What is Zero Waste?

What is Zero Waste?

Posted on Nov 6th 2019

Chances are you’ve heard the term Zero Waste before. #ZeroWaste has been used almost 4 millions times on Instagram, and there’s little doubt that the phrase Zero Waste is on its way to becoming as commonplace as terms like organic and nonGMO. But what does Zero Waste living really mean?

At surface level, the term “Zero Waste” is a pretty simple concept - Reduce, reuse, recycle and compost, all with the goal of sending nothing to the landfill.

And the great news is, for most of us, this is actually a very feasible goal to achieve in the short-term. The Zero Waste International Alliance states that Zero Waste is achieved (for a person, a business, a municipality, etc) if 90% of waste generated is diverted from landfills and incinerators. It is estimated that 85% of what Americans throw away today can be recycled (curbside or through hard-to-recycle outlets) and/or composted. That means we could get very close to Zero Waste not even by changing how we buy and consume, but simply by properly recycling and composting our existing waste.

If all you do is adopt this mindset of “landfill diversion” you’d be off to a great start.

But, the Zero Waste Movement is more complex than simply recycling and composting in order to achieve 90% landfill and incinerator diversion. So, what is Zero Waste?

The Zero Waste lifestyle is about moving from a linear production mindset to a more circular one that considers and minimizes wasted resources at every stage of production and use.

EcoCycle, an incredible Boulder-based waste management company that is also one of the leaders of the Zero Waste Movement, has a wonderful set of graphics that showcases this on their Solutions Hub.

Zero Waste Living Means Moving From a Linear Mindset to a Circular One


Linear Mindset


Circular Mindset

What is the difference between the simple answer and the complex answer?

If you followed the first, simpler approach to Zero Waste, you might continue to purchase all of your goods - food, cleaners, cosmetics, clothes - as you normally with, but with a focus on looking for recyclable or compostable packaging. So for example, you might continue to purchase bottled water or regularly get take out, but would take the time to properly recycle this packaging. You might continue to grocery shop as you normally would, but compost any food waste you produce.

As you adopt a broader and more comprehensive Zero Waste mindset, you would instead stop buying bottled water, and opt for a reusable water bottle and filter tap water. You might minimize take out, or could bring your own containers to the restaurant. You might find that by more meticulously planning your food needs before grocery shopping, you actually eliminate how much food waste you produce.

As you can see, the simpler approach to Zero Waste is a great starting point as you begin to become hyper aware of the amount of waste you are creating. Over time, most people who start there end up moving towards the broader Zero Waste approach that becomes far more of a new way of living, a new mindset on how you approach every aspect of your life.

What Is the Impact of Zero Waste?

As more and more people move to this zero waste lifestyle and mindset, the benefits are vast:

Coffee Cups

Reducing what goes to landfills: This is the most obvious and direct impact of achieving the ambitious Zero Waste goal of 90% landfill diversion. On average, Americans send 4.4 lbs of waste to the landfill each day. The worst part of this is that this material - 85% of which is technically compostable or recyclable, and which was produced using lots of raw materials and resources - is then lost and unable forever, often after only being used once. Beyond this, landfills are terrible for our environment overall. They contribute up to 20% of the methane emissions in the US, materials that are naturally biodegradable do not decompose bc landfills don’t have any oxygen, and chemicals from our waste leaches into soils and waterways.

Addressing climate change: Most people think climate change is due to how we heat our homes and fuel our cars. While this is true -- Over 40% of American’s climate impact comes from our belongings and our food — how it’s created, used, transported and disposed of. This metric is known as our consumption emissions.

It will take time to solve our nation’s longer-term energy and transportation issues, but we as individuals can start using Zero Waste strategies today. If everyone learned how to live a zero waste lifestyle tomorrow, we’d buy more time to solve the world’s more complex problems surrounding sustainable energy and transportation.

It’s possible that by 2030, Zero Waste strategies could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by over 400 million metric tons of CO2per year. That’s like turning off about 20 percent of the coal plants in the US. For reference, that means that Zero Waste can reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than expanding nuclear power, improving vehicle efficiency or carbon capture projects.

Protection of wildlife and our oceans: A tragic amount of the waste produced worldwide ends up as land and ocean pollution. Over eight million metric tons of plastic trash are estimated to end up in the ocean each year. Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia environmental engineer, likens it to lining up five grocery bags of trash on every foot of coastline around the globe. At current pollution rates, the ocean will contain 1 ton of plastic for every 3 tons of fish by 2025, and more plastics than fish (by weight) by 2050. This is awful for ocean life, drinking water, and the countless species (including humans) that consume both. Zero Waste means we are creating less trash that has the potential to end up in the oceans, and more responsibly recycling our plastic waste to ensure it is used again.

Strengthening our natural resources: If we consume less (a core tenant of the zero waste lifestyle), we need to mine fewer non renewable resources and produce fewer renewable resources - which in turn, helps to protect our limited natural resources.

Improving our soils: Soil can be incredible. It is estimated that regenerative agriculture - defined as a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services - could actually reverse climate change. How does Zero Waste help? Not only does a thoughtful Zero Waste lifestyle lesson reliance on industrial agriculture needed to produce feed and raw materials, if done well, it also results in rich, valuable compost that helps replenish soil with natural nutrients and fertilizers.

Health and wellness: Many people find that transitioning to a Zero Waste lifestyle leads to increased health and wellness. Those committed to the broadest and most comprehensive approach to Zero Waste tend to eat far less packaged (and processed) foods and favor whole, plant based foods instead. They do less takeaway, and cook more at home. They avoid questionable chemicals in their food, cleaning solutions and skincare because of the impact of these substances on both the manufacturing upstream and the waste produced downstream. These choices are not just better for the planet, they are better for our health as well.

Happier, more present and more collaborative people / communities: As people take the time to truly consider the full impact of the choices they are making, they often find they become more present, more appreciative of what they already have, more resourceful and more mindful (all characteristics that many associate with increased happiness). Zero wasters are often steeped in the “sharing economy” - borrowing from and loaning to neighbors, utilizing sharing services such as airbnb and rover (which tend to forge personal connections that traditional transactions do not), and are active consumers at local, community-oriented shops and farmers markets.

Want to take the plunge and learn how to go Zero Waste? Here are 11 tips to get started.

  1. Recycle. Sound obvious right! If you’re reading this, you’re probably already curbside recycling. But, take the time do to it right. Here is a comprehensive guide to recycling to get you started. Then, move to recycling your “hard to recycle” waste. Bring all plastic film to grocery store drop offs. Take electronics and toner to an appropriate center. Instead of discarding your mattress, find a recycler that will refurbish it. You’ll find yourself moving into a mindset where any time you are throwing something away, you’ll research whether or not it can somehow be recycled.
  2. Compost your food waste. If you don’t have ready access to an industrial composting facility, start a home compost in your backyard or a small worm compost system that is apartment friendly. Focus on composting as much of your food and yard waste as possible. You’ll find other items that you could consider composting as well (such as an old 100% cotton t-shirt). In some cases, these items are compostable and you may decide it makes sense to put it in your compost bin. In other cases you may decide that the t-shirt isn’t optimal for your compost (i.e. because it carries pigments with it) and instead find a recycler that accepts cotton for reuse in other items.
  3. When you do buy something, look for Zero Waste companies and buy for effective recyclability. Consider the overall end of life of an item and its packaging when you make a purchase. Opt for aluminum cans over plastic or glass bottles (aluminum is endlessly and profitably recyclable). Plastic milk jugs are easier to recycle into productive raw materials than are poly lined milk cartons (which typically get downcycled into insulation). Look for packaging that is a single material (i.e. plastic with plastic, paper with plastic) versus mixed (such as those boxes with a clear plastic window on it).
  4. Reduce what you buy and consume. With every purchase you make, ask yourself “Do I need or really truly want this item?” If the answer is no, consider skipping it. Many of us have shoes, clothes, spices, kitchen accessories, etc that we’ve used only once or never at all. Start by skipping these purchases, often made on a whim.
  5. Shop bulk and refillable. More and more mainstream groceries now have a bulk dry food aisle (not to mention all of the incredible, independently owned bulk food stores that are popping up!). Did you know in most states you can bring your own containers to these stores? Bring in your containers, tare them with a cashier before you shop (have them write the weight of the jar on it) and then the cashier can ensure the container’s weight is subtracted at checkout. In addition to bulk foods, you can also buy bulk lotion, shampoo, soap, laundry detergent and cleaners in some zero waste stores.
  6. Look for reusable alternatives to what you consume. Every time you use something just once (i.e. a single use item) before throwing it away, consider whether or not there is a reusable alternative. For example, wax wraps can be used instead of plastic wrap. Reusable containers replace Ziploc bags. You can do away with straws altogether, or use metal ones instead of plastic. Bring your coffee mugs with you so you can say no to the poly lined coffee cups. Get dryer balls instead of going through dryer sheets. Take the plunge and go cloth diapers for your baby. These are called Zero Waste products, and the more of these you can incorporate into your lifestyle the lower your waste will be.
  7. Buy used. We are lucky to live in an era where you can buy virtually anything used, and often in really high quality! Furniture, clothes (especially baby clothes!), toys, electronics, Halloween costumes, tools, wedding dresses - you name it, there is likely a place you can buy it used or borrow it temporarily.
  8. Buy recycled. If zero waste is a way of thinking about the entire lifecycle of the products you buy, buying goods made with recycled content means you are truly supporting that circular economy and way of thinking, because you are helping to create markets for goods that have been recycled.
  9. Vote with your dollars. Spend your money with companies that you’ve researched and whose values, ethics, manufacturing practices, product quality, and commitment to Zero Waste matches yours.
  10. Buy durable, long lasting goods and clothing. When you buy with a Zero Waste mindset, you should avoid the “race to the bottom” - the segment of companies and consumers that chase the lowest cost options. Instead, be open to paying a bit more with zero waste-oriented companies and buying fewer goods. Take care of your goods. Treat them with respect and keep them cleaned and maintained so they last you a long time. Yes, you’ll be buying more expensive goods, but Zero Wasters find that in the long run, they save ton of money because they buy so many fewer things and what they do buy doesn’t need to be replaced frequently.
  11. Repair. Learn how how to repair things that break, or who to go to to help you repair. There are countless items that - when they break - often lead people to throw their goods away. This includes things like buttons, zippers, furniture, kitchen appliances, cars and electronics. Instead of buying something new when your items break, give it new life!

Zero Waste living is not always easy, but armed with these tips you’re ready to start lowering your environmental impact. To learn more about how you or your business can be more eco-friendly, from why recycling matters to how to take your business plastic-free.