Causes Environment

Dissecting The Zero Waste Myth: A Beginner’s Guide

Written by Julia Eden

I know, I know…zero waste – it’s obvious, right? Well maybe not. If you think it’s just about not throwing stuff away, then get ready for 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% of all MSW (Municipal Solid Waste, or trash). However, the other 49% 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 the other half of our trash to deal with.

So while zero waste is about eliminating waste at home, it’s actually much more important to address the entire lifecycle of the product — reducing waste from R&D, manufacturing, and purchase point. In this way, we don’t need everyone to become more conscious, we need the companies to take responsibility for the entirety of production.

A Group, Divided

But here’s where it gets really interesting because even though there are the 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. But, we are still 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, and most restaurants are grateful when you save them a container for your food, rather than using one of their disposable ones. The more we refuse garbage at point of sale, the more companies will have to react by offering better solutions. 

And the obvious next step in commercial competition is reducing waste throughout the production stream, meaning 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

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. Basically, the zero waste stream looks like this:

  • Refuse: Just say no to trash at 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, basically only glass and aluminum can be recycled, everything else can just be…
  • Downcycle: It may be called recycling, but materials like plastic have finite life cycles, and with each turn through the system, the material degrades.
  • Landfill or Incineration: Landfills you know, 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 great, and we should totes make that the endpoint. Faction #3 thinks recycling is a diversion tactic perpetrated by big business to distract us from the truly necessary solutions, and I think they’re all actually, mostly, in agreement.

You’ll notice I separated recycling from downcycling. Downcycling is a fairly new term, and so it’s not really in general use yet. However, I think we can all agree that, even though recycling glass and aluminum require water and energy, it takes much less to recycle them than make new. And since those materials can be infinitely recycled, they never have to end up contaminating our land and waterways.

Plastic, however, with its limited recycling capabilities but infinite life span, has only two options: it should be used by humans until the end of time, constantly mending what breaks, and never being thrown away; or it ends up forming a new country of its own 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 are decisions you’ll have to make for yourself, but I suspect if we apply the standard metric of, “does this make things worse for planet, people, 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?

So I feel a little conflicted about this, but I think it’s worth addressing. There’s 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 very good ideas. He’s educated (a Ph.D. from Yale seems legit enough to me), he has run successful businesses, and he’s been at it for a long time. 

His original involvement with the movement started in the 70’s, and there’s a chance he coined the term, “zero waste.” But he also posted that you should turn organic leftovers into sludge and spread it around the neighborhood. And that’s not even the craziest advice of his I’ve found. However, he makes a very good point about recycling, and his passion may be crazy, but it does not seem misinformed.

The most important question Paul asks is, which businesses are benefitting most from the current waste stream? As an example, one might wonder, why is recycling controlled by the garbage companies? 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, like big tobacco), there are a lot of interested entities and we absolutely should be wary of that. But it should not be a barrier to entry for the average citizen, and it should not feel insurmountable. We do not have to tumble giant walls; we need only to chip at them until there are cracks.

The Important Bits

There’s certainly 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, great. If your community offers municipal composting, sign up. If you can manage a mini compost system from your apartment or tiny home, that’s also very good. If none of these are options for you, then simply focus more on alternative solutions like buying less food when shopping (to reduce food wastage), hooking up with a community garden (which might be happy for your compost fodder), or just be okay with throwing it away when you can’t reduce the amount any further. Just 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. Saving glass jars, plastic containers, and bags, and paper bags and cardboard boxes can all be reused many times for the weekly groceries or trips to the local farmer’s market. As you adjust to your new shopping habits, you can add storage and bulk buying products one at a time, as you find them necessary.

Further Research

PAREdown is a Canadian site and is 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 Celia who’s based out of Chicago, is well written and informed, with some interesting 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 really dive into the science and debate of the zero waste movement. The sites look like they haven’t been updated since 2001, but the information found there is informing the direction of the movement.

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, long 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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