There’s so much buzz nowadays about “zero waste living” and being more “sustainable” … but what does it all even mean?? 

Is it really necessary? Is totally zero waste even possible? And if so, how do we even begin??

All completely valid questions. And I’ve done the research for you, so you don’t have to! Let’s dive in…

1. What Is It?

Even with the term being thrown around these days, it’s often hard to pinpoint what “being zero waste” actually means. Where did it start? How has it gained seemingly overnight recognition? And does anyone fully agree on a definition for this phenomenon? 

The Zero Waste International Alliance was founded in 2002 by a group of environmental activists and educators with common goals. They wanted to establish consistent and internationally recognized guidelines for the developing zero waste world. They also adopted the first peer-reviewed and internationally accepted definition for “Zero Waste”. Here is the most recently updated version as of 2018:

“Zero Waste: 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.”

http://zwia.org/zero-waste-definition/
decaying tree in the forest

Basically, this definition reflects what happens in nature. Nature follows a closed-loop system and a circular economy. Everything flows through the system, consistently being reused rather than discharged as waste. Take the example of a tree falling: it naturally decays back into the ground, an acorn may be used as food for another animal or it may sprout into a new tree, and so on. Nothing is wasted, everything has a purpose, and the cycle continues. 

Beyond that, nothing in this circular process threatens the environment or human health. 

We are the only species that produces waste which cannot consistently follow this circular economy. In fact, we’ve created a linear economy in which materials are used in this order: take, make, dispose. 

This is what people mean when you hear them talking about our open-loop system being unsustainable. Materials flow in and out of the open-loop and we are seeing the effects more clearly now with resources being depleted, landfills and oceans overflowing with waste, wildlife and human health being harmed, and so on… 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to how zero waste has grown into the movement it is now. 

So, the ZWIA defined the term “zero waste” across the world and has put guidelines in place (you can check out more about that here). They were not, however, the first group of people to be talking about this way of life. 

Our ancestors lived in a manner compatible with nature, making use of absolutely everything and recognizing worth in “waste”. In the late 1800s – early 1900s, George Washington Carver and Henry Ford led the way in preventing corporate waste. The switch to producing plastics and disposables really grew in the post-war trends of the 1950s… it didn’t take too long before many environmentally-conscious people realized this was creating a monster. 

But the taste of convenience over responsibility had already taken off.

piles of recyclable materials like bottles and containers

Fast forward to 2008 where a French-American woman named Bea Johnson lived in California. At this time, “zero waste” was mainly used to describe the open- vs. closed-loop systems of our manufacturing and waste-management practices. The responsibility of creating a circular economy was on the shoulders of these infrastructures. But Bea Johnson did something unheard of and it went viral. 

She decided to apply this practice to her own home and family. 

Her blog gained lots of traction in 2009, she was featured in the NY Times in 2010, and she published a book in 2013 called: “Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste”. This book has been translated into 27 languages (as of 2019) and inspired the “zero waste movement” spreading like wildfire. Many package-free shops have been opened, more content has been published, zero-waste organizations are popping up all over the world… all with the striking of a single match. 

Individuals have power. Individuals become the masses. 

Which leads us into our next point. 

2. Why Does It Matter?

As much as I believe the responsibility of our closed-loop system needs to be placed on our corporate manufacturers, we do have a giant role to play as consumers. 

Think about supply and demand. Our dollars are voting for our values. Without changes in our consumption, there’s no change in the overall demand of these suppliers. 

Big corporations have already begun to rethink their practices as a result of the demand from consumers. (Check out my posts on recent changes in the toilet paper and tissue industries as well as the take-out industries) And with the growing awareness around our changing climate, more and more people are jumping on board. 

Take the current state of our recycling, for example. 

You may have heard that China announced their ban on most of the world’s mixed papers and plastics for recycling. This is called the “National Sword” policy, enacted in January of 2018. It has been projected that China will ban all importing of recyclable materials by 2021. Other countries in Asia have increased their plastic waste imports. Many domestic recycling programs in other countries have been paused due to the overwhelming amount and cost. 

But many of the countries, like Malaysia, who have accepted the overflow of recyclables are now banning further importing, as well. This is due to contamination and the harm it is bringing into their own environmental health. 

piles of garbage dumped in streets of third world country

I recently attended a “current state of our recycling” talk in Denver and was shocked by some of the statistics.

Here are some of my notes:

  • The U.S.A. makes up only 5% of the world’s population, but uses 30% of the world’s resources
  • In 2017, 25% of recyclables exported from the U.S. were contaminated (by food, hazardous waste, and other inappropriate materials)
  • As materials have evolved and changed, especially packaging, the level of confusion has grown regarding what can/can’t be recycled
  • In 2017, America sent more recyclables than any other export from our country overseas. And we sent nearly 70% of our waste to China (this is a very insightful article)
  • China has been the world’s largest importer of recyclables from 1980-2017. They are now dealing with incredibly devastating effects from air and water pollution

When you put your empty water bottle or container into the bin, you trust it will be recycled into a new product. You dismiss the idea that it might contribute to the massive islands of plastic in our oceans. Or be incinerated and pollute the air with toxins. Or contribute to the detrimental pollution of resources other humans are depending on, like clean water… 

This is why striving toward zero waste matters. 

We’ll never reach 100% ZERO waste, true. We’re taking up space, using energy, and consuming resources just by existing — that doesn’t change. 

But we do not, I repeat, do not need to be living in this linear economy where nearly everything is designed to be disposable. Where we dump our garbage into developing countries with this attitude of “it’s not our problem”. 

IT IS OUR PROBLEM. 

It is our responsibility – as a nation, as a manufacturer, as a consumer, as a human – to care about the deep and sinking footprint we’re leaving on this earth. 

This report is long, so unless you want some late-night reading material, maybe you’ll just skim it for important points. But this quote right here states a fact that cannot be ignored: 

“Pollution can have a particularly disproportionate and negative effect on the poor, the disadvantaged, marginalized and the vulnerable, due to their higher exposure and reduced resilience to social, environmental and economic risks.”

…Ok. I’ll step off the soapbox now. But this fire I feel burning inside motivates me to do my best with what I can control… I hope it’s sparking inside of you, too. 

polluted air and polluted water outside city

3. How You Can Help

Let’s shift gears from doom and gloom to a more hopeful perspective, shall we? 

Living 100% “zero waste” is basically impossible, but recycling isn’t enough. There must be a balance, right? I’m happy to say there is a happy medium, but it only makes a difference if people make a commitment. 

I’m sure you’ve heard of at least 3 of the notorious “R” words… Specifically: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. While these words have been thrown around for many decades now, the only one we all seem to be landing on is “Recycle”. And based on our current situation, we know that cannot be the grand solution. 

You may come across many other “R” words, but I’m going to propose that we focus on these 6: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle, Rot. If all of us were to do our best in these areas based on our level of privilege and access to resources, the positive impact would be dramatically tangible. 

Here’s what you need to know about these 6 Rs, and in this particular order:

REFUSE

two hands signaling "no"

Cutting off waste at its source requires refusing unnecessary waste and/or consumption. In America, we live in a society of excess. Do we really need the plastic straw or all the junk mail or the handouts? You can politely prevent unnecessary and unwanted items from coming into your home.

REDUCE

woman collecting disposable plastics from shoreline

Reducing what you consume makes a dramatic impact. If you’re reducing your plastic bag intake and so are tons of other people, the demand goes down. Which means the supply declines. You can learn how to complete a trash audit within your home to make reducing waste easier. The most important materials you can reduce are the disposable items, like: single-use plastic, unnecessary packaging, etc. You can also reduce excessive consumption (e.g. buying multiples of something shiny from the dollar aisle because it seems like a good deal……. ouch, too close to home)! 


REUSE

glass containers reused for storing zero waste bulk food

What can you reuse to prolong its lifespan before throwing it away? I’ve washed out many glass jars that once held pickles or marinara sauce to save. They come in so handy for storing bulk goods! Refilling your own containers if you have access to bulk stores is a great way to go. You can refill things like food, household cleaners, shampoos, soaps, etc. I’m not saying you need to hoard everything. Just consider this before you throw something into the garbage OR the recycling bin. Are there ways you could practically reuse it?

REPAIR

broken iPhone needing to be repaired

This ties in well with the reusing step, but I think it’s important to have a category of its own. Many people don’t think about it. Many of us aren’t used to mending our own clothing, but you may have access to someone who knows how! And while much of our technology is designed to be replaced quickly, it’s worth trying to repair it first. 


RECYCLE

person recycling clean containers

We covered a lot about recycling earlier, so let’s just focus on how to do this well. Because we’re shifting our practice of shipping most of our waste overseas, many domestic MRFs (material recovery facilities) are popping up and will continue to grow. It’s important to note that lower contamination means higher quality recycling — which means higher efficiency within the recycling plants and lower costs to us as residents! It’s a win-win situation to do our best, so check out these tips on “recycling right”. And don’t forget, just because something can be recycled once or twice doesn’t prevent it from ultimately ending up in the landfills. This is why Recycle is one of the final R words we should strive toward…

ROT

sprouts coming from soil with compost

The final R word implies that whatever you cannot do above may be able to go back into the ground. Composting food scraps, paper, bamboo toothbrushes, etc returns good nutrients back into our soil. This completes that closed-loop system. (I have a post coming soon about home composting and commercial composting – stay tuned!)

It All Begins With One Step

I hope by now you’ve recognized the grave importance of striving toward a more circular economy. And I hope you haven’t become overwhelmed at the thought of doing everything perfectly. That’s not possible, nor is it the goal of “zero waste living”. Do what you can with what you’re able.

But guys. That means really do what you can. 

In what areas could you step up your level of commitment based on your current privilege? 

The process in living That Minimal Life is simple: Approach, Budget, Live. 

Start today with that first R word: refuse any unnecessary waste that will come your way. Then, approach the next step. How else can you embrace these 6 Rs into your daily life? 

Building a habit requires shifting a mindset, and I fully believe in your capabilities to do both. Let’s do this together. 

hands together

If you’re interested in some more helpful resources, check out these sites: