What is Zero Waste, Anyway?
The quickest way to explain Zero Waste is through this diagram:
- Linear economy: resources are harvested, used and then thrown away.
- Recycling economy: resources are harvested, recycled a few times, but often ultimately end up thrown away.
- Circular economy: resources are harvested, used and then reused, and then reused and then reused…you get the picture. In this model, resources aren’t being wasted.
Currently we live in a mostly linear economy, with scattered recycling mixed in. We consume and dump in a never-ending cycle. The goal of Zero Waste is to stop that cycle and move to a circular economy. Put simply, the aim is to send nothing to the landfills.
There are 5 easy R’s that will help you as you transition to living a Zero Waste lifestyle:
This is where we get to use our elementary school education and JUST SAY NO! Say no to single use/disposable items, cheap free hand outs that you’ll only use once and then toss aside and companies that use planned obsolescence.
I believe this is one of the most powerful steps we can take to support the sustainable cause. Our choices as consumers have an impact. The less we use single use items, the less demand there will be to replace them with reusable options. For example, plastic straws. With all the activism around plastic straws right now, many cities are banning the use of plastic straws, which in turn has created a high demand for reusable straws.
Reduce the things you need. This is where minimalism can come into play. Americans are drowning in stuff. Did you know there are more storage facilities in America than McDonald’s and Starbucks combined?
Start by letting go of the things in your life that don’t add value. Then become a conscious consumer. Here are a few ways to be a conscious consumer:
- Think twice before you buy. Can you live without it?
- Is it something you need only once? If so, can you borrow it instead?
- Can you get it secondhand?
- Are the materials sustainable?
This is one of my favorite steps! Reuse all the things! Ever since I was little, I’ve always loved coming up with creative ways to use things. One of my favorite memories is my dad teaching me to sew. Instead of buying fabric, he went to the thrift store and asked for any torn flannel shirts that we could cut up and use as fabric and they gave him a big bag full for free.
Kids are particularly good at this step. Where we see trash, they see treasure. My daughter’s favorite toy right now is an empty spice container. She loves opening the lid, taking it off, and putting things in it, through both the container itself or the holes in the lid.
Before throwing something away, think if there is a way you can reuse it. Mason jars are an iconic Zero Waste symbol because they are notorious for being so multi-functional!
The other half of this one is repairing. So often, we throw things out that we could easily repair if we just took a few seconds to learn how. For example, textiles, like clothing, bedding, or towels. With a few basic sewing skills, you can extend the life of an item by years. Personally, I’ve repaired about half of my wardrobe at some point or another. And for the items that are beyond repair, you can use the fabric to sew a reusable product, like a produce bag.
Recycling is tricky, because it plays an important role in a circular economy, but it has a few downsides.
The first minor downside is that recycling requires energy. It’s better to refuse, reuse or repair something before resorting to recycling, because none of those options require energy.
Another downside is that consumers often don’t recycle their materials, either because it’s inconvenient, or they don’t have access to recycling programs.
The biggest downside of all, however, is that while some materials are easy to recycle, others materials are more difficult and can’t be recycled indefinitely.
Glass, aluminum and paper are great candidates for recycling. Recycling these materials is pretty straightforward, you can just throw them into the recycling bin. Glass and aluminum can be recycled indefinitely. Paper can be recycled multiple times and when it can no longer be recycled, it can be composted.
Plastic is a bit of a troublemaker in the recycling world. Did you know there are seven different types of plastic? That means that recycling plastic is definitely not straightforward. Often you have to check with your local recycling center to find out what types of plastic they’ll take. In my city, they won’t take plastic clam shells (the type often used for berries), even though the plastic has a recycling symbol on it. Up until recently, I had always assumed that if it had the recycling symbol on it, you could just throw it in your recycling bin. So much plastic that gets sent to recycling centers ultimately ends up just being sent to the landfill because recycling plastic can be confusing.
What about the plastic that does get recycled? Well, it has a very short recycling life. For example, when a plastic bottle is recycled, the plastic loses it’s integrity. This means that instead of becoming another water bottle, it is downcycled instead, and turned into carpets or clothing. That’s typically where it’s journey ends. And unfortunately, plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it photodegrades, meaning it just breaks down into tiny microplastic particles, which are being found in ocean garbage patches and even our tap water. I generally try to avoid using plastic when I can.
Compost! Composting is an incredible example of a circular economy! You plant seeds in the dirt. Food grows. You eat the food. You compost the food scraps. Compost becomes dirt. Then you plant seeds in the dirt again. Repeat till the end of time.
There are so many other things that you can compost besides just food too! Paper, yard waste, cardboard boxes, toilet paper rolls, clothing made from natural fibers, and even your hair and toenail clippings! There are many different ways to compost that can fit almost every living situation, from homesteads, to suburban houses and apartments.
Knowing these five R’s should help guide you as you begin making zero waste decisions. Which of the five R’s do you find the easiest? Which do you struggle with the most? Leave a comment below and feel free to pin or share on Facebook!