What is Zero Waste?

What is Zero Waste?

What does Zero Waste mean?

Zero Waste living is building a set of habits that conserve resources and reduce trash in your daily life. This feels like a daunting task, but when broken down, there are little steps we can all take to drastically reduce how much we are sending to a landfill. Refuse the things you do not need, reduce what you consume, reuse materials whenever possible, recycle what you can, and compost the rest. The rewards of living simply and intentionally are daily satisfaction, a cleaner lifestyle, and adding momentum to the movement to change how we maintain our home planet. Zero waste is a pursuit to eradicate overconsumption and the harmful effects that our trash has on the planet and all life on it. In our current system eliminating waste entirely is a challenging (and fun!) pursuit. Still, most are surprised at how a few small changes can lighten up your trash bins and change your outlook on all your daily routines.

Why go Zero Waste?

We are putting extreme pressure on our planet through the unsustainable overconsumption and production of our natural resources. These practices have led to a triple planetary crisis: climate change, biodiversity loss, and increased pollution. Consumers in the wealthiest nations are depleting nature about 1.8 times faster than our planet's biocapacity can regenerate. Our consumption rate is so out of balance with what the world can provide that we have begun to mark the day we run out of resources as Earth Overshoot Day. In essence, Earth has an annual budget, and we have a persistent habit of depleting its resources before the year is out. Therefore we must essentially borrow resources from the following year. In fact, we would need five planets to sustain ourselves if everyone on Earth used resources at the same rate as we do in the US. The use of the planet's resources is made more tragic by the fact that we are throwing everything away. In America, the average person produces almost 5 pounds of trash daily. Why? There is a demand for unlimited economic growth in our society. But it is taking from limited resources, and the production system goes only one way: from Earth to the dump. This is a linear economy.

What is a Linear Economy?

A linear economy is a take, make, waste model. According to The Story of Stuff, everything we can consume is part of a linear system known as the Materials Economy.

linear economy

The framework looks like the following:

1) We extract trees, plants, animals, metals, and petroleum from Earth's ecosystems without considering the actual costs to the environment and local communities.

2) We then manufacture and process these essential elements by using polluting, toxic, and wasteful practices with finished products that are often designed for the dump.

3) We distribute these products and frequently transport them over long distances from the manufacturer to the sale.

4) We buy these products. Sometimes the products have a short shelf life and are just designed for you to buy more!

5) After we buy and use these products, we dispose of them in the trash, where they make their way to a landfill or an incinerator. The value of the resources needed to produce those goods is destroyed there. When we need new products, we continue to take from nature as though it will provide an infinite supply. This system is unsustainable. On a finite planet, a linear system cannot run indefinitely.

What's so bad about landfills?

Landfills are intended to store garbage away from people and the environment but are not necessarily meant to decompose it. When we throw away a banana peel or any organic matter, we assume they'll compost over time. Yet, the systems in a landfill are much more complex than that. Landfills are built with thick layers of rubber and clay barriers, with plastic liners used to seal the trash within. Basically, when food goes to the landfill, it's a lot like tying it up in a plastic bag. No oxygen can be accessed, and the insects and microorganisms required to properly degrade the materials cannot survive. Organic matter can deteriorate in a landfill, although slowly and in an oxygen-free, confined environment. The organic nutrients unlocked during decomposition are not effectively returned to the soil (disallowing it to regenerate). Instead, the lack of oxygen causes bacteria in the trash to generate methane gas, which is highly combustible and risky if allowed to build up underground. It's also a potent greenhouse gas that accelerates global warming. According to the EPA, methane is more than 25 times as powerful as carbon dioxide at trapping atmospheric heat, which makes it a hefty contributor to climate change. Landfills are the US's third most significant source of human-related methane emissions (17%) after petroleum production (32%) and animal gas and manure (27%).

Landfills are also toxic. When it rains or snows, a harmful liquid waste known as leachate can seep through trash in a dump. Leachate is created when chemicals or other components from the buried wastes are leached or drawn out when liquid comes into contact with them. Improper disposal of hazardous wastes like cleaners, paints, plastics, and batteries can leach out toxins and contaminate the groundwater and other aquatic ecosystems. This wrecks the environment and is also a terrible source of social injustice. Trash transfer stations, landfills, and incinerators primarily affect minority populations and low-income communities. The result is raised health and safety risks from air and water pollution in these neighborhoods. Landfill runoff and leaching affect local waterways, water sources, and public recreation areas of marginalized communities. Eight out of ten incinerators in the US are in BIPOC, immigrant, and low-income communities. The people who live near them are exposed to poisonous dioxins and other toxic air pollution from burning trash. Dioxins are super toxins and can harm the immune system, induce cancer, interfere with hormones, and cause issues with development and reproduction.

The problem with plastic.

It isn't just our waste that's the problem. Quite a bit of garbage never even gets to the landfill. More than 400 million tons of plastic are produced yearly, and only a fraction of it gets recycled at just 9%! Every bit of plastic ever made still exists today, and it never biodegrades. Instead, as plastic ages, it becomes brittle. It crumbles into tiny fragments until it is a microplastic or nanoplastic that pollutes our environment with disastrous results. Plastic contains over 99% of chemicals from fossil fuels, and the fossil fuel and plastic industries are deeply interconnected. Between now and 2050, manufacturing plastic could create nearly 50 times as much pollution as every coal plant in the United States. This means that the amount of plastic we generate has a closer impact on climate change than its final disposal location. The emissions and pollution of plastics are both very destructive forces on our planet.

What is a Circular Economy?

The linear economy relies on a take-make-waste system. A circular economy creates a new framework for how we extract resources, produce our goods, and makes the waste result undesirable. A circular economy is based on Zero Waste ideals. It is in many ways inspired by nature, where there is no waste. This model requires a significant shift from extraction to regeneration.

Circular Economy

To produce drastically less waste, we must use fewer raw materials from resources, transition to clean production methods, and design products for longevity, refurbishment, and recycling. Many examples exist today in the form of sustainable products that can be returned to the Earth. Better-made products can be used for longer, and materials can be refurbished or recycled. We highly recommend the Ellen Macarther Foundation's easy-to-follow analysis of our transition from a linear economy to a circular one here. We are already making progress in all areas. Many regions have even adopted regulations banning plastic bags and styrofoam food containers. These new laws prove that we can make changes and there is momentum for a system with less waste.

Is going Zero Waste even possible?

Despite how overwhelming these facts may sound, don't let them deceive you into believing that one person can't make a difference. If that were the case, the zero waste movement would not be the influential force in the consumer market that it is today. Every person has a voice in our collective effort to move toward a greener future, and every sustainable choice has an effect. The good news is that there are alternative options. Switching to reusables when possible cuts back on how much plastic we consume. And by refurbishing the plastic we've already made, we can get more use out of it. Experts predict that if we do these things, we could reduce carbon emissions by 62 million metric tons annually! This is the zero waste movement at work!

Even the most ardent zero waste enthusiasts will admit that it is difficult, if not impossible, for most households to avoid producing garbage entirely. The phrase Zero Waste is meant to be taken with a grain of salt. This is why when we talk about zero waste, we're really referring to more of a guiding principle that encourages ecologically friendly behavior and lifestyle changes to bring humanity into a more harmonious and balanced existence with nature. Zero waste living isn't about being perfect. Instead, it's about making better choices and forming better habits. There are so many ways to cut down your consumption habits. Experts in the zero waste movement are very good at refusing, reusing, recycling, and avoiding single-use items that fill landfills and cause climate change. Moving toward a zero waste lifestyle isn't just great for the environment; it will improve your sense of well-being. You'll eat healthier, have less clutter, save money, reduce your chemical exposure, and lower your carbon footprint. Plus, you will have to take out less trash. When we choose zero waste, it does not demand getting to absolute zero; it just requires a commitment to pursuing the goal of zero.

Breaking a habit can be challenging to do. Research shows it can take around 66 days to form a new habit. Although this figure may vary from person to person, it's crucial to realize that changing to a zero waste lifestyle doesn't happen overnight. Zero waste is a gradual process that could entail changing behaviors over quite a bit of time. Changing your old, wasteful habits and forming new, sustainable ones is a process that calls for a certain degree of dedication and commitment to a greater purpose. Allow yourself the patience to accomplish your goals and be kind to yourself when you occasionally make mistakes along the way. Remember, you're not alone in this mission. There are a lot of like-minded people out there working very hard to live a low-impact lifestyle. Voting with your dollar can also help our society move away from polluting processes. Consumer demand incentivizes corporations and governments to dramatically shift toward equity and Zero Waste by putting in place the rules and infrastructure needed to reorganize our production system to use fewer resources and create products designed for recovery and reuse. Survival on our planet will likely require a circular economy. Moving production to this model helps save our precious remaining natural resources.

Where should I start?

Consider why you want to live sustainably. Possibly you have realized that reducing your waste can save you a lot of money over time. Perhaps you are worried about the toxins in plastics contaminating your food and drink and harming your health. Maybe you are passionate about nature and preserving a clean planet for every living thing. When you consider how our wasteful habits affect the quality of the air, water, land, and life on Earth, you may ask yourself, "Why would anybody NOT go zero waste?"

You can start by performing a trash audit. Observe and make a note of how much waste you actually create. It can help you evaluate where most of your waste is coming from. Eliminate single-use goods like plastic straws, paper towels, plastic utensils, and water bottles to make room for more environmentally friendly alternatives. There is a plastic-free, reusable alternative for almost every single-use item you may find in your house. Replacing them will significantly minimize your carbon footprint. You can also read our blog on the 5 R's of Zero Waste for a handy and easy guide to reducing daily waste at home, at work, and on the go. Going zero waste just takes preparation and practice. It isn't about perfection, just progress!

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