Zero-waste refers to designing products and living situations to produce as minimal waste as possible. Zero-waste principles are refuse, reduce, reuse, and recycle. These principles help us work towards protecting nature and its inhabitants.
Is a zero-waste lifestyle realistic? You will find out as you read about the pros and cons of zero-waste.
Zero-waste living has many benefits for us and our environment. Some of these benefits are:
Practicing a zero-waste lifestyle is cost-effective as it encourages you to purchase only necessities. Also, the long-term goal of zero-waste is to reduce and reuse the items you have in your household.
For example, it encourages you to reuse the Tupperware, glass, or tin containers in your house you already have rather than using single-use plastic food containers like bags and wraps. If you can’t reuse what you have, swapping these for reusable alternatives to Ziploc bags and reusable food containers saves money in the long run and helps reduce waste.
Zero-waste products save you from purchasing unsustainable items multiple times. For instance, a pack of plastic straws costs $4 on Amazon, and a pack of reusable straws can cost as little as $3.20. And even if you go for the more expensive stainless steel options, which cost a bit more, you only ever have to buy them once. Therefore, you can ditch plastic straws that destroy the environment and save some cash.
In a case where a zero-waste item is more expensive than an inorganic item, consider the product’s lifecycle. It is an effective cost determiner that’ll help you save money. In most cases, the expensive zero-waste product lasts longer than the inexpensive, unsustainable product. Also, DIYs, thrifting, and bulk shopping will help you save a lot more money.
An essential goal of the zero-waste movement is to reduce the waste we send to landfills, especially plastic waste. Disposable plastic is prevalent in our environment. Manufacturers use wasteful packaging materials for products, wrapping drinks, food, fruits, games, bags, plates, and other products in plastics. Supermarkets also give out a lot of plastic bags when we shop. All these contribute to plastic pollution in our environment.
Statistics show that United Kingdom residents trash up to 66 plastic packaging items in a week3, 100 billion plastic packaging items in a year, and only recycle 12% of plastic waste.
The plastic waste that is not recycled ends up incinerated or in various landfills. As plastic takes hundreds of years to decompose, it breaks down into microplastics and leeches harmful chemicals into the environment. These microplastics end up in the food chain and marine and terrestrial environments. Scientists even found these microplastics in humans and animals1.
The zero-waste movement encourages you first to refuse and reduce plastic items like bags and bottles. However, it is practically impossible to avoid plastics daily, and you should always opt for plastic-free alternatives when possible. Recycling is the next best option when you end up with plastic.
The more sustainable alternatives you can choose include products manufactured with organic materials that decompose. These include wood, bamboo, glass, stainless steel, hemp, cotton, and various plant fibers.
Practicing zero-waste principles will help you dispose of your trash properly. You will learn to separate recyclable items into the recycling bin instead of sending them to the landfill. And remember what you can’t recycle and how to minimize their use or correctly dispose of them.
Food waste statistics show that the United Kingdom had about 9.5 million tonnes of wasted food in 2018. The United Nations gave an estimate of the wasted food that goes into landfill worldwide. It was over 930 million tonnes in 20194. The food waste problem is global, with an estimated one-third of global food production wasted. Luckily, zero-waste can help us reduce the waste generated in households and commercially - and reduce the impact on our waste management systems.
You will learn how to prevent the wastage of fresh produce when you practice zero-waste cooking. It teaches you how to cook creative, healthy meals without waste. Many zero-waste cookbooks and recipes describe ways to repurpose food scraps that we throw away. And to compost food waste that we can’t reuse. We produce way less trash when we practice zero-waste cooking.
You will maintain a healthy lifestyle as you join the zero-waste movement. A waste-free lifestyle doesn't protect the environment alone. It also promotes activities like recycling, regular exercise, yoga, zero-waste cooking, sustainable shopping, and proper waste disposal that protect human health from chemicals and toxic behaviors.
With zero waste, you can create better-eating habits. Curating the best eating and living habits will put your physical and mental well-being in its best state. For instance, yoga can help you stay fit and sharpen your mind. Also, clearing unnecessary clutter from your space will give you more breathing space. You will begin to purchase useful zero-waste products that positively impact your daily life.
Zero-waste living advocates for minimal interaction with harmful chemicals. It doesn't promote fast foods that cause harm to our well-being.
Also, it doesn't promote fast fashion because it produces lots of greenhouse gas emissions and uses synthetic dyes like acid, reactive, and disperse. Manufacturers wash these chemical substances into water bodies, causing water pollution, and they end up contaminating our environment.
Zero-waste schemes provide safe alternatives that don’t harm humans and the environment. For instance, plastic-free products protect us from chemicals like phthalates, bisphenols, and fluorinated compounds in plastic bags and plates.
Zero-waste initiatives positively impact the economy by promoting a circular economy. This economy focuses on waste reduction, maximizing natural resources by renewing and reusing them in an endless loop. It differs from linear economies that extract raw materials and use and dispose of them.
When we go zero-waste, we take a new economic approach where everything has value, and nothing goes to waste. The aim is to use natural materials until you get maximum value from them, ultimately living waste free.
Zero-waste living helps you switch to healthier shopping habits. With zero waste, you can learn to curb your impulsive buying habits. You will build the habit of only buying the things you need while zero waste grocery shopping.
A healthy shopping habit you will learn from living a zero-waste life is to go shopping with your reusable shopping bag or recycle the old plastic packaging bags you got from your previous shopping sprees instead of picking up extra plastic bags at the counter. Another habit you might pick up is thrift shopping from online thrift stores, giving old items a new home rather than buying new which draws on more raw materials.
Zero-waste minimizes the harmful human activities that contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer. Practicing zero-waste production reduces our carbon footprint. Zero-waste production is the implementation of sustainable manufacturing practices. Here, manufacturers consider how they create waste from the processing of raw materials to the production to its packaging after consumers use it2.
Zero-waste production is possible with gradual implementations, like changing product packaging, using raw materials that don’t produce a lot of waste, and creating ways to reuse waste products. Our current production of goods and services burns a lot of fossil fuels and produces high amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. These gas emissions enter our atmosphere and destroy it, leading to climate change.
We are experiencing severe levels of global warming in 2022. Practicing zero-waste production and adopting lifestyle changes is the best way for individuals to contribute to repairing our environment. So, let everyone join and promote zero-waste communities, and the environment will return to what it was before we damaged it.
A good level of self-discipline is necessary for sustainable living. You need to work towards maintaining eco-friendly habits, like practicing zero waste swaps. You should remember to repurpose food scraps, recycle plastic containers, avoid plastic-packaged meals, and eat healthily. Also, it will require you to be mindful of your shopping practices.
Remember that it is okay to forget about these things for a while until you are used to them. Sustainable living will become easier as long as you keep working towards mastering it. To learn more, browse some of the available zero-waste online courses and our zero-waste tips to get you started.
Although the positive aspects of sustainable living, there are some negative aspects of living zero-waste. They are:
People new to living zero-waste might find it stressful to maintain, especially for large households. You can develop eco-anxiety, anxiety about what you need to do to live a sustainable life. It might disrupt your daily activities and stress you out before you develop a suitable routine.
The best thing to do is gradually introduce zero-waste methods into your household. You can start researching the best sustainable practices that will be convenient for your home instead of just doing everything and anything.
For instance, you need to teach your kids recycling practices and make sure they don’t dump recyclable trash into the trash bin that goes into landfills. Also, your habits of purchasing single-use snack bags and juice boxes will have to end. You should buy bulk and repackage reusable Ziploc bags and eco-friendly lunch boxes.
Many people make the mistake of buying a bunch of zero-waste alternatives at the start of their zero-waste lifestyle. You should reuse what you already have at home for as long as possible. That is the best way to approach the transition. For more info on starting out without less cost, check out our guide to going zero waste on a budget.
Another problem with zero-waste living is the time it consumes for some. You should set ample time periodically for planning and executing your shopping activities if you need to research and source bulk and low-waste items. For example, going further out of your way to buy food items in bulk rather than shopping at the local supermarket where they wrap the packaged goods in wasteful materials.
Also, zero-waste cooking will require you to take time to do meal prep.
If you want to DIY many daily-use items, that can also prove time-consuming. For example, sewing reusable grocery bags, sewing or knitting utensil holders, reusable cloth covers, etc.
Sadly, you can’t change some items to a better alternative because some products do not have sustainable options. For example, you can’t avoid plastics in technological and electrical appliances, which end up creating e-waste, and our discarded technology impacts the environment. You just have to repair and reuse them instead of trashing them at the slightest damage.
Beware of greenwashing. Many products claim to be eco-friendly, but they are not. Some manufacturers work to pass the deception that their products are eco-friendly. You need to be aware of these greenwashing tactics.
Zero-waste stores are less popular than we need them to be. So, finding sustainable zero-waste shops in your vicinity may take time. Sustainable online shopping can be unreliable because some stores use plastic to pack their products. Also, you have to be careful of some companies’ greenwashing tactics.
Some greenwashing tactics are:
Living a waste-free lifestyle has more benefits than disadvantages. However, learning to say no, reuse what you have, and recycle religiously will take some time.
You can’t adapt to a sustainable lifestyle in the blink of an eye. A lifestyle is life-long, so choose to tackle these challenges one after another. Start with going zero waste with your food, then clothes, then hair and zero-waste makeup and zero-waste skincare, and so on. With time, you’ll create a lifestyle that takes care of both you and our Earth.
Smith, M., Love, D. C., Rochman, C. M., & Neff, R. A. (2018). Microplastics in seafood and the implications for human health. Current environmental health reports, 5(3), 375-386.
Singh, S., Ramakrishna, S., & Gupta, M. K. (2017). Towards zero waste manufacturing: A multidisciplinary review. Journal of cleaner production, 168, 1230-1243.
Tiseo, T. (2022, August 22). UK: household plastic packaging waste 2022 | Statista. Retrieved December 6, 2022
UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021 (pdf), 04 March 2021
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.