The term "zero waste" is hotly debated. The debate is whether the scope of zero waste is "post-discard"/total recycling of materials (sometimes including energy recovery), or the reuse of all materials from extraction through the entire materials life-cycle.
The Zero Waste International Alliance defines it this way:
Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use. 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. Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.
The key concepts, according to this definition are:
Although the definition is lofty and perhaps not yet practical, many manufacturing companies are adopting the phrase to communicate their approach and practices to become more resource efficient. According the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, materials disposed of (or "wasted") in the industrial sector of the U.S. totaled 7.6 billion tons in 2012.
That same year, General Motors Company outlined their business case for zero waste, now known as zero-landfill manufacturing. GM’s landfill-free program blueprint defines the waste targeted by their landfill-free program as:
General Motors has a goal of creating 125 landfill-free facilities across the globe by 2020. It's plan includes recovering all resources to their highest value through actively managing their manufacturing byproducts through one tracking system. Although a landfill-free program requires investment, GM's two economic drivers are:
Do you think these two economic drivers are enough to transform GM's operations?
More reading: http://3blmedia.com/News/CSR/GM-Makes-Business-Case-Zero-Waste