Your Guide to Zero Waste: The Basics of Living Sustainably
All the news about our out-of-control global plastic pollution problem and the climate crisis has a lot of us searching for ways to live more sustainably. If you’ve been researching how to reduce your carbon footprint lately, then you’ve probably already heard of the zero waste movement.
Maybe you were originally interested in trying out the zero waste lifestyle, but then you learned about the people who can fit a whole year’s worth of their garbage into just one Mason jar... Which probably led to you feeling like sustainability was impossible.
We get it. When faced with those kinds of extreme examples, the idea of living zero waste can feel impossible. For example, today’s products come wrapped in more plastic than ever before. Things that used to be in mostly paper packaging have shifted — toward complicated mixed-plastic containers.
Maybe the first time you heard the phrase ‘zero waste’ you thought to yourself, “How is that even possible??”
Well, there’s a lot of confusion around the zero waste movement, so we’re going to break it down for you in this article. We’re going to cover…
- What exactly zero waste means
- What’s possible and what’s not (yet!)
- The 5 principles of the zero waste movement
- How you can start reducing your waste today
What Is the Zero Waste Movement?
The zero waste movement is a sustainability movement where your goal is to reduce your waste production down to zero.
It’s important to note that this is simply the goal behind the zero waste movement. Many people living a zero-waste lifestyle would be quick to tell you that achieving true “zero” is impossible. Not because of any personal failings as a human being — instead, it’s because we can only control so much about our lives and the products we consume. (Some things are just currently out of our control — but more on that below.)
If you’re asking yourself, “But wait...what counts as waste??” don't worry — we’ve got you covered!
Waste can be defined as anything you send to the landfill. When something goes to the landfill, the resources that make up that item are pretty much lost to us forever.
(Ok, imagine a blender here: plastic, glass, little assorted metal bits… Each of those components is a “resource”, and if we were able to reuse them, we could make new blenders — without using new resources.)
The unfortunate fact is that our current economic system is pretty wasteful. Our society currently operates on what’s called a linear economy which means that our use of resources is linear. Natural resources are taken from the planet, fashioned into products, sold to us, and then after we’re done using the product we have nothing to do but send them to the landfill.
By avoiding throwing away resources and seeking out reusable alternatives, you are helping develop what’s called a circular economy. In a circular economy, resources cycle through indefinitely. Products are designed to be repaired or broken down into their plastic, glass, and little assorted metal bits and refashioned into something else.
The idea here is that a circular economy is more sustainable and makes it possible for our Earth to support us in the long term. (Have you Googled “Earth Overshoot Day” yet??)
There’s one important caveat you need to remember: our current recycling system does not function as part of a circular economy. Most of us have been lead to believe that everything we put in the recycling bin ends up getting recycled — but unfortunately, it’s simply not true.
In fact, only 9% of plastic you put in the bin is actually recycled. The rest is either sent to the landfill, incinerated, or lost to the environment, as shown in this scientific article.
91% of recycling is thrown out because of contamination by food waste, mixed plastic types (both by the manufacturer and the recycler), additives like dye, or the plastic being broken and unidentifiable. (Not to mention that the majority of that successfully recycled 9% is actually downgraded into items of lower use and lower recyclability.)
These problems make it clear that recycling is not the solution. The solution is to consume less in general.
Members of the zero waste movement are essentially standing up and saying NO to all the waste associated with our modern consumption habits. You can use your lifestyle to vote for a more sustainable system for all of us and our planet, by striving for zero waste.
But here’s the kicker…
Zero Waste Is Impossible
Yup, we’ve got bad news: Zero waste is impossible. (At least for now.)
You probably could have guessed that after learning about the travesty that is our recycling system. But like we said above, it’s not because of anyone’s personal failings.
Unfortunately, the world we live in today is based on that linear economy. Companies both large and small function on waste.
Well, because nobody has forced them not to. (Yet!)
No matter your level of zero waste dedication...at some point in the process of your item being manufactured, shipped across the ocean, and purchased — there is waste. And that waste is largely out of your control.
Many manufacturing processes create waste while creating parts for your item. Most products are shipped wrapped in plastic. You can only control which products you buy at the store and how you buy them.
But don’t feel hopeless: when you start adding zero waste options to your reusable bag, you’re voting for a more sustainable system. And that message is starting to get across.
Next, it’s important to note that zero waste is not an expectation, but an option for some people. If you looked it up right now, you can find thousands of articles talking about how the zero waste movement “is impossible” and “must be stopped”.
When the zero waste movement started to get noticed, there were a lot of people saying that the expectations of the movement were unrealistic. And they’re right. It would be unfair and unrealistic to expect every person on the face of the earth to make these changes within our current system.
Many people face unique economic, location, time, health, and medical situations in their life that make living zero waste either extremely difficult or impossible.
It’s important to remember that the idea of living zero waste is simply a goal that some people are striving for. At the end of it all, the corporations are responsible for plastic production and other waste.
Living a zero waste lifestyle is about building a movement that will force these corporations to make a change. But while we build that movement, we need to understand that not every person can be expected to live zero waste — it’s simply a lifestyle option.
If you are interested in reducing your carbon footprint and plastic consumption, the zero waste lifestyle is a great way to do it.
The 5 R’s of Sustainability and the Zero Waste Movement
So, you’ve probably heard of reduce, reuse, recycle by now. Also known as the “waste hierarchy”, those are the original 3 R’s.
Well, now that many people are examining their lifestyles in an attempt to live more sustainably, a few more R’s have been added. In fact, so far we’ve discovered up to 8 different R’s, contributed by various leaders from the zero waste movement.
(We’re definitely sharing all the R’s, but please note that this section is called “the 5 R’s” because that’s the official amount of R’s that have been adopted.)
One of the most important things to know about the R’s of sustainability is that they are designed to operate in order. That means that when it comes to deciding what to do about an item (remember your blender), the first R is your best choice and the last R is your least ideal choice.
At the very end of all the R’s, comes the landfill — which we’re trying to avoid.
The fact that the R’s operate in order is quite possibly the most overlooked aspect of a sustainable lifestyle. Unfortunately, many of us have been taught from a young age that recycling is THE answer. But...sadly it’s not quite true.
All the R’s (and that fearsome L)
So that you can be a well-rounded, sustainable guru, we’d like you to know that the six R’s above with an asterisk (*) are attributed to Bea Johnson, author of Zero Waste Home. Bea is widely considered the founder of the zero waste movement. (Note: Bea counts reuse and repair as one collective R.)
Everything without an asterisk (*) can be attributed to Simply by Christine, the zero waste author behind the book Sustainable Home.
How to Start Reducing Your Waste
Ok, time to take a deep breath.
At this point, you might be feeling that this whole zero waste thing really is impossible.
Don’t worry — we’re here to support you on your sustainable journey. As we wind down this introduction to the zero waste movement, we want to leave you with five simple things you can eliminate today.
There are five very common, plastic-based items that have snuck their way into our daily lives. They aren’t really needed, are handed out with reckless abandon, and they’re building up in our oceans as we speak.
But the awesome thing is that for a lot of us, these five things are really easy to ditch. So, in the name of living sustainably and demanding an economy that takes care of the planet we offer…
A list of five plastic things you can stop using today:
- Plastic bags — if you don’t have a reusable bag ask a friend if they have an extra, look for one at your local thrift store, or consider making one at home. (You can literally use an extra pillowcase if you have one.) We also have reusable bags and storage options available to help you ditch plastic for good.
- Plastic water bottles — most people are lucky enough to live in an area where water from the tap is drinkable. You can find a reusable bottle in the back of your cupboard, borrow from a friend, check the thrift store, or even repurpose a clean spaghetti jar.
- Plastic straws — Not many people actually buy these, but most restaurants give them to everyone. Use this as a chance to practice the first R: refuse. (Just say, “Please, don’t give me a plastic straw with my drink.”) Most drinks can be consumed without a straw, but if you love using them, ask your earth-conscious friend if they have an extra reusable one! Or pick up a pack from us with stainless steel and silicone options.
Note: sometimes people with medical conditions need to use plastic straws, and we support them in that use!
By giving up just these five things, you’re well on your way to making a huge difference for the planet. As you work on these changes, don’t be afraid to continue exploring and experimenting to find what reusable swaps work best for you.
If you’re ready for some investment-level zero waste swaps — be sure to check out our store!
Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R. & Law, K. L. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances 3, (2017).