What is Zero Waste?

What is Zero Waste?

What is Zero Waste? written on chalkboard

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 coffeeshop. Or refusing a plastic bag at the grocery store for one item or opting out by bringing your own reusable bags.

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

photo of a pile of ripped cardboard

Photo by Luka Siemionov from Pexels

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 other body of water and take a look at how much trash you find there.

One of the most unfortunate outcomes of the curbside recycling movement which sprang up when I was a kid in the 90s, is it lead people to a false assumption that what they were doing is enough. I know I fell for 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

gardens by the bay at night in Singapore
The Supertrees from Singapore

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

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8 thoughts on “What is Zero Waste?”

  • I think we do have the planet Earth’s future in our hands.  It all comes down how we take care of our resources.  I think that zero waste is an awesome idea.  I do some things now like recycle.  I see I can do much more.  I’m gonna work on it because I firmly believe it starts with each and everyone of us to take care of this planet we call home.

    • Hi Matt’s Mom! 

      Thank you for visiting my post on zero waste. I’m really glad you found this helpful!

      I agree we can do more on an individual level. If everyone could just replace most single-use plastics and packaging (which is a tall order I know), that would do so much to slow down the amount of waste make it to the landfill by 65% in the US. That’s an astounding amount of trash! The University of Southern Indiana states that for every $10 spent, $1 dollar of that goes to packaging that gets tossed.

      When I think about that, I see how much money we just throw away every week that is really unnecessary. Especially for families like mine that are barely scraping by.

      If you have any questions about creative ways to start going zero waste, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.

      Take care, Tina

  • I hope after reading this post a lot of people will change their habits .. including myself. 

    I must say that out of 5 R’s I am already stuck with 2 of them =Compost + Recycling. But after reading your post I fully agree Recycling should be the last one…

    I must think about other 3 R’s as well. I have a habit of using my own cotton shopping bags. The reason is that I hate collecting bags after each shopping or throwing them…

    About the savings… One interesting fact is that In a place where I live (Nyon – Switzerland) one roll of garbage bags cost 35 CHF (approximately same amount in dollars) and you get only 10 bags. You must buy them otherwise you don’t have the possibility to throw your garbage. If we start refusing, reusing and reducing we can save a lot of money not only on the products that we actually don’t need but on the garbage bags as well. 

    Thank you for sharing this great article!

    Let’s support Zero Waste !!! 

    • Hi Snap Brisk! Thank you for visiting my post about zero waste.

      Wow! Garbage bags are expensive in Switzerland! That would be another side benefit to going zero waste. The hardest one for me to do is composting since I’m in an apartment. 

      I’m actually kind of sad about that one. Back when we owned a home, I composted as much as I could. Mostly for the garden. When we moved to Portland, they have a composting service for the city which I loved! But we are now in Vancouver, WA. (right on the other side of the river in the Portland area) but they do not have composting service here. 

      I’d say about almost half our waste is food scraps from cooking (I really cook that much!). We occasionally have food go bad but it isn’t that often. I’m not sure what to do about this either. Still working on a solution for that. I just hate to see this all go to a landfill.

      We do the reusable bags here too. Portland and Seattle have both banned plastic bags but Vancouver has not. It’ll be nice once they catch up.

      I am really glad you found this article thought provoking! If you have any questions about creative ways to reuse stuff or any other “R”, please let me know. I’m always happy to help!

      Take care, Tina

  • Hi Tina !

    Great article, . So much to think about in what you’ve discussed. As you have inadvertently stated, human kind don’t intentionally pollute and kill their environment without some “outside” encouragement.

    The human “experience” is all encompassing and shouldn’t be harnessed for those who find it amusing.

    The zero waste philosophy is similar to the post war strategy that was promoted back then, . and as the years progressed we entered the “Consumer Age”,. as you’re more aware of. So the cycle continues.

    As I said Tina, . great post,.. so much to think about (I’m in your camp BTW)

    Cordially

    Dedo .

    • Hi Dedo! Thanks so much!

      You are absolutely correct! These practices are very similar to post-war times. People didn’t waste resources and found ways to continue using them long after modern people would have thrown it away. But that generation was also much more self-reliant than most people are today. For one thing, my great-grandmother and possibly my grandmother used to make their own soap. That was pretty common practice for most households. It was just how things were done back then.

      I’m glad you found this post helpful! If you have any questions on simple ways to start going zero waste, I’m here to help.

      Take care, Tina

  • Hello,

    Zero waste what an important idea. How beneficial it would be for us if garbage did not exist and that products could be recycled. 

    Since recycling is better than throwing it away. 

    Actually what we should achieve is to reduce the amount of garbage. 

    In this way we would also reduce the emission of toxic gases in our sky, thus reducing the pollution of our planet.

    I hope our people can change certain habits that are hurting us a lot. 

    Thanks for sharing great ideas with all of us. Regards!Claudio

    • Hi Claudio! Thank so much for taking the time to talk with me about zero waste.

      I agree recycling is better than throwing it away but it shouldn’t be the only conservation effort.

       I think we are heading in that direction as far as finding ways to reduce the amount of garbage we make as a people no matter what nationality. There is a huge movement happening right now about phasing out single-use plastics. Many cities in the US have either banned single-use plastic bags and many are gearing up to do the same for single-use plastic utensils. 

      And I know that they aren’t the only ones doing it too. Unfortunately, like most things in bureaucracy, they do it at such a slow pace. Until they catch up, I feel like we as consumers can help speed things along. Besides, once these laws do take effect, anyone who got the jump on it will have already adjusted while the rest who didn’t will be struggling to catch up.

      Thanks again for the visit! 

      Tina

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