Zero waste is more necessary than ever with our world drowning in trash. Single-use items are everywhere and society tells us that more is always better, but you know that's not true. You want to do your part to help combat this global crisis, but you don't know where to start. Sound familiar? That is exactly how I felt two years ago when I started my zero waste journey. My best advice?
Understand the five core tenets of zero waste: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot. These will become the guiding beacons of your journey, and by having a strong grasp on them, they'll help you make choices for a positive environmental impact.
Zero Waste has skyrocketed in popularity since the beginning of 2017, roughly quadrupling its searches on Google in the past three years. You may have seen some posts on Instagram of a beautiful pantry filled with mason jars or passed a pin while you're scrolling Pinterest promising to reduce your trash by half. You're curious about it and want to learn more.
The term zero waste may call to mind hippies in hemp clothing, à la the 1970s, or the ever present mason jar that they've filled will all the trash they've produced in the previous year (and I've produced in the last 24 hours). But zero waste, as a movement, is much more than that.
Zero Waste (n)- a movement whose motive is to produce as little waste as possible; focuses largely on the waste produced, particularly plastic.
Low Waste (n)- a movement whose motive is to produce as little waste as possible, but acknowledges the significant barriers to "zero waste" and strives to reduce the impact on the planet; focuses on making sustainable choices
Zero waste and low waste are often used interchangeably, and I will be using zero waste for the remainder of this article, since it's the more widely-known term.
Zero waste is haaaard. There is no getting around that. Especially when you're living your daily life, just trying to get by. It is more than a little reliant on several privileges, many of which can compound over time: time, access to a bulk store, and cash flow that you're able to invest in sustainable alternatives (which can be expensive up front, no doubt about it).
The image of the Zero Waste Movement, the Holy Grail of the mason jar filled with just a few odds and ends of plastic, is fantastic. I intentionally use that word, fantastic, because it is great if you're able to do that, but it's also something that is fantasy for the majority of people.
This is for many reasons, some of which I addressed above. A bigger reasons is because our (American) economy is not designed with the end in mind. We are a linear economy, in that we extract resources (oil, cotton, metals), make them into products, and throw them away at the end of their lives. Pretty much everything, when produced, is intended for the landfill. We'll get into this a bit more later.
Overwhelmed yet? That's okay. It can be a bit overwhelming, especially when you don't know where to start. Ready to take action? Grab my free guide for more concrete tips on how to start your zero waste journey off strong.
Just because we can't be perfect doesn't mean that we can't make changes. One small change multiplied a million times over still has a huge impact.
It's hard when you first go Zero Waste. As a consumer, we're taught from a very early age to buy, buy, buy. It doesn't matter whether you actually need it or not; you are supposed to consume. When you go against that conditioning, it's viewed as odd.
You start seeing the fact that plastic is literally everywhere in our society. It's wrapped around candy; it's in our clothes; it's around a single banana at the grocery store (I mean, really).
Zero waste is a wave that starts slowly and builds up momentum. Each sustainable swap is a drop in the ocean that builds and builds until we are a force that cannot be ignored.
This is the very first thing that you will need to address, and it's refusing. This is counter to the culture that most of the world has built up. We are trained from a young age to consume. We are told that we need the newest and shiniest toys, whether that is the new Lego set that just released, or the new iPhone that just dropped.
For the longest time, I was caught in "upgrade mania." We had a 32" TV for the living room, but this 40" is on sale for Black Friday. It's such a good deal! My phone is slowing down a bit. I need to get a new phone. Over and over again.
Fixing and extending the life of the products I already had was not my priority. It was "the look," and that look came with a lot of unnecessary waste.
This core tenet of Zero Waste is one of the reasons why you'll find so much commonality between it and minimalism. When you're aware of what you actually need, what is enough (and not what five kajillion ads tell you that you need), it's easier to refuse the "upgrade."
When I was younger, I used to shop when I was bored. I cringe when I think about how much time, money, and physical products that were wasted because I used shopping to fill my time. Now, I spend more consciously. I recognize my impulses and take a step back. If I still need it in a week, I'll consider buying it, but that rarely happens.
Another part of refusing comes when we're just going about our daily business. We accumulate stuff without consciously recognizing it. The napkins from the fast food restaurant. The freebie pens you always grab (because who am I to turn down something that's free? Shiz is expensive!) The mountains of plastic bags you have lurking in your cupboards. Sound familiar?
If it does and you're feeling personally called out, no worries! I, myself, was a hoarder of pens. I had over 75 (for two people who don't write that often). Most of those were freebie pens from everywhere, and they ended up cluttering my drawers without being used. I ended up having to throw half of them out because I couldn't use them fast enough.
Refusing is the best answer to this.
- Take your reusable bags and refuse the plastic one.
- Say no to the promotional materials.
- Tell the cashier/waitress that you don't need any napkins with your meal.
- Put your name on the "do not contact" list for junk mail.
It's important to recognize the differences in privilege that will make this step easier for some than others. For example, as a white woman, I am able to refuse a bag or receipt and be relatively confident that I will not be stopped on my way out of the store and accused of stealing whatever I just bought. This is not the case for many people of color.
If this is the case for you, do what you need to do. No one should be shaming you to keep yourself safe. If they do, fuck 'em. They need to pull their head out of their behinds and recognize that safety and health come first.
If you do find yourself with the napkins or pens, don't beat yourself up. Zero waste is a process, and there are going to be times that you backslide a bit, but remember how far you've come. Guilting yourself will do you no good. It happens to the best of us, and we will remember for next time.
I moved in with my now-husband just after college. He grew up using paper towels, and its convenience was appealing, not gonna lie. However, as we used them to clean up everything, I noticed the impact that it was having on my wallet. That trumps most things, and it was telling me that we needed to change.
So, we switched. I grew up with rags, so that's where I went. I took one of my five million old cotton athletic shirts (because seriously, I got them everywhere) and cut them up to use to clean our apartment. This wasn't that big an issue for me, but it took Mr. Grizzly a while to adapt to the new routine. If you're stuck and keep reaching for those paper towels, try out these paperless towels here.
I talked a bit about this key principle above: reducing the things you consume. This is often focused on reducing the amount of plastic that enters our lives and homes. Doing a trash audit, finding metal/glass/wooden options to replace all the plastic. Sound familiar?
While knowing is half the battle, stopping there is too narrow a focus if we want to make the biggest impact.
Let's take buying food from bulk bins, for example. It's definitely one of the more Insta-worthy parts of the zero waste movement. Clear mason jars lined up along the counter, filled with the exact amount of food that the customer wants and not an ounce more.
Seriously! How satisfying is this image? Satisfying, but not necessarily ideal unless you happen to have all of this already.
While it makes for gorgeous feeds and shelves, its environmental impact is not net zero. If you live 30 minutes from the closest store that offers bulk bins for the food you need, then the gas and carbon emissions would negate the plastic/cardboard/metal/paper you saved by not purchasing it from your local store.
Reducing needs to focus on looking at the whole picture. It takes a mindset shift that takes time to cultivate. You pull into account ethics, environmental impact, quality, understanding of working conditions, among other things.
You aren't going to say no to every purchase, and you certainly don't have to just straight up stop buying everything that comes in plastic. It's all about being mindful about the whole life cycle of the product--not only how it came into being, but what its destination will be after you have used it all up.
Find out my top swaps for a zero waste house here: grab the free checklist.
This is one of the catchiest parts of the 5 Rs and certainly the most pin-able. Who doesn't fall for the "Six Ways to Reuse Your Wine Bottles" or "How to Give New Life to Your Old Plates?"
More than just a catchy way to grab those re-pins, reusing is one of those things that older generations did out of necessity and is an integral part of the Zero/Low Waste life. You took the chicken bones and you made stock. You took old, ratty shirts and skirts and repurposed them into rags. You took the off-cuts of sewing projects and used them for quilts. You used up every bit of what you had in order to make money stretch.
Mass production and companies exploiting prison labor and workers overseas so they can make that two dollar t-shirt has made this type of behaviour less necessary.
When you don't have to go buy something new, you save the raw materials and energy it took to make that piece.
But it was already made, so what difference does it make if I buy it or not?
The difference is that we vote with our dollar. If you want to buy that product, the company will sell more of that same product. However, if you reuse, then that limits the amount of stuff that will end up, almost inevitably, in the landfill.
Reuse in the Second-Hand Market
I am a six-foot woman and my legs are a mile long, so unless I want to look like I'm patiently waiting for a flood, my pants are going to come from retail. This is okay. We don't have to be perfect. Any time that I want something for my house, I always look at thrift shops. Reuse doesn't necessarily hinge on only reusing things that are in your home. Things wear out; it's unavoidable. When you go shopping for things to replace those, however, shop second-hand first.
When it's time for a new phone, we don't flock to the shops to buy the latest and greatest. We scour eBay for a good price on a second-hand dependable phone, and then we buy. I have an almost unhealthy attraction to my local Facebook marketplace. (Anyone else? No?) Point is, we always look for a different option before forking over our hard-earned money for something new.
Zero Waste/Low Impact is not about living an austere life with seven pairs of underwear and a house you can move in under thirty minutes (though if that's what you want, more power to you). It's about making more conscious choices about the things we bring into our lives.
This is where pretty much everyone starts. You learn that paper goes in the recycling bin at school. The plastic cups go there. You throw your cans in there. It's great! You're saving the environment! However, there's a reason that recycling is #4 in the tenets of zero waste.
Recycling, even if it takes less energy than processing raw materials, still requires energy. It takes manpower. It takes processing power. It takes fuel to transport it to the facility. So even though it is likely better than chucking it in the bin, refusing and reducing the amount of things coming into your life will shrink your carbon footprint much more than continuing to live your life exactly as is and just recycle everything.
Reusing takes things that are already available in the waste stream (something you'd have ended up throwing out anyway, or something that someone donated to a thrift shop instead of throwing out) and gives them new life. Recycling will bring new life to things you've disposed of.
One last thing about recycling--while doing it is fantastic, please consider what you buy. Are you buying products that have recycled content? If you're not, consider why. The only way that they're going to become more mainstream is if there is more demand. We, as consumers, have power in where we put our dollar.
Recovering is something that many people don't think about. When something has outlived its usefulness, but it's not recyclable in its entirety (think phones, mattresses, laptops, etc.), what do we do? We enjoy our devices, but we don't really think about what happens once it dies. I'd be willing to bet you have an old device or two shoved into a drawer that you haven't looked at in years (guilty as charged). Look up places in your area that do a recycling initiative for hard-to-recycle (or recover) items.
Many WalMarts have an ecoATM in the entrances to their stores, where you're able to bring your old phone in, no matter the condition, and the ecoATM will pay you to get recycle it. Phones aside, there are a great deal of programs that you're able to send your items to (or have them picked up) to recover parts of the whole.
This is one of my favorite pieces of the eco-puzzle, as an aspiring gardener. This applies largely to food scraps and browns (lawn waste, corrugated cardboard, unbleached paper), but as you're becoming more eco-conscious, you can start looking for more products that are able to be composted at the end of their lives.
Compost is simply organic matter decaying through bacteria and heat. (Organic matter in this sense simply being stuff that is able to decompose into component parts, as opposed to inorganic matter, like plastic and metal, which would remain the same and not break into component parts.) This allows the nutrients remaining in the matter to decompose into rich soil, perfect for enriching your garden plot or planters.
This saves food waste from going into landfills, which is important because once the food is in the landfill, it gets packed so tightly that it's not be able to access the air that it needs in order for the bacteria to do their work properly.
Anaerobic bacteria (ones who do not need oxygen to survive) will take over and release methane, a significantly more potent greenhouse gas compared to carbon dioxide.
You made it!
These are the five core tenets of zero waste that you need to understand as you move through this journey of reducing waste.
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