As the effects of climate change become more apparent, many of us are realizing we need to do more to protect our environment. While recycling initiatives and cleaner energy are important, eco-conscious daily routines and spending habits can help you make a positive impact as an individual. Taking an honest look at the waste you produce reveals how your choices can affect the planet.
One sustainable lifestyle trend getting a lot of press lately is zero waste living. When you see bloggers proudly holding up their household's tiny annual trash jar, it's easy to be impressed but a bit intimidated. Looking for help to get your trash under control? Once you understand the logic of going zero waste, you can begin making no-waste decisions that make a difference.
What is Zero Waste Living?
The simplest definition of zero waste is a lifestyle based on sending no trash to a landfill. If that sounds impossible in practice, that's because it usually is. A zero waste home is a goal more than a demand for perfection. It might help to think of zero waste as a method to change the way we consume goods rather than the amount of garbage in your trash bin.
Modern societies extract resources and turn them into products destined for us to discard. As a result, we have to keep mining raw materials to start over. Unlike our linear consumption model, the process we see in nature is circular. What nature produces, it breaks down and repurposes in a closed, self-sustaining system. Waste is a human concept, so it needs a human solution.
A Reason to Care: Where Does Trash Go?
Let's talk trash for a second. It's easy to throw waste in the bin and not consider what happens next. Typically, waste management sends garbage to recycling facilities, landfills, or an incinerator. However, each of these waste disposal methods has a dirty secret. Most modern nations are unable to process the amount of recycling they collect. Much of it is sent overseas, where trash is often dumped or burned.
What about landfills and incineration? The way landfills manage trash can prevent even biodegradable waste like food from breaking down naturally. Landfill waste is often covered, cutting off oxygen and releasing toxic methane gas. Incineration is only slightly better since this method is often criticized as inefficient and polluting.
What are the Benefits of Zero Waste?
Along with taking waste out of a toxic system, this sustainable lifestyle has various benefits for both you and the planet. Going zero waste:
1. Conserves resources and reduces pollution
The zero waste movement aims to reduce consumption and shift the economy towards circular, sustainable habits. With less demand for new products, we produce less waste, limit resource drain, and minimize pollution from waste disposal.
2. Saves Energy
Mining resources, manufacturing products, sending them to consumers, and disposing of them creates many greenhouse gases. When we decrease the need for new products and the raw materials and processes to make them, we can save energy.
3. Produces healthier and more environmentally friendly eating habits
Going zero waste usually means avoiding most heavily packaged, processed foods. Choosing fresh products instead is better for you and the environment, so it's a win/win.
4. Encourages mindfulness
Habits from driving to buying new clothes become so automatic that sometimes we don't realize we are making choices. Changing your mindset on waste can give a sense of value and purpose to even small decisions like biking to a friend's house or giving new life to a secondhand dress.
5. Saves money
People often think adopting a zero waste lifestyle will be expensive. In fact, many eco-friendly products save you money over time. For example, reusable tableware made from natural materials costs more upfront than paper plates or plastic silverware, but you only have to buy it once for years of use.
Tips for a Zero Waste Home: The 5Rs of Zero Waste Living
Closing the circle of consumption in your daily life means being intentional about not wasting resources. If we have to be consumers, we have the option to be thoughtful ones who choose long-lasting, ethical, locally sourced, and environmentally friendly zero waste products. A good guide to making responsible daily choices is to consider the 5 Rs of zero waste:
1. Refuse what you don't need.
Say no to plastic bags, to-go containers, or products with lots of packaging. Bring your own produce bags, shop bulk foods, and provide glass or metal containers for restaurant leftovers. Buying green cleaning products or cruelty-free makeup can also help since ethical retailers often use less packaging.
2. Reduce what you need.
Eventually, you will need to buy something. Whether you're grocery shopping or outfitting a new flat, make sure you're only buying must-haves in an amount you'll use. Focusing on quality items will also limit future needs. Pick reusable metal water bottles over disposable, cloth towels rather than paper, and wooden cutting boards instead of plastic.
3. Reuse what you can.
Before you go to the store or hit the ship button, think about what you already have. Could you repair rather than toss out old furniture, swap rarely worn clothes with a friend, regift something you already own, or repurpose glass containers as storage?
4. Recycle only what you can't eliminate through refusing, reducing, or reusing.
Recycling is number four of the 5 Rs of zero waste because it's a last resort rather than a first choice. Recycling still takes energy, and only a small percentage of what we send to recycling centers actually gets recycled.
5. Rot whatever is left.
Food waste is a large part of most families' trash output. For overuse that you can't avoid through the other steps, putting scraps into a compost bin can help them break down naturally, as they might not in a landfill.
Does Zero Waste Make a Difference?
It's easy to feel helpless in the face of our massive trash problem, but individual choices do matter. Every purchase we make and every piece of plastic we refuse is a vote for the kind of society we want. Demanding ethical options by choosing sustainable, zero waste products is a small but crucial step towards making landfills a thing of the past.
For links to Hazel Bennett’s work, see here, as well as twitter here.