As the 2021 holiday season comes to a close, a time of year where homes in the United States can generate up to 25% more trash than average, it seems like a good time to start talking about zero waste. Recent reports indicate that 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris are currently polluting our oceans and about half of the 254 million annual tons of waste produced in the U.S. is destined to spend the rest of eternity in one of its 2,000 landfills. On the surface, a zero waste approach sounds like a necessary step in the right direction, but what does zero waste actually mean, can it really make a difference, and how can we, as individuals, do anything about it?
According to the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA), zero waste encompasses “responsible production, consumption, reuses, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without [threatening] the environment or human health; […] where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.” The concept addresses the need to take responsibility at all points of a product’s life-cycle: from the providers of goods who make, package and transport to the consumers who buy them. At its core, zero waste requires a cultural shift in how we view trash: from a waste product in need of disposal to a resource capable of becoming something new.
Some of the most impactful voices in the movement have been individuals demonstrating to others how small and gradual changes can make a big difference. You may have already seen some of these zero waste trend-setters showcasing years of their own garbage accumulated in tiny jars on social media. Staring at your own overflowing trash can, it may seem an impossible example to follow, but their work has forged pathways to make a slow and steady transition to zero-waste accessible to anyone.
In 2008, the New York Times dubbed “Priestess of Waste-Free Living” Bea Johnson launched the first major blog on zero waste. She and her San Francisco family of four began their journey two years prior, starting small and eventually, reducing their yearly trash to fit into one quart-sized container.
After touring as a public speaker, she inspired other social-media trendsetters like Lauren Singer to reduce her year’s worth of trash into a single mason jar and start her own blog and Package Free store. Johnson then went on to write the bestseller, Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life and Reducing Your Waste in 2013, since translated into 21 languages and now inspiring homes around the world to follow in her example.
But is the zero waste trend all it’s cracked up to be, or is it just another greenwashed fad? Turns out, going zero waste can make a huge difference against climate change, the one topic that dominated all five of the top concerns in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Initiatives in 2020. A 2006 report estimated that the “way Americans procure, produce, transport, use and dispose of goods and services […] accounts for 50% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.” According to the Zero Waste Plan of Fort Collins, Colorado, their 2030 community goals of 90% diversion would have “the equivalent [effect] of removing emissions of 39,071 cars from [their] roadways each year.”
While the task of a true zero waste community requires the joint efforts of producers and consumers, our actions as individuals can, and have already, forced producers’ hands to share in the responsibility. Already in April of 2020, 74% of consumers reported they would pay more for sustainable packaging, and for 44% of holiday shoppers, sustainable or minimal packaging were among their priorities in gift purchases. As a result of increased awareness, things like straw bans, reusable mug discounts and plastic bag fees are becoming more commonplace. Zero waste grocery stores are popping up around the world in response to growing consumer demand for sustainability, and experts predict conventional retailers will increasingly jump on board.
So, now that we know how much of a difference, we can make by taking our own journeys towards zero waste, where do we start? Jumping right into the lifestyle of zero-waste leaders already advanced in their journeys like Bea Johnson can be overwhelming. Having to make zero waste choices can seem limiting. Replacing cheap plastic reusables can seem too expensive; making everything from scratch, too time consuming. And attempting to go from 4.4 pounds of trash per day to a jar of trash in a year might seem impossible.
But none of the zero waste leaders made their journeys overnight and neither should you. “It’s about making simple swaps and finding a balance that works for you,” says Johnson. “The idea is simply to be more conscious about what you buy and find ways to be more resourceful.” To get started, she recommends using the 3Rs, plus two more of her own, to be followed in this order:
- Turn down what you have no need to keep. Free pens at a hotel; free t-shirts at a conference; fliers on the street corner; receipts at a store: get into the habit of saying no when offered something unnecessary that will only end up becoming trash. Even those free samples at the supermarket, handed to you in tiny plastic cups with miniature plastic forks are contributing to the massive waste problem threatening our planet. Do you really need that extra snack? That extra pen? The straw to drink a glass of orange juice? The more people who refuse, the greater chance we have of reducing the demand for such products.
- Even if we throw out only one pound of waste, we should still consider the other 70 pounds of upstream waste from mining, logging, refining, manufacturing and transportation added to that tally. Shop local to reduce the amount a product has to travel to get to you. Eat more clean fruits and vegetables from the produce section instead of prepackaged foods that have undergone various steps of processing and transport. Shop for products that use little to no packaging. Reduce the quantities you use to wash your clothes, body, hair. According to Jonathan Levy, a Los Angeles-based zero waste project manager, “Most consumer products are designed to dispense or encourage you to use way more than you actually need.” If we must buy products in bottles, they could be lasting us much longer through more efficient rationing.
- Decluttering your home can help focus your zero-waste mentality. No need to go minimalist overnight, but take a serious inventory of what you really need and can live without. Stop holding onto items you never use and find someone else that might make better use of them. Donate old clothes and books getting musty in basement boxes; find a new home for your old furniture or used electronics. Instead of having ten extra of something “just in case,” reduce your belongings to the bare minimum and then, do your best to keep them there.
- If you must buy something new, make it reusable. The easiest switches are reusable shopping bags, water bottles or coffee mugs, but there are other quick swaps that could make a big difference. Buy some cotton produce bags or make your own, maybe from old pillowcases or unused t-shirts. While the average American reportedly uses over 45 pounds of paper towels per year, you can opt for cloth towels instead so more trees can remain as carbon sinks.
- Avoid plastics wherever possible. Despite some plastics being included in most recycling plans, an estimated 91% of them never end up being recycled. Instead of contributing to the 850 million plastic, rubber and nylon toothbrushes taking up landfill space, buy a biodegradable bamboo toothbrush. While you may need to try a few to find which best suits your hair type, Lush’s shampoo bars will last up to 80 washes, two to three times longer than most bottled shampoos.
- While reusable replacements may have a higher price tag at the outset, most people find themselves saving money in the long run with less frequent trips needed to buy replacements.
- Learn about the local Ridgewood recycling policies and make sure you stop to check whenever you buy a new product that its packaging can be recycled. “Only recycle what cannot be refused, reduced, or reused.” says Johnson. “And if you must buy new, choose glass, metal, or cardboard, and avoid plastic.” Shop second-hand when you can, but if you buy new and find yourself with a box, bottle or jar to deal with, make sure that packaging is part of your local recycling program.
- Even better, try to find a new use for those products that you would normally recycle. Use cardboard boxes to organize your sock and underwear drawer. Old jars and containers can replace Tupperware for storing food leftovers. Larger containers can store toys or hardware. Or you can even get really creative and learn how to make an ecobrick dog house or some other fun project that the whole family would enjoy.
For everything else, Rot:
- Start composting! An estimated 20% to 30% of our daily waste comes from food scraps and yard waste that could be composted. While there are products that you could buy to make the process easier, composting requires no special equipment to get started beyond a bin that you can buy or even build yourself. Martha Stewart offers a helpful guide to get you started, and the Washington Post outlines a variety of ways to fit composting in even an urban home.
And Recycle.com has another two Rs worth adding to this list:
- Write down every product that you use in one day: cleaners, body care, make up, clothing, notebooks, pens, etc. Start to reimagine how you could live without those things. Find the easiest items to swap out for more sustainable products and then shop at zero waste or package free stores to replenish them. Identify the items that will be the most difficult for you to ditch, but try not to stress about eliminating them right away. Instead, work on a plan that can eventually help you replace them, too.
- Be supportive of your own journey. Every time you feel discouraged by the amount of trash you produce, remember that you are on a journey to reduce it, and have likely already made great progress towards that goal. Remember that you want to live more sustainably, and you have already taken steps to get there. Remember that every single choice that you make towards going zero waste “is an accomplishment that makes a difference for the environment, something to be proud of.”
The good thing about starting our journey today in 2021 is that so many have already come before us and done the work to make our transition easier. In addition to Bea Johnson’s blog and all the other links included in this article, we can find so many other available resources to support us as we ditch our wasteful ways for more sustainable ones. A simple Google search of “zero waste [product]” can be the difference between contributing towards climate change or taking a stand against it. Making one zero waste goal for yourself for each trip to the supermarket will quickly add up. Soon enough, small goals will turn into a lifestyle and before you know it, your trash will start fitting into smaller containers, too.