Several sub-movements seek to contribute to a healthier world within growing environmental movements toward conserving and protecting our planet and its environment. Zero waste is one such movement, which, as the name suggests, aims to reduce the amount of waste humans generate.
You can contribute to a world that produces less waste and efficiently conserves natural resources by going zero waste. However, you might be specifically looking for how zero waste helps various aspects of the environment. Read on as we break down the benefits of the zero waste approach on land, air, and water.
Zero waste strategies exist in various spaces. Previously, people viewed zero waste principles as a government-focused or organization-focused endeavor.
Zero waste means reducing waste, ideally to zero; however, it’s also much more significant than you might think. Zero waste has made its way into everyday sustainable living over the years.
With a simple Google search, you’ll find tons of inspiration on the zero-waste lifestyle, and we have a load more here on TRVST. The information is endless, from zero waste tips on disposing of organic waste to zero waste swaps reducing plastic pollution.
People adopt a zero-waste lifestyle within individual homes by working to eliminate waste. It also entails checking consumption patterns to reduce waste. This brought about the zero waste principles that serve as a guide when on your zero waste journey.
Zero waste living discourages excess consumption and single-use plastics. It also gives new guidelines for handling organic waste through practices like composting. All these practices significantly reduce waste, thereby curbing pollution. For this reason, you’ll often find zero waste enthusiasts pointing to new ways to tackle food waste and holistically across all aspects of household consumption.
On a global scale, zero waste looks at the entire life cycle of products and packaging. Beyond reducing food waste, zero waste examines what we produce and use from sourcing raw materials through consumption, reuse, and end of life.
Holistically, zero waste seeks to curb waste generation on all levels. In this light, zero waste means conserving natural resources through responsible production and consumption. It also entails reusing and recovering products and packaging without practices like burning or releasing our discards into the land, water, and air.
This exploration clearly shows that zero waste is an all-around practice. It spans from how we source materials to how we dispose of them. As a result, this is a collective practice that lies in the hands of governments, organizations, and individuals.
The benefits of zero waste have multiple layers for the people and the environment. You’ll find that it helps to create jobs in various industries. We can get more green jobs, for instance, through recycling and composting facilities.
Zero waste practices also protect human health due to reducing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. We’ll also reduce pollution that can be toxic to human health with proper waste management.
There are a host of benefits of zero waste. However, we’ll be exploring the environmental benefits specifically. So, what does waste management mean for our environment? How does zero-waste help protect our lands, climate, and water bodies?
Read more: Importance of Zero Waste
Here, we’ll examine the benefits of zero waste across three main areas of our natural environment: land, air or climate, and water.
You’ll find that the benefits of zero waste go beyond limiting landfill waste. When we emulate sustainable natural cycles by curbing waste, we can contribute to a circular economy. In such an economy, we use products for as long as possible, reduce the pressure on virgin materials and amplify waste management.
One of the most significant and prominent effects of zero waste on our land is waste reduction. Waste from multiple sources - right from production methods to consumption and disposal.
Municipal solid waste is one of the significant challenges of our world today. This consists of everyday items that we use and throw away. From household to household and city to city, people generate tons of waste. When we dispose of waste improperly and unsustainably, the results create unsanitary conditions in cities. This contributes to pollution, which affects the environment and our health as well.
Food waste makes up a significant portion of municipal solid waste (MSW) sitting in landfills. In the United States alone, it makes up a total of 21.6% of the total MSW generation1.
As these compile in various landfill sites in cities, methane emissions rise. The rise in this toxic gas contributes to more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, an area that we’ll explore more in the air and climate section.
Related: Why is Food Waste a Global Issue?
Thankfully, zero waste practices encourage reducing household waste. As a result, people pick up practices like urban composting that reduce the amount of waste we send to trash cans and, eventually, landfills. These practices encourage people to adopt circular techniques even within the home by making use of their trash.
Apart from the waste we generate within the home, production companies also send waste to landfills. Since zero waste recognizes the need to embrace sustainable production, it encourages less waste at production sites. This then reduces the amount of waste or discarded materials on the land.
Many cities also have extended producer responsibility programs. Such programs require producers and importers to take responsibility for the waste of their products and the packaging they generate. This is the perfect example of systems that contribute to curbing the effects of waste.
Generally, by reducing household waste, plastic packaging, and production waste, we can create a cleaner and safer environment.
Another key land-based benefit of the zero waste movement is its protection of nature’s resources. This approach avoids the unnecessary extraction of raw materials. Instead, it seeks to create circular economies where production and manufacturing firms reuse materials in the system.
Various human activities like logging and mining have significant effects on the environment. They contribute to waste problems; however, they also contribute to the depletion of resources. Without proper materials management, we’ll watch the earth run out of certain resources quicker than it can regenerate them.
Production keeps growing to respond to the world’s growing population and human needs. When we rely solely on nature’s resources for virgin production, it places a heavy toll on the planet. The impact of raw material processing ranges from water shortages and biodiversity loss to soil degradation and more.
We rely less on raw materials when we embrace the zero-waste approach. We can also conserve natural resources by instead reusing and recycling the materials in circulation.
The environmental disturbance of constant virgin production is alarming within new systems like the zero-waste model. Zero waste encourages embracing reusable products. It also means refusing items that contribute heavily to waste through their lifecycle.
Circular economies reduce waste as much as possible. They follow a loop rather than a linear extraction, production, consumption, and disposal pattern.
Within circular economies, materials that we usually see as trash become valuable resources. It encourages practices like recycling and composting discarded materials. Such an economy also encourages leasing, repairing or refurbishing, and reusing materials and products for as long as possible.
Zero waste comes in because it helps to create this economy. Its practices encourage limiting waste to the barest minimum. So what benefits does this economy provide?
Circular economies reduce the pressure on the environment and improve the security of resources. Apart from these, they also boost economic growth by providing local jobs within areas like recycling and innovation.
Within circular societies, people prioritize sustainable manufacturing, consumption, and disposal methods. Here, you’ll find that virgin materials remain in circulation for longer, encouraging a boost in innovation. In such societies, collective effort becomes a priority. Apart from household decisions, governments and companies need to establish systems that encourage zero-waste approaches.
Apart from the adverse effects of solid waste pollution on the land, it also has negative climate consequences. Many people are unaware of the impact of landfill waste on climate change.
The more we send solid waste to landfills, the more they contribute to the emission of toxic gases. Although solid waste like organic matter can break down, the effects in landfills are not favorable.
When waste ends up in a landfill site, it continues to compile as trash companies add more materials from cities. For proper breakdown to occur, certain conditions need to be present. One of such is air.
However, as trash compounds, the air becomes lost, preventing the necessary conditions for biodegradation. This leads to anaerobic conditions, where there’s not enough oxygen to ensure the proper breakdown of materials. As a result, such sites generate methane gas - a toxic gas that contributes to global warming.
Reducing the amount of municipal solid waste in cities directly contributes to curbing climate change effects. As we move to better waste management systems, we’ll create a healthier climate.
Our world’s forests are some of the greatest carbon sinks on the planet. This essentially points to the fact that they absorb more carbon than they release. Zero waste provides both land and air benefits by protecting our planet's carbon sinks.
As we know, trees release oxygen into the atmosphere and absorb carbon dioxide. This process supports our human survival and curbs the effects of global warming. Carbon is one of the leading greenhouse gases, and therefore, reducing its presence in the atmosphere contributes to better air quality and a safer climate.
A significant sustainable approach points to preserving resources. Zero waste seeks to preserve trees as one of the primary raw resources for material production. Rather than the constant tree felling, zero-waste approaches seek alternatives.
These days, with innovation, we see new ways to produce paper. Instead of wood-pulp paper, some companies now use sustainable materials to produce more sustainable paper and even eco-friendly toilet paper.
You’ll find paper made from bamboo, jute, kenaf, sugar cane bagasse, and more. By embracing these changes, we can protect our forests which are essentially the planet's lungs.
Many industries rely on fossil fuels to create energy. The world uses energy from natural gas, oil, and coal to heat homes, power vehicles, and supply electricity. However, as we continue to burn these fuels, they release toxic chemicals into the environment.
Fossil fuels release large amounts of carbon into the air, a gas that traps heat and contributes to global warming. Consequently, these effects accelerate climate change.
We switch to sustainable alternatives to generate energy as we embrace zero waste practices. In turn, these activities also help us save electricity at home. By reducing new production and therefore curbing waste, we reduce the need for energy-intensive methods. Zero waste also encourages switching to new techniques that produce as few byproducts as possible.
Ocean waste is one of the global crises we’re experiencing today. Apart from protecting the land and air, the zero waste movement also helps our oceans. The way we use and trash products and packaging contribute to ocean pollution. Many items end up getting swept into oceans from the land. This process leads to many adverse effects, from affecting marine life to toxins seeping into water systems.
Plastics are one of the major products that end up in oceans. They exist in many forms, from plastic bottles to microplastics from synthetic-based items. By refusing and reducing single-use products, we can curb the amount of trash in the oceans. As a result, it prevents marine life from feeding on toxic chemicals and materials. Also, it helps us collectively preserve the natural state of oceans.
When thinking of waste, many people instantly think of the solid matter. However, waste exists in many forms - including water waste and pollution.
Water wastage is an area that we also need to examine as we switch to sustainable lifestyles. The more we use water unsustainably, the more we contribute to water shortage. This shortage also largely affects small communities, especially in areas with significant industrial processes. The holistic zero waste movement also recognizes this by examining areas that lead to wastage.
Since zero-waste systems also address production waste, they pay attention to responsible water usage. This entails using water sustainably and responsibly.
Related: How to Reduce Water Waste at Home
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, if we want to curb waste, the most effective way is to avoid creating it.
Zero waste practices challenge societies to adopt new ways of interacting with products. These practices challenge the way we produce, consume and dispose of items and their packaging. As we collectively switch to global zero waste living, we create a world where our lands, water systems, and climate are healthier.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.