health and the environment at every stage of the product's life cycle.

Two examples of the EPR model in action are recent state regulations for both paint and carpeting, which make them easier to recycle.

As we continue down the path toward Zero Waste, no one really knows whether we will ever get there. One thing is for sure, though -- the continuous improvements that are being made to products, the environment and, ultimately, our lives are unquestionable.

For a list of resources, or for additional information on zero waste, single-use packaging bans or extended producer responsibility, email lois@wastediversion.org.