Causes Environment

Dissecting The Zero Waste Myth: A Beginner’s Guide

zero waste myth
Written by Julia Eden

I know, I know…zero waste – the concept is obvious, right? Well maybe not. If you think it’s all about not throwing stuff away, then hold onto your hat while I weave you through warring factions, corporate intrigue, and soaring ideals with world-changing implications.

The Misnomer of Zero Waste 

Surely by now, you have encountered at least one of the many zero waste blogs currently on offer; these are usually beautifully presented DIYs for incorporating zero waste practices into your own life. And that’s great because in 2012 consumer waste made up 51 percent of all MSW (Municipal Solid Waste, or trash). However, the other 49 percent came from commercial, industrial sources. Even if every citizen of the United States reduced their annual garbage output to less than a mason jar’s worth, we’d still have to deal with the other half of our trash.

While the vast majority of zero waste preaching is about eliminating waste at home, it’s more critical we address the entire lifecycle of the product: reducing waste from R&D, manufacturing, and purchase point. So from a commercial or holistic perspective, we don’t need everyone to become more conscious. Instead, we merely need companies to take responsibility for the entirety of their product. Easy-peasy, right?

A Group, Divided

But here’s where things start looking optimistic again. Because even though there are dissenters, believing only in addressing industrial waste as the solution, the average consumer can still make a difference with their dollar. Yes, we have to reduce, and hopefully eliminate, waste across industries. However, we are continually seeing results stemming purely from consumer responsibility. In response to the zero waste movement, there are apps and bulk stores popping up everywhere. “Regular” grocery stores are making it easier to bring your own containers. No one looks at me funny when I hand them a reusable mug for my coffee order. Moreover, most restaurants are grateful when you provide them with a reusable container for your food, rather than using one of their single-use options.

So the clear next step in commercial competition is reducing waste throughout the production stream by refusing excess packaging and inferior quality materials at the point of sale. The trickle-down effects (or should it be trickle-up effects?) will extend throughout the manufacturing and design processes as a result of our consumer actions.

Zero Waste Myth

Join the Zero Waste movement

The Great Recycling Debate

Welcome to the warring factions. Recycling is a surprisingly decisive issue throughout the Zero Waste community. The generally accepted zero waste stream looks like this:

  • Refuse: Just say no to trash at the point of purchase.
  • Repair and reuse: Before buying a new one, can you fix the old one?
  • Upcycle: Before buying a new one, can you make it out of something else?
  • Compost: If life gives you lemons, make mulch.
  • Recycle: Let’s be very clear, only glass and metal can be recycled, for everything else you must…
  • Downcycle: It may be called recycling, but materials like plastic have finite life cycles, and with each turn through the system, that material degrades.
  • Landfill or Incineration: Landfills you know about, but incineration was added here by the ZW community because companies were using it to make zero waste claims, even though combustion still creates waste (primarily ashes and smoke).

So, faction #1 thinks that the potential waste stream should end at compost. Faction #2 thinks recycling is super terrific, and we should totes make that the endpoint. Faction #3 thinks recycling is a diversion tactic perpetrated by big business to distract us from more effective solutions. And I think they’re all in fact, mostly, in agreement.

The Zero Waste Myth Scandal Continues

You’ll notice I separated recycling from downcycling. Downcycling is still a new term, and so it has not wholly segued into general use yet. However, I think we can all agree that, even though recycling glass and aluminum require water and energy, it still demands fewer resources to recycle them than make new. And since those materials can be infinitely recycled, they never need to end up contaminating our land and waterways.

Plastic, however, with its limited recycling capabilities but near-infinite lifespan, has only two options. It can be used by humans until the end of time, continually mending what breaks, and never throwing it away (aka the “pipe dream” option). Alternatively, it ends up forming a new country because it’s bigger than the size of Texas and it’s just floating there polluting the water and killing the fish.

When approaching your own zero waste journey, these issues require personal decisions. But I suspect if we apply the standard metric of, “does this make things worse for the planet, the people, or the purpose?” then the path of best intention becomes clear.

And there is one principle that all factions agree on: doing something is magnitudes better than doing nothing.

Wait! Didn’t I Say Something About Corporate Intrigue?

I feel a little conflicted about this, but I think it’s worth addressing. There is a guy named Paul Palmer that is an example of the ultimate struggle in the war for a sustainable future. He’s a kook with some intriguing ideas. An ivy league education (a Ph.D. from Yale seems legit enough to me), Palmer has run several successful businesses in sustainable fields.

Palmer’s original involvement with sustainability began in the 70’s, and there’s a chance he coined the term, “zero waste.” But he also claims that you should turn organic leftovers into sludge and then spread it around the neighborhood. However, he makes some strong points about recycling, and his passion may be intense, but it does not appear (entirely) misinformed.

The most relevant question Paul asks is, which businesses are benefitting the most from the current waste stream? As an example, one might wonder, why do the garbage companies control recycling? Any time large corporations or special interest groups become involved in an issue, there is always the possibility of conflicts of interest arising, and this is no different. From garbage companies to the paper and forestry industries to big plastic (yup, just like big tobacco), there are a lot of interested entities, and we consumers should stay wary of their motives. But conflicting opinions should not be a barrier to entry for the average citizen, and it should certainly not feel insurmountable. We do not need to tumble giant walls; we need only to chip at them until there are cracks.

The Important Bits

There’s a ton of information on the actual, actionable steps you can take to start reducing your waste today, and it can all get a little overwhelming. So, here are a few key points to keep in mind as you face this new challenge:

  • Don’t beat yourself up. Maybe you reduced your trash volume by half a bag; perhaps you only managed to keep one piece of garbage out of the landfill. As long as you are trying, you will make progress, it will get easier, and you will start to see a real difference over time. If you beat yourself up about your failures, you’re much more likely to give up entirely.
  • Find the methods that work for you, based on where and how you live. If you have a yard and can start a compost pile, great. If your community offers municipal composting, sign up, and then remain diligent about sorting your waste. If you can manage a mini compost system (vermiculture is a great option) from your apartment or tiny home, that is also very good. If none of these options are viable, then focus on reducing the packaging you buy. Only, please don’t make a sludge out of your leftovers and dump it randomly around your community. 17th century England called, and they want their sewer system back.
  • Start small and don’t worry about investing in all of the accessories right away. Saving glass jars, plastic containers, and bags will make a visible impact since they can all be reused many times for weekly groceries or trips to the local farmer’s market. As you adjust to your new shopping habits, you can add more specific products one at a time.

Further Research

PAREdown is a Canadian site and my favorite zero waste resource so far. The blog is well written, there is a ton of useful information, and they have a zero waste store so that it’s easy to become familiar with the array of products available for the lifestyle.

Litterless, by the Chicago-based Celia, is well written and informed, with some compelling extras for those local to the windy city, and beautiful photos and posts for the rest of us.

Zero Waste USA and Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) are for those with time to dive deeply into the science and debate of the zero waste movement.  They probably haven’t updated the websites since 2001, but the information found there is directing the crusade.

Share your favorite zero waste tips in our comments section, or reach out with further questions anytime. And set your alarm for early tomorrow, because you’re about to begin a long, but rewarding, journey.

About the author

Julia Eden

With a passion born in rivers, Julia Eden has spent the last decade crusading for the environment. Educated in fashion design and English Literature, and skilled in dance, she is dedicated to finding the information needed to live a new and better life. While not quite a Luddite, she would very much like to live in a cave with a wolf and an internet connection.

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