What is Zero Waste?
Have you ever heard the term zero waste?
If you are confused about zero waste or don’t know how it differs from recycling, then you’ve come to the right place. In this post, I’m going to give you a breakdown of what is zero waste, why it should matter, and how it differs from other models like recycling and minimalism.
A Zero Waste System
So what is zero waste, you ask?
According to the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA),
Zero Waste is the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning, and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health. (1)
The simplest answer is that the goal is for nothing to make it to the landfill, incinerator, or oceans. Now, I’m sure you are thinking right now that this is impossible with the current state of things. And you’d be right.
Cradle-to-grave vs. cradle-to-cradle
But it’s not so much about being truly zero waste as much as striving for zero waste or getting as close to the mark as you can. It’s about changing the cycle of goods and reusing what we have.
We live in a linear cycle of products also called cradle-to-grave.
Cradle-to-grave is a term used to describe a linear model for materials that begins with resource extraction, moves to product manufacturing, and, ends by a ‘grave’, where the product is disposed of in a landfill.
Cradle-to-cradle, you guessed it, is the opposite of cradle-to-grave. A cradle-to-cradle system, much like nature, is cyclical in that there is no waste. A product is reused or recycled into another new product at the end of its life and therefore stays in a closed loop rather than ending up in the trash.
The 5 R’s of Zero Waste and Examples of Action
Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Rot, Recycle. In that order of importance.
Refuse what you don’t need. This would be the act of bringing your own reusable straw and cup to your local
Reduce what you do need. Shop more strategically. Bring a list with you to the grocery store and only buy the items you need without impulse buying. Try reducing the amount of car use by walking to places close by or using transit to get to work instead.
Reuse what you can. Buy reusable staples like straws, cups, utensils, napkins, and other items instead of going to single-use disposables. Or turning a glass bottle into a candle holder or cup.
Rot (compost) your food and lawn waste. Compost anything organic instead of throwing it in the trash.
Recycle anything else that cannot be reused or composted.
Zero Waste and Minimalism
The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything. – Chuck Palahniuk
What is the difference between zero waste and minimalism?
I’ve seen so many people confuse zero waste and minimalism so I thought it would be to our benefit to talk about it. Although not completely exclusive of each other, zero waste and minimalism are not the same thing.
Minimalism is focused on the value of materials and living without excess. Not a very specific definition I know. But it’s learning to live with less and taking the value away from possessions and bringing meaning and happiness to your life through intangible things. As the saying goes…
Minimalism is a great thing to strive for and I am a full supporter of that lifestyle and it does complement zero waste with reducing what you own. The less you own, the less that can get thrown away.
But you don’t have to be a minimalist to be a zero waster.
If you’d like to know more about minimalism, there is a great website called The Minimalist. These guys are fantastic and very dedicated about the topic of minimalism.
Recycling Alone Isn’t Enough
Why is recycling not enough?
Remember the three R’s you learned in school? Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
There’s a reason why recycle is the last one. It shouldn’t be the first.
Here’s a way to think about it. Take a glass bottle. There’s a certain amount of resources and energy that was used in making that bottle. When it gets reused, the bottle stays the same and no extra energy and resources are needed to make another one. When the bottle gets broken down in recycling, more resources are needed to wash, crush, melt, and then mold it into a new product.
That also doesn’t take into account the resources needed to collect these materials and ship them to the recycling plant and then the resources needed to move the recycled materials to the next round of manufacturing. This system just isn’t as efficient.
Another less known fact about recycling is that most US recycling is shipped to China (more resources used) and China has put a ban on paper and plastic bins that are over 1% contaminated (US facilities are at 4%).
Plus, that doesn’t take into account contamination issues. Recycling contamination is when incorrect materials are put into the system or the right materials are prepared incorrectly. Contamination rates in recycling sit at around 25% according to Brent Bell, Vice President of Recycling Operations for Waste Management. (2)
So what happens to contaminated bins?
They get tossed into the landfills.
This might be some of the cause as to why only about 9% of all plastics actually get recycled. According to a study done last December (2018) in the journal Science Advances, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s and of that 6.3 billion metric tons have ended up as waste. The vast majority of that is accumulating in landfills or drifted off into the environment as litter. Which means it ends up in our waterways and ultimately in our oceans. (3)
If you don’t believe those numbers, just find your nearest creek bed or
One of the most unfortunate outcomes of the curbside recycling movement which sprang up when I was a kid in the 90s, is it
Now, I’m not trying to discourage you from recycling. It is still better than throwing it away. What I’m trying to do is make you aware of the false sense of conservationism that recycling has made for the public and how ineffectual it has been in the most recent years. And hopefully, encourage you to recycle the right way.
Zero Waste is the Future
Why is going zero waste becoming so important?
The thing that comes to mind is the state of our planet first and foremost.
Landfills alone contribute to 18% off all greenhouse gas emissions on our planet. Landfill gas is composed of 50% carbon dioxide and 50% methane. Methane is 28-36 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Just by reducing the amount of garbage we throw away in a year could make a huge impact on the amount of greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere. If you’d like to more about climate change and how we can help in our daily lives, go here.
But beyond the environment, a zero waste lifestyle will ultimately save you money as well. For example, take shaving costs.
So how much money is spent on shaving? In the US, men spend an average of $225 a year on shaving and related accessories. That comes out to about $0.62 per shave if this is done once a day for a year. (4)
An average straight razor and razor strop will cost you around $300 up front but if you take care of it, it should last you the rest of your life. In a little less than a year and a half, the razor has paid for itself. So if you were to spread that initial cost over the next 40 years, that’s $7.50 a year spent on shaving. The only thing you will ever pay for again is shaving cream or oil.
Another side benefit to going zero waste is that it encourages better eating habits and health. When you buy your foods with as little packaging as possible, i.e. from the bulk bins, you are buying whole foods primarily instead of prepared foods. This means there are no additives, preservatives, extra salt or sugar, and trans fats in them. Eating meals at home are always better for your health than eating out.
Likewise, walking to places instead of driving will improve your health through regular exercise which is something everyone needs. What a great way to get that recommended 10,000 steps per day!
Last, whether you believe me or not, zero waste habits might just make you happier. Emotions and money are very intricately tied. Our personal relationships with money can greatly affect our self-esteem and relationships with others. It is no wonder that financial difficulties are one of the most common causes of divorce. Likewise, financial hardship produces a lot of stress.
I think that about covers it!
I really hope you found this article helpful in explaining zero waste and what it is. Just don’t expect this to be perfect. This isn’t something that happens overnight. I’m just beginning my journey into living zero waste as I write this post. It isn’t about perfection but the attempt and willingness to change.
So if you are joining me in going zero waste, I want to personally thank you for taking this step. It’s amazing what you are doing!
If you have any questions about the concept of zero waste or anything else talked about in this post, please don’t hesitate to leave me a comment below.
We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers
And sitting by desolate streams;
World losers and world forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world forever, it seems. – Arthur O’Shaughnessy