GETTING STARTED WITH ZERO WASTE
What is zero waste?
Zero waste is an attempt to reduce the amount of trash and recycling we make through composting, choosing reusable products over single-use disposables, choosing to buy fewer packaged products, and rethinking our approach to what we buy and use.
Why is zero waste important?
Let's start with landfills: landfills are anaerobic, meaning they lack oxygen, which is necessary for organic matter to break down in a healthy way. In the anaerobic environment of a landfill, decomposing matter emits more methane, a greenhouse gas that’s much more potent than CO2. Keeping materials out of landfills is one critical route to tackling climate change.
Zero waste is also important for another reason. Beyond just keeping items out of landfills, it works to keep unnecessary products out of the production stream entirely, by encourages consumers to move away from single-use products in favor of long-lasting ones that are used again and again.
I like to think about the example of a plastic spoon. If I used a plastic spoon every morning and threw it away at the end of breakfast each day for a month, not only will those 31 plastic spoons sit in the landfill for decades if not centuries, but also that's 31 spoons of plastic material that needed to be mined, shipped to factories, made into forks, and shipped to me. When I reframe it that way, it makes just washing and reusing a metal spoon seem like not that big of an inconvenience. To that spoon, now add paper napkins, plastic water bottles, plastic bags, cling wrap, tissues and every other disposable thing we touch each day. Zero waste has the potential to add up to a big impact.
Why isn't recycling enough?
To use the example of those 31 spoons again, let's say they're recyclable. Well, then, sure, they won't sit in a landfill. But that's only half of the equation, and that doesn't take into account all of the materials and energy needed to produce a single-use, disposable object. Recycling is only part of what we need to create a more sustainable world. As journalist Ed Humes notes in his book Garbology, "Recycling in particular has long served as a balm and a penance - a way of making it okay to waste, the assumption being that if something is recycled, then the energy and materials are not being lost, and our disposable economy of abundance doesn't really seem so wasteful after all."
How important is it to actually get to "zero"?
Here's the thing: I don't think making zero trash is really possible right now, and I'm skeptical of folks who claim they do. Instead, when I talk about zero waste, I'm really talking about low waste, or less waste. Fact is, we live in a culture that relies heavily on disposable products, and it's hard to avoid them completely.
I think the beauty of zero waste is that you can dip your toe in at any level. If all you can do right now is commit to bringing your reusable water bottle with you when you leave the house, start there. When you've mastered that habit, add another. For your household, going zero waste may look like generating one bag of trash per week instead of three. Or, it may look like taking out the trash once a month instead of every week. Going zero waste will look different for every person and every family, and that’s okay!
What changes should I make first?
To find a few initial steps you can take that will have a big impact, consider what your biggest sources of trash and recycling are. Food scraps? Takeout containers? Toiletry bottles? If you start by reducing your trash in the areas where you make the most, seeing the tangible changes each week will help motivate you to keep going. A few ideas: setting up composting at your home, making or purchasing some cotton produce bags to cut down on grocery waste, and working on bringing your own water bottle, cloth napkin, and utensils along with you.