What is Zero Waste?

What is Zero Waste?

Have you ever taken any time at all to notice or think about the amount of trash you produce? How full your family's trash can is at the end of the week? How many trash bags are hauled away every time you move or clean out the garage? If you were like me, you never gave this a second thought. Trash was trash--those bags you set on your curb every Tuesday morning that are whisked away off to Neverland. 

Then I learned about zero waste and I will never think about trash the same way ever again. Zero Waste is a philosophy and growing lifestyle movement that show there is no need for anything to be trash and that all products and packaging can and should be designed without disposal in mind at all--sustainable systems in which everything is reused or composted. 

I was first introduced to the concept of Zero Waste through this video about Lauren Singer, a zero waste activist. She lives a lifestyle in which she products almost zero trash. She has a mason jar that fits two years worth of the trash she's collected inside of it. My mind was blown. Waste has always bothered me, but two years worth of trash in one jar?? How was that even possible? Lauren Singer has followed in the footsteps of Bea Johnson-- a leader in the zero waste movement and author of the book Zero Waste Home, something of a bible of zero waste living. So how do they do it and how can you? Essentially by gradually replacing everything in your life that has the landfill as its endgame. Before I get into the details, I just want to say that recycling does play a part in zero waste living, but not as large a part as you'd think. Lauren and Bea don't just roll out giant recycling bins every week because they recycle everything instead of throwing it away--that's not the point. In fact, they recycle almost as little as they "trash." Because recycling is an imperfect system and uses a lot of energy and resources, and because many materials can't be recycled, or (like plastic) can only be downcycled a couple of times before ultimately ending up in the landfill, the goal is to only use recycling as a last resort, after you've refused, reduced, or reused everything that can be. 

First things first, ditch the plastic water bottles and plastic bags. These two are so terrible for the environment and yet SO easy to switch! All you need are a few tote bags and a stainless steel water bottle. If every American did this we'd divert millions of plastic bags and water bottles from ending up in landfills or oceans. You can use lightweight reusable mesh, muslin, or cotton bags to put all your produce inside, to further reduce the number of plastic bags used. 

Next step is to start composting. So much of what's in our trash cans is organic waste that can be composted and turned into nutrient rich soil, but when it's thrown in the landfill, it will never decompose. Instead it emits harmful methane gases. Of course compost your fruit and vegetable peels, cores, trimmings, and egg shells, but there are also a lot of things most people don't know can be thrown in the compost like dryer lint, hair, or tissues. Some lucky cities (who know what's up) will collect your compost curbside, but if you're not in one of them it's easy to start a pile in your backyard or a bin on your patio. Many farmers markets or urban gardens also have compost collection, or you may have a neighbor or friend who'd be willing to take your compost for their garden! I think it's pretty crazy that nature has this beautiful wonderful system that can transform it's waste into soil, and yet we throw it all in a landfill instead and sabotage that system. Why did we start doing this, and why is it ok? 

Besides organic waste, what do we throw away? Disposable items! So much of what we use is disposable! Paper towels, napkins, water bottles, razors, utensils, paper plates, soap dispensers, lunch bags, ziploc bags, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, diapers, toothbrushes, to-go containers, coffee cups. For the sake of convenience (that is really not all that convenient) we've created disposables of everything, and that adds up to an insane amount of trash! It doesn't have to be this way, and by switching out items that you use once or a few times for items that can be reused hundreds of times, you can significantly reduce your waste. 

Which brings me to packaging. Not only are all of our convenient modern products disposable, but they're nearly all excessively packaged--usually in plastic. Plastic inherently violates the zero waste model because it never goes away. Did you know that every bit of plastic ever made still exists since it doesn't break down or biodegrade? Unlike glass or paper, plastic cannot be recycled over and over--it can only be down-cycled into a lower-grade plastic, until it can't be recycled anymore. Plastic pollution is a huge problem that I'll delve into more later, but plastic is bad. We don't need to wrap everything in plastic. Packaging in general is largely unnecessary and can be greatly eliminated or reduced with smart, sustainable design and infrastructure set in place. 

Next time you go grocery shopping, take note of all the packaging that is everywhere, and how much plastic you come home with. A zero waste grocery trip would look something like this:  you buy as much produce as possible (sans packaging) at a local famers market. Whatever produce you buy at a regular grocery store, you place in your own reusable mesh, cotton, or muslin bags like these on Amazon, (or you can easily make your own out of an old sheet) always opting for bulk items over packaged ones. Bulk here doesn't refer to buying a large quantity of items all at once like at Costco, it means loose items like in the bulk bins you've likely seen at stores like Winco or Whole Foods. For example, when purchasing bulk mushrooms, you'd take what you need and place them in your own produce bag as opposed to our new "normal" model of buying a styrofoam container of mushrooms wrapped in plastic. You can buy grains, beans, nuts, and tons of other items from bulk bins, pouring the loose foods straight into your own bags which can be taken home and stored in glass jars. 

While the availability of these items in your area will vary, the point is that it is possible to avoid all the trash we are producing. Companies need to change their models from disposable, back to reusable packaging. The local milk company (Shatto) here in Kansas City sells their milk in reusable glass containers. When you purchase a quart, you pay a deposit on the glass bottle that you get back when you return it. It used to be standard practice for glass soda bottles used to be collected by companies to sterilize and reuse, but they've traded in that model for more convenient, disposable bottles.

The zero waste movement is a group of people dedicated to reducing their waste and using their purchasing power as consumers to promote positive change. I've started down the road of reducing my own families waste, and found that some of these changes are very easy, and some take more research and effort. The encouraging part is that the easiest switches to make are often the ones that make the biggest impact. I first learned about this around January, and four months later, I am taking one small grocery sacks worth of trash out to the curb each Tuesday morning. Granted, this weeks was much larger since I cleaned out my garage, and my recycling bin is still always plenty full, but I'm shocked at how little I had to do to get my landfill send-off down to so little. 

Here's a word of wisdom from Bea Johnson's book: "What we consume directly affects our environment, our economy, and our health, by supporting specific manufacturing practices and creating a demand to make more. In other words, shopping is voting and the decisions that we make every day have an impact.  We have the choice to either hurt or heal our society."

Youtube: Bea Johnson here and here, Lauren Singer here

Insta: @zerowastehome @bezerowastegirl @trashisfortossers @zerowastenerd

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