Kaisa Karjalainen leads the Mission Zero Academy, Source: Kaisa Karjalainen

Kaisa Karjalainen: “It’s better to be an imperfect zero waster for the rest of our lives than a perfect one for two weeks”

Kaisa Karjalainen: “It’s better to be an imperfect zero waster for the rest of our lives than a perfect one for two weeks”

A talk with the head of Mission Zero Academy on the benefits for municipalities if they go the zero waste way

Kaisa Karjalainen currently leads the Mission Zero Academy which accelerates the implementation of zero waste strategies in European businesses and cities. Previously, she worked as an environmental specialist, helping events and different kinds of organisations set up environmental management systems; improve their environmental performance; design waste management plans. She has also designed different kinds of environmental education and specialist services, as well as services to extend products' lifecycles and prevent them from becoming waste.

Ms Karjalainen, what is the “mission” of Mission Zero Academy?

Mission Zero Academy (MiZA) aims to be a trusted, widely recognised, user-friendly one-stop-shop for zero waste upstream and downstream solutions, resources, and information in Europe at the local level. With this, we seek to bridge the knowledge gap in the transition towards zero waste practices.

In practice, we want to support local authorities and businesses to turn zero waste policies and ambitions into actions and concrete waste reduction and recycling results.

How many European cities have you helped in implementing zero waste policies?

Currently, we have official partnerships with about 50 municipalities but practically, we are supporting also another 70 municipalities. The gap comes from the fact that before we count the city as an official partner, the local council will need to pass a vote to go for zero waste and that takes time due to the political processes.

Nevertheless, we support the municipalities in getting that done. Many municipalities also develop their zero waste strategies before voting, so it is important to be involved in that.

How can a city become a Candidate for zero waste? What kind of support can local governments expect from your organization?

The most important part of becoming a Candidate City is the political commitment to zero waste. Practically, it is a council vote which ensures continuity even if the council composition changes in elections. We find that crucial for success.

In this step, we normally help the municipal staff find the right arguments to go for zero waste, explore the benefits of zero waste specifically in that municipality’s context and do benchmarking of cities that had similar situations and who have already started the journey. Good examples from similar cities help see the impacts of different policies and consequently bring confidence that the change is possible.

In some countries, the municipalities want to also assess their baseline and develop their zero waste strategy before committing. In those cases, our mentors help with that, too. This can be done in different ways, for example, with stakeholder mapping and workshops, identifying best practices within the city as well as internationally and finding the right actions and targets.

What are the major obstacles that you see in your work towards implementing a truly zero waste society?

Our society is still very linear and changing the system is slow and difficult. Swimming against that current takes determination because not all decisions are in the hands of the cities. Therefore, collaboration with stakeholders is very important, be it the citizens, businesses, national governments or civil society organizations.

What kind of differences are there between large cities and smaller towns when it comes to achieving a zero waste reality?

Smaller towns are of course much more agile to make the changes due to smaller scale and fewer things to consider. In small places, it is also easy to reach large numbers of stakeholders because connections are often more personal and therefore having them onboard is easy. As a result, smaller places can often reach very impressive results fast and showcase the impacts of zero waste policies for others to replicate.

On the other hand, large cities often have a more fluctuating population, be it due to universities attracting people from elsewhere, commuters or events. Consequently, communicating good practices takes effort.

On the positive side, big cities usually have the resources and scale to test and adopt new systems, such as reuse systems and have more leverage to demand changes. In addition, big cities draw attention and can inspire both the neighbouring communities as well as other large cities to start their zero waste journeys. So, even if getting great results takes longer in large cities, they can catalyze positive changes elsewhere.

How can we lead by example and scale up to zero waste lifestyle? Are there any simple practical steps?

As citizens, we can model the right behaviours and be an inspiration to the people around us. We can be the walking examples that a zero waste lifestyle is not difficult nor expensive, and it doesn’t lower the quality of life. Quite the opposite! For example, many people have swapped to reusable veggie bags after admiring mine made out of old lace curtains.

A good tip for anyone wanting to make a lifestyle change is to make it one change at a time. Even though we do need to make drastic changes quickly for our life to be within the planetary boundaries, we also need to keep them up. It’s better to be an imperfect zero waster for the rest of our lives than a perfect one for two weeks.



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