What on Earth is Zero Waste?

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“It’s easy for you to be sitting there at home, in front of your television, consuming whatever you want, tossing everything in the trash, and leaving it out on the street for the garbage truck to take it away. But where does the garbage go?”

-MAGNA, former recycling picker at Rio de Janeiro’s Jardin Gramacho landfill in the documentary Waste Land


When I think about the concept of zero waste, this quote from Bea Johnson’s, Zero Waste Home, always comes to mind. Especially the last sentence: But where does the garbage go? We’re taught from a young age to “throw our trash away”, but less frequently taught about what that really means — where away really is — and the implications of our out-of-site, out-of-mind attitudes. Unfortunately, our waste is everywhere. It’s in landfills, our environment, the air, the soil, our lakes, rivers and oceans, throughout the communities we call home, and even our bodies. So how can we take responsibility for our waste as individuals? That’s where the zero waste lifestyle comes in.

 
 
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What Zero Waste Isn’t

Before we dive in to what on earth living zero waste is, I want to be clear about what it’s not. Going zero waste can seem like a daunting enough task when you’re just starting out and, if you’re here, you’ve likely come across individuals within the movement who are keeping years worth of trash in a mason jar and are thinking to yourself, “How the heck am I supposed to do that?” I get it. I was in the same boat about two years ago when I first started my zero waste journey. So I thought I’d clear the air and say that zero waste is NOT:

  • 100% zero

  • fitting all of your trash in a mason jar

  • an all or nothing practice

So what is Zero Waste?

Zero waste is a lifestyle born from the industrial cradle-to-cradle philosophy — essentially to produce as little trash and recycling as possible, reduce our waste-to-landfill contributions and demand for natural resources and energy, and foster the concept of circular economy. As an individual, this is widely achieved my following the principles set forth in the 5R’s: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot.

Refuse

We are bombarded by opportunities to consume the minute we walk out of our homes each day — a free sample at the coffee shop, a goody bag full of freebies at our work conference, bags and receipts at the store — and with each of those opportunities, brings more unwanted stuff into our homes (or worse, directly into the trash). At the same time, each of these opportunities also brings a chance to say, “no, thanks.” It may be the most difficult and uncomfortable of the 5R’s but here are some ways you can start refusing:

  • Avoid single-use items

  • Pass on freebies (hotel room toiletries, party favors, samples, goodie bags, etc.)

  • Unsubscribe from mailing lists and junk mail

  • Opt away from unsustainable practices

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Reduce

Reducing helps us evaluate our past consumption habits, pare down our belongings, give back to those who need it, and shift our mindsets when it comes to making new purchases. When we reduce, we simplify our lives and shift the focus from quantity and things to quality and experiences. Simple ways to reduce include:

  • Donate, sell or swap unwanted items

  • Share, borrow, or rent less frequently used items

  • Use what you have, buy only what you need

  • Avoid mindless shopping

  • Consider the life cycle of potential purchases — can it be reused, recycled, composted?

Reuse

The average single-use item is used for thirty seconds or less before being thrown in the trash. To avoid supporting these products and the resources their production, and subsequent disposal, deplete we can reuse. Here are some great places to start:

  • Create a basic reusables kit:

    • Tote bag

    • Bulk/produce bags

    • Water bottle

    • Coffee/tea mug

    • Straw

    • Utensils

    • Food container

    • Cloth napkins/hankies

  • Borrow, rent, or share less frequently used items

  • Shop secondhand

  • Repair what you have

Recycle

Recycling helps us keep the loop closed when it comes to resources and manufacturing. Unfortunately it’s an imperfect system which is why it’s listed fourth in the 5R’s. When done correctly, however, recycling can help keep items from the landfill. Some best practices when it comes to recycling include:

  • Get to know your local recycling municipality and what can and cannot be recycled

  • Consider visiting your local MRF (materials recovery facility)

  • Designate an indoor bin to collect your recyclables

  • Research collection sites for hard-to-recycle items like electronics, clothes & textiles, corks, certain plastics, appliances, and hazardous waste

  • Ask yourself, “Can I reuse this item?” before sending it to be recycled

Rot

Rotting = composting (or the recycling of organic materials). Food waste makes up about one-third of all household waste — when you remove it, plus recyclables, trash-to-landfill drastically decreases (as does money spent on trash bags!). There are several solutions to composting depending on your living situation. Some of them include:

  • Contributing to a local composting municipality, if an option

  • Build a compost in your backyard

  • Build a worm bin or bokashi in your apartment

  • Freeze your compost and donate to a local farm or farmer’s market

  • Join a community garden and contribute your compostables