What is Zero-Waste?
Updated: May 8, 2019
"Zero-waste". "The Zero-waste movement". Perhaps you've heard the term popping up more frequently, but what does it mean?
In broad terms, the Zero Waste International Alliance defines zero-waste as:
"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"
Basically it means transitioning from a linear economy (where we take resources from the Earth, create things out of them, buy and sell them, and then the things are discarded to landfills) to a circular one (where we take resources from the Earth, create things out of them, buy and sell them, repair/reuse them, and finally at the end of the item's life, it becomes a resource for a new product to be created, and so continues the cycle).
But what does it mean in terms of a lifestyle? How can an individual living in a linear economy live "zero-waste"? The following definition can be applicable to zero-waste in any respect:
"A total commitment to pursue zero [waste creation/generation]"
The keywords being "commitment" and "pursue". It's about making an honest effort in prioritizing the goal of zero. It isn't about perfection, it isn't about deprivation, and it isn't about being able to fit all of your trash into a small mason jar. That isn't realistic. Zero-waste is a journey toward a goal of creating as little trash as possible. It's more about the change in mentality and awareness than the physical aspect of creating less trash.
So how does one practice zero-waste? We were all taught the mantra "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle", and for some reason the emphasis was always on the "Recycle", right? Well to really address the problem, we need to focus on the "Reduce" and "Reuse" parts more and follow the mantra in order - in fact, we need to add two more R's...
THE 5 R'S OF ZERO-WASTE LIVING
REFUSE WHAT YOU DO NOT NEED. When we accept an item, we are accepting the responsibility of caring for and disposing of that item. Furthermore, we are creating a demand for that item. For example, we all have a collection of free pens or other freebies we're handed at events. We've been conditioned to love free stuff to the point that we get excited over a free pen, or free keychain, or whatever it may be. When you're offered something, consider the lifecycle of the item. Consider whether or not it will be useful, how long it will last, and how it will be disposed of/where it will likely end up.
REDUCE WHAT YOU DO NEED. Do we really need so much excess? The more we own, the more responsibility we are burdened with, the more we spend, and the more we waste. This is where the concept of minimalism really intertwines with zero-waste! Own less, spend less, waste less. Go through what you own and decide what items you don't really use, love, or need. Cut down your possessions by half, then maybe half it again. Pare down to the essentials. Donate, sell, or otherwise properly dispose of the items you decide not to keep. When we hold on to items that we do not love or need, we are withholding these things from people who could otherwise find real value in them. Some items we hang on to purely for sentimental value, not because we love or use the actual item, but because of the memory that item sparks. Consider reevaluating the sentimental items in your life and take pictures of those that you think you could physically do without. Avoid shopping as a hobby or a way to kill time; instead, shop with purpose and only buy what you need to. Look for items that are high in quality and made of sustainable materials, or items that serve multiple purposes.
REUSE WHAT YOU CANNOT REFUSE OR REDUCE. Reuse the items that you do allow into your life and space. Be creative! Also, choose items that are reusable instead of disposable, such as a reusable water bottle.
RECYCLE WHAT YOU CANNOT REFUSE, REDUCE, OR REUSE. Recycling is important and a responsible way of disposing of certain items, but it is not the cure to the waste problem we face. If you follow the first 3 R's in order, there will be less to recycle.
ROT (OR COMPOST) WHAT YOU CANNOT REFUSE, REDUCE, REUSE, OR RECYCLE. Composting is a huge component to zero-waste. So much of our trash is compostable organic material, like food scraps. Organic material does not break down properly in a landfill; when you put organic material into a plastic bag and then bury it under tons of other plastic bags, it suffocates and the decomposition process is hindered. Composting allows for the right balance of aeration, bugs, and bacteria to efficiently rot organic material and decreases the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by landfills into the atmosphere. Some cities, towns, and organizations have municipal compost collections, but if you have even a small outdoor space, you can compost on your own. You can purchase a fancy compost barrel, make your own, or just throw it in a pile in your yard. You can compost even if you live in an apartment - you can either bring your scraps to a local drop-off site, have a collection service pick them up, or explore bokashi and vermicomposting methods!
None of this is achievable overnight. It can take months or years to get to where you want to be. It's a journey, so just go with it! Take it one step at a time, one foot in front of the other. Rather than continue, I will leave you with this talk that the Queen of zero-waste, Bea Johnson, gave at Google, which does a fantastic job of explaining and exemplifying the zero-waste lifestyle. It's very long, but it's extremely informative!