Circular window looking up at city building.

Municipal, commercial and industrial leaders all pursue conservation differently depending on their needs. However, many resilient, circular and energy-efficient projects have a shared interest: They want "zero."

Sustainability depends on reduction. And whether it’s one’s utility costs, water contaminants, waste emitted or waste discarded, eliminating them completely is a common target. Here are four different sustainability goals built on the road to zero.

Net Zero Energy

More than 3,300 buildings across the U.S. know what it’s like to pay nothing in electricity costs.

Net Zero Energy means the ability to produce as much power as one uses, keeping electric bills at $0 over the course of a year. Buildings and homes nationwide are increasingly reaching this unique status through renewables such as solar, while several utility systems have earned the title by other means. Wastewater treatment plants frequently partner with their communities on waste-to-energy (WTE) programs that convert organics from local food distributors into biofuel. Some have managed to generate more than 90 percent of the power they need from biomass alone, reducing the public waste stream and making the city more resilient at the same time.

Zero Liquid Discharge

Still other utility systems go zero in the water itself.

Wastewater teams capture many types of biosolids from effluent so it can flow safely back into nature. Every community takes this seriously — especially energy providers, who use water in their operations and are therefore responsible for the health of the water they may discharge. Zero Liquid Discharge is one way utilities minimize their effect on their surroundings by ensuring the water they use for industrial processes doesn’t reintroduce liquid contaminants to the environment. Water-supported power stations often leverage this concept to treat and reuse municipal wastewater throughout the plant, without any of it ejected into the ecosystem. See more on this practice below:

Zero Emissions

When organizations seek to become “climate neutral,” this is often the zero to which they’re referring.

Zero emissions is a basic trait of electric vehicles, but it can apply to entire communities as well. Similar to net zero, it means one’s carbon footprint is equal to or offset by a campaign that eliminates the same amount of greenhouses gases like CO2. In other words, it emits no carbon. Cities and college campuses are inching closer to zero emissions by way of combined heat and power (CHP), which recycles gaseous waste as a source of energy they’d otherwise get from more carbon-intensive equipment.

Zero Waste to Landfill

This concept is self-explanatory, but involves several aspects of an operation, and makes the larger community more efficient.

Zero Waste to Landfill (ZWTLF) is the exclusive status given to utilities and businesses that divert 100 percent of their refuse from the landfill. Smarter recycling and material sorting play a part in achieving this goal, and has allowed major commercial manufacturing facilities to declare themselves ZWTLF all over the world. Car manufacturers, for example, generate up to tens of millions of pounds of waste per plant annually. Despite the weight of these operations, they can keep every ounce out of the landfill by reusing valuable commodities (metals, plastics, cardboard and wood), applying sophisticated sorting and compaction techniques and engaging local WTE initiatives.

Sustainability is a game where the lowest score wins, and each goal has a bright future. On the shoulders of Net Zero, for example, is Net Positive, wherein one produces more energy than it uses or needs. It’s just one area that poses interesting possibilities in a world that becomes more resourceful every day.

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