What Does it Mean to Be Zero Waste
Zero waste has turned into a bit of a buzzword recently. You may hear your coworker talk about it or see west coast girls on Instagram swear by it. But even with all of the hype and publicity around the zero waste movement, many people do not really understand what it means to be zero waste. A lot of people feel like they aren’t capable of being zero waste, like it’s too much work, too much effort.
But it is really super simple! There are so many ways to be zero waste that I know you can find at least one way that works for you.
The zero waste movement started in the late 1900s and early 2000s. Though at that point it was mostly just theory and little practice. In 2002 the movement was spearheaded by California and its California Integrated Waste Management Board and the creation of multiple non-profits, such as Eco-Cycle, Grassroots Recycling Network, and the Zero-Waste International Alliance.
Overall, the movement and lifestyle focus on what is known as a cradle-to-cradle approach, in contrast to a cradle-to-grave approach. Cradle-to-grave refers to how a product is created/born (Cradle) and is left in a landfill where it will stay maybe hundreds, or more, years (Grave). Cradle-to-cradle has the same starting point (production), but the endpoint is a different production (back to the cradle). This approach focuses on reusing as much of products as possible to keep them out of landfills.
The zero waste movement takes this further sometimes by refusing to use certain products in the first place to keep them out of the production process altogether.
However, exactly what it means to be zero waste varies between people and their beliefs/capabilities. Some people focus on reducing ALL waste, others focus on reducing production waste, and some more focus on reducing “grave” waste. And there are even more practices than those!
But, I would say that, as long as you are making an effort to make the world better through a reduction of waste, you are doing the right thing.
Before going into exactly what it means to be zero waste, I think we should talk a bit more about what zero waste even is.
The first thing to know is that there is no right or wrong way to be zero waste. One way is not morally superior or inferior to another. Every little bit helps.
With that said, let’s talk about what zero waste is not:
- Creating absolutely NO waste: This is completely impossible in the type of world we live in. Not everything is compostable, not everything is avoidable, not everything is zero waste. The house you live in produced waste when built, the car you drive to work or the store produces waste, there’s no way around it. And some waste is necessary, such as housing, transportation, medicine bottles, etc.
- Filling a mason jar with trash every year: Also a bit unreasonable to think that this is a possibility for everyone. Maybe you don’t have the finances or access to low waste/zero waste products. You don’t live near a farmer’s market or have the extra money to spend at one. Or you don’t live near a bulk food store or have containers to use for bulk shopping. Sometimes things are outside of our control. Control the controllable. Do what you can with what you have.
- Doing everything and doing it perfectly: This is similar to the other two. No one can do everything and no one can do everything perfectly. It takes a lot of resources to be zero waste, let alone be perfectly zero waste. Again, control the controllable. Don’t feel like your zero waste life looks exactly like someone else’s. Zero waste is a guide, not an end goal.
So what is zero waste then? And how can someone be zero waste?
Well, in one sentence, zero waste is making an effort to reduce your waste production. How exactly someone does that will vary. Maybe you recycle or compost or reuse or refuse or some combination of them all. As long as you are making a conscious decision to limit your waste then you are zero waste (unless you don’t like labels. Then don’t worry about it).
Zero waste is:
- Making a choice to reduce waste: It’s all about choices. Choosing to make the environment better. Choosing to make a difference, to create change. There’s intention in what you are doing and you have a reason why. That reason could be as simple as to help the environment.
- Being aware of your impact: Everything we do impacts another person or animal or plant or something else. Nothing comes without consequences. Being zero waste is about knowing how your choices impact those around you and the planet and doing something about it. Whether that’s by making a better impact or reducing negative impacts, you’re doing something for the greater good. Buying more sustainably produced products, traveling solo less, and supporting local businesses are all ways to create an overall better impact on the earth and the environment. Of course, there are plenty of other ways you can make a positive impact! Explore your options, see what is most feasible for your life and situation and do it.
- Making a change in your community: While some people may not think that this is useful, I would argue that it is the most important part of being zero waste. One person can make a difference, but one thousand can make an even bigger difference. As with everything else, there are countless ways that you can go about doing this. Organizing events, starting programs, proposing policy changes, and, most importantly, vote. The more people who take on a zero-waste lifestyle, the less trash and waste that ends up in landfills, oceans, forests, etc.
After all of this, do you think you could tell someone (or yourself) what it means to be zero waste?
Don’t worry if you can’t. It’s a complex lifestyle that has a lot of components and can be difficult to understand completely. Especially with all of the misinformation and idealistic approaches you can find on the internet.
But that’s why I’m here to help!
Of course, I don’t have ALL of the answers, but I do have a lot. And I like to think I’m a bit more flexible in what it means to be zero waste than some other zero wasters are. (But maybe that’s just me thinking that)
So what does it mean to be zero waste?
Well, I would break it up into three main components: Reducing Waste, Being Aware, and Advocating Change. Let’s go into each.
This is the simplest and most fundamental part of being zero waste. If you’re not actively reducing your waste and/or the waste of others, can you really call yourself zero waste? Of course, you don’t have to be perfect (see above), but you do have to make an effort. The easiest way for me to think about this concept is to remember the 5 R’s.
Wait, 5? Weren’t there only 3?
Well, now there are five, and for a good reason. Rather than simply Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling, it is generally agreed that we should also be Refusing and Rotting (or composting, but sticking with the R theme).
The first three are simple. We’ve all heard of them. But before you reduce waste, you should refuse it. Sound similar? Think about it this way. If you are buying a new towel set and you decide to buy the one not in in plastic, you are reducing your waste. If you buy one that has no label or tag at all, you are refusing waste. Or, if you are getting a pastry and get only the wax paper, you are reducing your waste. If you get just the pastry, you are refusing waste. Overall, Refusing is about not getting waste where people commonly do without thinking about it. Straws or flatware at restaurants, boxes or paper at cafes, things like that.
Rotting is pretty simple in comparison, but not something a lot of people think about a lot. It’s at the other end of the R Pyramid and is what you do if you can’t refuse, reduce, reuse, or recycle. Think food scraps mostly. Rather than sending them to a landfill that doesn’t get enough oxygen or moisture to break down the food, it just sits there and does nothing. Instead, let me introduce you to composting.
Most people have heard of it, most are intimidated by it. But really, if you have space, food scraps, and some leaves and dirt, you’re good to go. There is a whole science to it, but we’re mostly trying to produce less waste so let’s not worry about it for now.
And it’s more than just food scraps. Most paper can be composted as well. So can bamboo products like toothbrushes, flatware, straws, etc. Compostable plastics do exist, but they generally require more heat than what is possible with a backyard composting system.
And, for the love of everything, if you can, do more than just recycle. Yes, recycle everything you can, but it’s towards the bottom of the pyramid for a reason. If it’s all you’re able to do, then do it. If you can do more, please do more. There’s a lot of hidden waste in recycling that can be avoided by going one of the first three R’s.
I talked a bit about this before, but I feel like it is important enough to be mentioned some more.
Being aware of how your actions and choices impact others and the environment is one of the most important parts of being zero waste. I personally don’t feel that if you’re doing this because it’s “cool” or “trendy” you are not zero waste.
Zero waste involves so much more than having less waste. It’s knowing why it is important, it is having a passion to help the environment, it is making a change. And the first step to any of those is to be aware. Aware of the problem, of the solution, of why and how and who. You should know what fast fashion is and why it’s bad. Or what ocean acidification is and how we can help. You should know what is happening to coral reefs and our oceans and what we can do about it. It’s knowing that local businesses are important to both the economy and the environment (and benefiting the economy also helps the environment so it’s a win-win).
And if you don’t know something, you go and look for it. Read about it, watch a documentary, listen to a podcast. The most powerful tool is knowledge. You will know more, you’ll be able to teach others more, and you’ll be able to put that knowledge into practice.
There’s more motivation and determination when you know why you’re doing something. Being aware is how you establish your ‘why’.
So research, ask questions, look things up. Become more and more aware of the situation and your place in it. Be aware of your role and your impact and the roles and impacts of others. Find out what companies are not sustainable or which businesses go the extra step to be.
There is always more to learn.
Of course, you don’t need to know it all. Focus on what interests you the most. Or what is most relevant in your life. Just become aware and see where it takes you.
This more than just making a change. This is going all the way to support that change and convince others to take part in that change. It can at school or work. It can be in your neighborhood or town, city or state. Whatever you have access to and are able to, change it.
Start a community garden. Get a bunch of people together to grow some vegetables and share them. Start a composting system at work. Set up compost containers in kitchens and offices. Have them taken out daily. Go to protests and rally against unsustainable practices and regulations. Talk to your politicians. Let them know that you care about this. Vote for people who also care about this.
Or go and volunteer. There are trash pickups almost every weekend somewhere. Don’t have one near you? Then organize one. Help at animal shelters and sanctuaries. Work with nonprofits. A really good resource for finding volunteer opportunities is VolunteerMatch.org. And you don’t have to choose the Environment tab. Remember how I said no action is without a consequence? Well, helping children and youth can positively impact the environment. So can helping with housing and homelessness. Everything has an impact on the environment. Work to make it a positive one.
There are so many ways that you can advocate change. Heck, just telling your friends and family about what’s going on in the environment can create change. It doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be something.
I said this before and I’ll say it again, I 100% believe that this is the most important aspect of being zero waste. You might care, but others don’t. Show them why they should care, get them to care, make it easier for them to care. Anything to get more people willing the support and care for the environment. Who knows? You might just change the mind of a very important person one day.
There are so many ways to be zero waste.
It can be a bit mindboggling at times.
But more importantly than knowing what it is and how to do it, is knowing what it means to be zero waste. Knowing what it entails, what it makes you, what it requires of you. Yeah, anyone can stop buying single-use plastic, but there’s more to it than that. So much more.
And don’t take what I’ve outlined here as the Truth. This is what it means to be zero waste for me. What it means for you may be different. It might be the same. Or require more of you, or less. Explore your ‘why’s. Find out what is and isn’t important to you.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re wrong. If you’re making an effort, that’s the most important part.
Do you agree with me? What does zero waste mean to you? Do you identify as zero waste?
Let me know!