What is zero waste?

 

You might be hearing this phrase a lot lately – zero waste.  

But what is zero waste?

I’m going to give you a quick and easy overview of zero waste.  So let’s go!

 

In simplest terms, zero waste is about not sending anything to the landfill or creating any trash.

On a deeper level, zero waste is the idea of keeping our resources in circulation and in use; reducing or eliminating the need for landfills, and is one result of a circular economy (an economy where products are designed to stay within a cycle of use and reuse).  In a circular economy, each phase of a product’s life is connected to another, and disposal in a landfill is avoided. So zero waste is actually a key piece of a new way of thinking about the resources that we use to sustain ourselves.

 

We all know that there are a limited number of resources to support us humans and other creatures and plants on Earth.  Zero waste and the circular economy are connected ideas of truly valuing those resources and planning for the use and reuse of those resources.  Zero waste is a concept that applies to all the things we interact with our lives, from our roads and buildings to our breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

 

In a perfect world, zero waste would look like this: any product that is created (and a product includes everything from the walls of your house to your breakfast cereal) starts with sustainable and renewable raw and/or recycled materials.  The manufacturing of that product results in no waste. The product is delivered without waste (e.g., transportation powered by renewable energy). The product is used and is either completely used up (e.g., breakfast cereal is completely eaten without any waste) or is used until it needs to be repaired, in which case it is repaired. Or, the product is used completely and can no longer be used again, in which case it’s collected and remanufactured back into that product, or into another valuable product, that enters this process and stays in the circular economy.  

 

Here’s a way to visualize a circular economy with zero waste.

Zero waste as part of a circular economy

Zero waste in practice doesn’t look like that, because we don’t have a circular economy.  So in practice, as a individual, zero waste is about making the best choices possible to minimize waste and support sustainable practices.  As an individual, zero waste looks like this:

Zero waste as an individual

As an individual, we can take steps to do our best to reduce waste and live more sustainably.  The first step is to refuse – say no to those things that you don’t truly need. For some zero wasters, this includes refusing all gifts and freebies.  In theory, refusing will result in much less waste and can be applied most broadly to all areas of your life.

 

The second step is to reduce what you consume.  This goes for all areas of your life – the size of your home, clothing, beauty products, etc.  It also applies to things like air and car travel – these also have huge impacts on the planet.  The less we consume in general, the less waste we create. Some zero wasters strive for a minimalist lifestyle.  Living closer to minimalism reduces the things you bring into your home and life and, as a result, the trash that you create.

 

The third step is to reuse.  How can you reuse things in your life?  Rather than tossing something, repurpose it.  For example, clothes that can’t be mended could be turned into rags.  A broken shelf is repurposed into something else functional. A jar that held your jam is reused to hold leftovers.  

 

The fourth step is to recycle.  This should apply to fewer things in your life because recycling is not a great solution to reducing waste.  In fact, much of what we send to our local recycling plants doesn’t actually get recycled. In a circular economy, recycling would be even more effective.  But as things stand today in 2018, recycling is a smaller piece of living sustainably, relative to refusing, reducing, and reusing.

 

The last step is to allow things to rot.  Anything that is compostable should be composted once it reaches the end of its life, but again this should happen only after refusing, reducing, reusing, and recycling.  Although compost is important for healthy soils, it’s more important to preserve our resources and keep them in use, rather than dispose of them as compost.

 

If you are new to composting, search around for tips and resources.  Anyone with a space for a small bin can start to compost, even without an outdoor space.  Local cities and communities might have compost pick-up available. And anything that is made of 100% natural materials and has not been heavily processed in a way to change its composition can be composted at home.  Things like bioplastics and bamboo rayon come from plants but have been heavily processed – they cannot be composted at home but there may be recycling options near you. Other things like cotton fabric, paper plates, food scraps, wood scraps, etc. can be composted at home.

 

To summarize, going for zero waste as an individual means: 

  1. Refuse

  2. Reduce

  3. Reuse

  4. Recycle

  5. Rot

 

So there you have it – an introduction to zero waste at both the large scale and individual level.  Where are you at on your zero waste journey? And what’s been hardest for you? Share in the comments below!

 

Thanks for reading,

Liz

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