What is zero waste really about? Most of us think about plastic when we think about the waste in landfills and water bodies. And plastic waste is undoubtedly one of the biggest waste challenges we face. But living a zero-waste lifestyle is not just about ditching those disposable plastic bags and bottles.
In this article, we look at defining zero waste and talk about what the zero waste movement aims to achieve. We'll talk about how the movement arose and why we must worry about waste. We'll look at some of the leading lights within the movement, how it has grown in recent years, and what comes next.
Are we doing all we can? Perhaps not. But together, we can work out the best way for the movement to improve upon our efforts and reduce waste even further in the future.
The zero-waste movement is about limiting human impact on the planet and conserving our resources.
Zero Waste International Alliance defines zero waste as:
“The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of all products, packaging, and materials, without burning them, and without discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.”
One of the most important things to remember when aiming for a zero-waste lifestyle is that it is not only about where the waste ends up. It is a complete cradle-to-grave analysis that helps us to reduce its creation in the first place. While, of course, making better use of the resources we have at our disposal.
Ideally, there should be no such thing as waste or discarded materials. To achieve this, we would need to restructure how many of us currently live our lives and consume goods in tune with zero-waste strategies and sustainability. The manufacturing and packaging industry will also need some re-evaluation.
Read more: Guide to zero waste resource management
Those in the zero waste movement know that we can achieve this goal through a concerted and fierce effort; by businesses, government, and individuals.
Not all of the power is in our hands. But we as individuals do have more power than you might imagine. Using that power to reduce waste is, in essence, what the zero-waste movement is all about.
We can all join the zero waste movement. And there are several steps we can take to do so. We can:
Waste is a problem due to its current volume and toxicity. In today's world, most people operate within a throw-away society. Mass consumption depletes resources at a staggering rate. People buy, they use, they throw away... they buy more.
Read more: Why is zero waste important?
This over-consumption is one major contributing factor to our climate crisis. The food we grow and the products we create require energy, manufacturing, and distribution.
This should not be a problem in an energy-abundant world such as ours (with a sun that can provide all the energy we need and more). But unfortunately, most of the world's growing, manufacturing, and distribution still use finite and polluting fossil fuels.
So the more we buy, the higher our carbon footprints will be. No matter how ethical our purchasing decisions may be – buying anything generally adds to the greenhouse gases we emit. By thinking more about what we throw away – we can help reduce consumption, reduce our carbon footprints, and change things for the better.
Plastic is one of the worst substances when it comes to energy use and the emission of greenhouse gases. Almost 45% of the CO2 emissions from industry are the result of manufacturing just four products: cement, steel, ammonia, and ethylene (McKinsey).
These industries account for 3 Gton CO2, 2.9 Gton C02, 0.5 Gton CO2, and 0.2 Gton CO2, respectively. Ethylene is plastic. This is one of the reasons why finding a better alternative for many plastic products is a crucial task in the zero-waste movement.
Of course, waste does not just continue the cycle of the over-consumption of energy. It also pressures other precious resources such as land, freshwater, etc.
Considering how much water each item you buy consumes can bring home the importance of reducing waste. When it comes down to it, throwing things away is the same as wasting water.
For example, the global average water footprint of just 1kg of cotton is 10,000 liters – as much as you might drink in almost 14 years! One 1kg of cotton only makes around 2 T-shirts.
So this example allows you to begin to see why throwing one away, as so many of us do so frequently, is such a big problem. When you throw away an item of clothing, you are throwing away far more than just the fabric itself.
Zero waste is about more than just not throwing things away. Purchasing choices are also important. In the case of cotton, one claim is that purchasing organic cotton can reduce water pollution by up to 98%. Even better, buying second-hand or vintage at online thrift stores doesn't require resources to be used to create a new clothing item.
The more we buy, the more we consume freshwater, land, and other resources. By refusing damaging products, reducing consumption, reusing and repairing items for as long as possible, and recycling, we can reduce our impact on the planet and people in a wide range of different ways.
The problems with waste do not end with the fact that waste requires the production of new items. The issues surround not only the initial stages of a product's life cycle, where producers extract raw materials. When we throw things away and contribute to a throwaway culture, we also create further problems for our planet, wildlife, and humanity.
Plastic pollution is the most prominent and high-profile problem. Different types of plastic pervade all environments on earth – making their way from our homes and businesses into the land and water. It endangers wildlife and global food chains and threatens human health.
Unlike organic material, plastic poses a problem for our environment, which sticks around. It is not biodegradable – and will not break down for a very, very long time. This has created a massive crisis in the modern world. In answer, reusable shopping bags, reusable straws, coffee cups, and so much more have become increasingly popular.
Read more: How does zero-waste help the environment
The world's annual consumption of plastic materials has increased from around 5 million tonnes in the 1950s to over 300 million tonnes today. Plastic is now found in every ecosystem on earth. It is found in huge ocean gyres, creating floating islands of trash.
Microplastics pollute the world's marine environments. Scientists have shown that up to 12 million tonnes of plastic are entering our oceans yearly – an amount that could fill a rubbish truck every minute!
The dangers that plastic poses are gradually being revealed. Not just for marine environments but for all ecosystems on earth. When people look into what happens to plastic waste and other non-biodegradable materials, more people are drawn to help and join the zero waste movement.
But though plastic waste is generally talked about and the issues well known, fewer people are fully aware of the problems other forms of waste pose. Food waste is another huge issue in our modern world. This is a problem not just because of the massive amounts of energy, water, land, and other resources used to create it. But also because of what happens to all that food and other organic waste, we throw away.
When organic waste is sent to landfill sites, it decomposes anaerobically and generates methane. This greenhouse gas is at least 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Even when organic waste is burned rather than buried, the sheer volume of food waste we generate can be a problem. There is also the carbon cost of waste transportation to take into account. Domestic options, such as recycling food waste and composting, are solutions we can employ to tackle this problem. By composting organic waste at home, you can emulate sustainable natural cycles that don't harm the environment.
Of course, there are also ethical issues. How can we justify wasting food when so many around the world are starving or don't have enough good, healthy food to eat?
The zero-waste approach sprung from several different environmental movements. Of course, waste has been an issue for a long time, and those interested in permaculture, sustainability, and green living have long espoused ideas for zero-waste living.
But the term' zero waste' began to be used more widely around the turn of the Millennium, gaining publicity between 1998 and 2002, when some authorities used the term to describe their municipal waste management practices.
It was not until 2009, however, that the term was applied at a household level. Bea Johnson, a French American woman living in California, began to share her journey through her popular blog – 'Zero Waste Home.' And after it was featured in the New York Times, the mainstream was introduced to the concept of achieving a zero-waste goal and waste-free living.
In 2013, Bea Johnson published a 'bible' for those trying to live a zero-waste lifestyle. By sharing her zero-waste journey, Bea is known as a lead zero-waste influencer who has inspired many others. In the zero waste 'bible,' she provided a methodology to follow and inspired many in the rapidly growing movement.
Bea came up with the 5 'R's of sustainability – refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot (compost). Since then, many have reused or adapted and built on her ideas within this movement, with a number of zero-waste system variants in place. However, they all share a common theme that seeks to minimize waste.
Many have taken these ideas and run with them, and several very influential figures have emerged within the zero waste movement. Lauren Singer, for example, has influential social media channels and spreads the movement's ideas to Millennials.
Marie Delapierre opened the first unpackaged store in Germany. This was the first packaging-free concept in our modern era and has led the way for many subsequent zero-waste-based business opportunities. Many others have also led the way by spreading knowledge, starting zero-waste stores or upcycling clothes, or launching zero-waste non-profit organizations.
Since 2009, the zero waste movement has grown dramatically. Many individuals, companies, and organizations have stepped forwards to lead the way. And the general public has begun to catch on. People in the last few years have become much more aware of the problems that waste causes and sustainability in general.
Plastic pollution campaigns such as those from Plastic Oceans International, the WWF, Greenpeace, and Sky Ocean Rescue, to name but a few, have made the public far more aware of these issues. And discovering more about plastic pollution facts and ills has led people to the zero waste movement.
While awareness is growing, there is still a long way for the zero waste movement to go. An increasing number of people are making the right choices by carefully managing purchases and implementing zero waste. Coupled with a growing zero-waste community sharing ideas and increasing awareness, change is indeed afoot.
Further, governments have begun to address our waste concerns. Perhaps most notable is the EU's restrictions on single-use plastics. Additionally, policy is catching up, for example, removing taxpayer subsidies for virgin materials enabling reuse and recycled products to compete.
But awareness and a desire to do the right thing do not always immediately translate into actual action. Several barriers mean that though people take some steps in the right direction, it is very difficult to eliminate waste. We explore some of these further in our article on the pros and cons of zero waste.
We should all remember to reduce waste at home. Start by making the right purchasing decisions and through the other methods described earlier in this article.
Zero waste will eliminate some problems from the consumer end, but it doesn't stop there. Big businesses and stores also have to play their part. They should do this by switching over to more sustainable zero-waste products and eco-friendly packaging and bringing in circular economy models.
Our voices matter. Creating awareness and encouraging producer responsibility ensures an end-to-end response to pollution and waste. And ultimately seeks to redefine consumption patterns for sustainability and protect the environment for future generations.
But even when items are bought package-free, these items were often packaged for their journeys to the store – and not always using the more eco-friendly materials. It is vital to look at the whole lifecycle of a product – not just how it comes wrapped – when making choices to take you closer to a zero-waste lifestyle.
If we all make better choices, we can help prevent the depletion of our valuable resources while keeping our natural resources free from pollution. It's also easy to start, swing by your local zero waste store for reusable essentials, read up, reuse, and let's work towards eliminating waste together.
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.