So What Is Zero Waste Living?

Zero waste living is really hot right now. I think social media has played a part in putting this movement on the map, but what is zero waste? In this article, we are taking an in-depth look.

Introduction:

We’ve all seen the trash in the jar, made famous by the Queen of Zero-waste Bea Johnson, who has pretty much perfected it. I love her and everything she stands for but I simply can’t reach that goal and I am pretty sure most of my readers can’t either. 

It’s utterly unattainable and in most cases, it can really turn people off to the concept of zero-waste living

Sustainable living is not easy, society is simply not set up to help us reduce waste. We live in a consumer-driven world and that means we create a ton of WASTE.  I bet you have quite a few trash cans in your home and think about how many garbage cans you come in contact with on a daily basis. All there to collect your waste. The average American produces three pounds of landfill-bound garbage a day! 

zero waste jars on a kitchen table for zero waste living

Before we get to what is zero waste, it’s important to understand how a landfill works and the issues with it. Most people think a landfill is a giant compost pile, it’s not. All kinds of waste end up in landfills. Food, hazardous materials like light bulbs, plastic, paper you name it. As more gets dumped on the pile, everything underneath it gets covered up and loses oxygen and sunlight, so nothing breaks down and in fact, studies have shown that you can find items in perfect condition buried as from as far back as the 1940s.

Leachate and methane gas – two things we need to be concerned about in landfill.

Lechate generation is a defined as “a major problem for municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills and causes significant threat to surface water and groundwater. Leachate results from precipitation entering the landfill from moisture that exists in the waste when it is composed.” 

It’s all the nasty, stinky stuff that pools at the bottom of a landfill, it’s toxic and leaches into the soil and groundwater. 

Then you have methane gas! Methane gas is a greenhouse gas that “traps heat in our atmosphere and contributes to global warning”. 

And of course, there is the MAJOR issue of plastic. Plastic does not biodegrade, it photodegrades slowly by breaking down into tinier pieces over hundreds of years adding to the soil and water pollution. 

So obviously landfills are good in theory, but they are proving to be a really major issue thanks to our over-consumption. 

Seventy -five years ago, before the invention of single-use items, we lived a pretty trash-free existence. 

a woman holding a zero waste bag

So what is zero waste and its ultimate goal? 

Zero waste is the simple (or not so simple) concept of creating no waste, sending nothing to landfills at all or trying to live your life by creating as little waste as possible. 

But it’s not always that easy! Its much more complicated and for that we need to look at the history of the zero waste movement and go beyond what consumers can do to focus on how to reduce waste at the source. 

The History of Zero Waste

Yes, Bea Johnson is a pioneer in the zero waste movement, but it was actually a chemist named Paul Palmer who in 1973 founded the Zero Waste Systems (ZWS) to recycle every kind of excess chemical after learning that electronics companies in silicone valley were “discarding enormous amounts of perfectly usable industrial chemicals.”

According to Wikipedia “in 2008, Zero Waste was a term used to describe manufacturing and municipal waste management practices. Bea Johnson, decided to apply it to her household of 4” and essentially created the movement that it is today!

Zero Waste As A Lifestyle  

In her book, Zero Waste Home, Bea Johnson illustrated how zero waste living can be applied to the individual actions each one of us can take by applying her 5 R’s of zero waste living, before the 5 R’s there were only 3, reduce, reuse and recycle, which were meant to educate people on waste, but if you really want to live a more sustainable life, you need to consider all 5R’s, here they are:

Refuse: the things you just don’t need like single-use plastic, disposable coffee cups, plastic produce bags etc. 

Reduce: this can mean donating items you no longer need or use, or reducing the number of things you buy and bring into the home. Stop buying so many clothes, look for alternatives to replace plastic like glass or metal. 

Reuse: Instead of throwing things out, reuse, upcycle or repurpose them. Shop second hand as much as you can to give old things new life. Got glass jars? Use them to store foods. 

Recycle: this is forth on the list for a reason, do all three above before you get to this point. Get to know your recycling facility. 

Rot: Compost your household waste. 

(You scroll down to the bottom to see how to really apply these to your own life)

Here on The Eco Hub, I want to make it easy for you to make conscious choices and I’ve spent a  lot of time curating all the brands I feature on this website. The idea is to help as many small (Canadian) brands as much as possible. I’ve covered: zero-waste beauty brands zero waste shampoo bars, zero waste refillable packing, how a pantry audit can help reduce waste, plus I even have a zero-waste shopping guide for where to find zero waste supplies across Canada. So no matter what you are looking for, I’ve got your covered. 

The Future Of Zero Waste 

It’s clear that individual actions matter, they do all add up. But in order to achieve zero waste (or low-waste), we need to start at the source and that means looking at a more circular economy.

In order to achieve this, we need to move away from the current linear economy, where we extract huge amount of resources from the earth, use them for a short period of time and then dump them in a giant garbage pile we call a landfill. 

an info-graph showing a linear economy
Image Credit U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG)Linear-materials-economy

Moving to a circular economy means instead of dumping all those precious resources, we create a system where all resources can be fully reused and put back into the system. 

The goal, as mentioned before would be to create ZERO waste. Which brings me to my next point, today, the way society is set up there really is no such thing as zero waste, its why you see me refer to the topic as low-waste. Even products that are manufactured sustainably still create some kind of waste at the source. 

For society to move to a circular economy, we’d have to have a complete overall of our entire system and get away from industrial production, which relies heavily on fossil fuels, and the take-make-dispose economy to one that aims to move toward more innovative systems that “focus on product longevity, renewability, reuse and repair.” 

info-graph showing a circular economy
Image Credit U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG)Linear-materials-economy

It’s about designing products that can be rescued (beeswax wrap) instead of disposed of (saran wrap), items that are more durable and made to last. This is known as Cradle To Cradle. 

In 2002, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart wrote a book called Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, in it, they describe three ways principles that centre on how we can look to nature when thinking about our waste.  

“Everything is a resource for something else. In nature, the “waste” of one system becomes food for another. Everything can be designed to be disassembled and safely returned to the soil as biological nutrients, or re-utilized as high-quality materials for new products as technical nutrients without contamination.”

info-graph showing cradle to cradle
William McDonough// Cradle to Cradle

This all sounds pretty lofty right? and you are probably thinking, can one person really make a difference? YES! Every day you have the choice to make a decision that is better for the planet and its people. You have a choice to vote with your dollars and talk to brands and companies about what matters to you. Think if everyone just suddenly stopped buying bottled water. How do you think companies would react? They would be forced to make a change and pretty quickly. 

How To Live A More Zero Waste Life  

It really comes down to being connected to things you buy. It’s an understanding that those things have an impact on the world and its being mindful of that. Like the concept of slow food, which is defined as “an alternative to fast food, it strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encourages farming of plants, seeds, and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem”. We need to apply the same principles of the slow food movement to all the things we buy daily. 

We kind of don’t have a choice, especially when it comes to plastic and according to Oceana: “Canadians produce a lot of plastic waste; an estimated 3.3 million tonnes per year. About 2.8 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in Canadian landfills every year – equivalent to the weight of 24 CN towers.”

Canadians use about 15 billon plastic bags each year and more that one-third of all the plastic that is created is single-use! 

How To Start Your Zero Waste Lifestyle  

a zero waste basket

APPLYING THE 5R’s 

  1. Refuse: 

Just say NO! and be comfortable with that. Refusing the things you love (fast fashion, straws) is an important step to reduce unnecessary waste  from coming into your home. 

Think about how many things you unwittingly bring home daily and that you are then left having to figure out that to do with them. 

Plastic produce bags are a great example. The flimsy bags are so unnecessary, why are we bagging bananas? they come with their own packaging. These bags are also infamous for breaking before you even get home, they are then tossed in the garbage, they aren’t typically recycled and have a lifespan in the home of about 12 mins. So just say no! This is just one example, another one, if you are eating at a restaurants, tell them to hold the straw. 

The idea for Refusing is to set yourself up for success, by refusing waste in the first place. 

2. Reduce: 

Get comfortable letting go!  If an item is no longer “sparking joy” its time to get rid of it. We all tend to hoard things that we think we will get to one day, it never happens. Find homes for the things you used to love, donate them, hold a clothing swap, use a free market places like Facebook. Shop second hand, this is a really good way to live more sustainably. 

All these items had an impact and used an abundance of resources from the manufacturing to the packing and the transportation, instead of holding them, redistribute them. 

And of course, only buy what you need, not what you want. This is much harder to implement at first. We are so trained to buy new that in most cases we just do it. Reducing at the source means really thinking about an item, its lifecycle and how you are going to dispose of it after use is essential in this step. 

3. Reuse: 

Sarah Robertson from Sustainable In The Suburbs said this best “it’s only single-use if you use it once”. Brilliant right? 

If you bring something home that comes in plastic, find ways to reuse it. We’ve been trained that its okay to use something once then toss it, but this behaviour is normalizing “throw-away” culture.

Begin by focusing on one area of your home at a time, like the kitchen. Replace all of the single-use eating utensils, disposable cups, water bottles, and plastic wrap and bags with compostable or reusable alternatives. Once you master one area, prioritize reuse for other products in your home like the bathroom. 

a mason jar with a stainless steel straw for zero waste living

Instead of plastic water bottle use a reusable water bottle 

Instead of paper towel/ napkins use dishcloths, cloth napkins 

Instead of plastic lunch baggies use reusable containers, like glass or stainless steel 

Instead of tissues use a handkerchief 

Instead of plastic produce bags use a reusable cloth bags

Instead of paper or plastic bags bring your own reusable bag 

Instead of a disposable coffee cup use a reuse mug 

Instead of plastic cutlery use what you already have at home 

Instead of disposable razors use a safety razor 

Instead of Coffee pods use a French press 

Instead of Dish sponge use a cotton cloth 

I could go on, but you get the idea. 

You want to stop and think before you buy. Look to borrow before you buy. Look at Pinterest for ways to reuse

4. Recycle 

This is probably the most complicated of all the the R’s. Recycling is important, but it’s not a solution to our waste issues. You’ve probably heard someone say “but I recycle it”. The plastics industry has really done a great job at putting the onus of waste on the consumer and yes we play a huge part in waste production, but so do big polluters, the companies that make all that plastic. Making us think that the simple act of recycling will do. It won’t. 

We need to focus on steps 1 through 3 and only use recycling as a last resort. Only 5% of all the plastic that is tossed actually gets recycled. Most facilities simply can’t keep up with the pace of waste and most of the items that do get recycled are being down-cycled into low-quality, disposable items that will eventually end up in the garbage anyway! 

Plastic, which is the biggest waste issue facing the world today is very hard to recycle thanks to the material, its typically made into other items like carpet. 

Let’s be clear, I am not telling you not to recycle, but rather use recycling as a last resort. Also take Precycling into account, this is the act of considering an items worth, usefulness and recyclability before you ever buy it. It means standing and asking yourself “do I really need this?”. Most of the time the answer will be a no.  

5. Rot 

This is the pinnacle of zero-waste living and really about rotting, or more commonly known as composting

It’s estimated that landfills are made up of 60% of organic matter, that’s a real shame. Compost creates nutrient rich fertilizer that you can use in your own garden. I’m lucky to live in Toronto, where we have a green bin for organic waste. Not everyone has this type of accessibility.  But composting at home is easier thank you think. 

compost pile
Photo by Eva Elijas from Pexels

There are many benefits to composting, but its important to how what you can compost and can’t compost and knowing which bins to use when composting is important too.

Final Thoughts on What Is Zero Waste Living

I hope you found this article helpful, its important to understand what these concepts actually mean and how you can put them into practice. 

I want to leave you with hope and a reminder that living this type of life is not easy, it takes work and practice and it’s not something that can be done in a weekend, and that’s okay. We are all on a different paths and you have to find what works for you. Zero waste living is also not accessible everyone and is traditionally seen as a way of life held by those of us who are more privileged, white and female. It’s a blog I will be working on in the near future.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you! 

Help someone by sharing this article – sharing is caring 🙂 !

what is zero waste?

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