It seems as if our role in environmental problems is finally getting the attention it deserves. Think about it. You have probably been urged to stop using single-use plastics, and you might have heard that micro plastics are ending up in our food chain. Zero waste is one of those environmental movements that is gathering steam, and which you might have heard of by now. So what is the zero waste movement? What is its raison d’être? How would you start a zero-waste lifestyle? What would you need? And where would you go for inspiration and information?

Why change?

I can almost hear you think: “I recycle, isn’t that enough?”. Well, to be honest, no. In the EU, 472 kilos of waste is produced per person per year. In 2016, 47% of this waste was recycled or composted. The other 53% either ends up in landfills or is burned. In the US, the percentage of waste being recycled or biodegraded was 26% in 2015.

Much of our waste is not recycled because it is too expensive to do so, or because it is a mix of materials. This is the case, for example, with drink cartons or paper coffee cups. Moreover, there is a limit to how many times materials can be recycled. Whereas aluminium, metals and glass can be recycled indefinitely, other materials cannot. Paper can usually be recycled only five to seven times, and plastics only once or twice. When plastics and paper has gone through its last recycling process, it is discarded just like all other waste.

When plastics end up in landfills, it can take 450 to 1000 years to decompose. During this process, it leaks hazardous chemicals into the ground. These chemicals affect our waters and the food that is produced on our soil. Our waste also often ends up in oceans and other waters, be it intentionally or not. Contradictory to the belief of many, plastic does not naturally decompose in water. Instead, the force of the waves breaks down the plastic in microplastics. These pieces are then often eaten by sea life, thereby ending up in our food chain. Burning our waste might be a preferred option to putting it in landfills. After all, the generated heat can be used to warm offices and homes. However, this is not a perfect solution either, as this process causes for many hazardous chemicals to be released into the air.

The issue with packaging is not just where it ends up after we are done using it. The production of any kind of material takes resources, such as oil and wood. These resources are extracted from the earth, exported to and processed in factories, and distributed to factories or stores. In this process large quantities of fossil fuel are used and a lot of emissions if produced. Because of the scarcity of fossil fuels and the immediate effects of the build-up of greenhouse gasses, increased use of fuels and emissions is the last thing we need.

In 2018, World Overshoot Day was reached on August 1st. This marks the day at which we have used more resources than our earth can renew in a year. Essentially, because of our use of resources, we need 2 earths per year. As the forecasts show that the world’s population will continue to expand, tackling our use of resources must be one of our priorities.

If you are looking for social reason to join the zero waste movement, consider this. Over the years landfills have been moved closer and closer to urban areas. Generally, they are put close to disadvantaged communities, as these communities are less likely to protest new developments. The devaluation of land and the pollution of soil caused by landfills contributes to inequalities between communities and socioeconomic groups. Moreover, as recycling is often not profitable in the Western world, much of our waste is transported to developing countries. Here, employees have to deal with chemical hazards while barely being paid or protected by laws and regulations. What is more, this non-recyclable waste ends up in nature and oceans, thereby endangering sources of income.

What is the zero waste movement?

The zero waste movement tries to reduce our use of resources and the pollution of the earth by minimising the waste that goes to landfills. In short, the movement is about avoiding making any waste that cannot be recycled or biodegraded. To reduce our waste, we have to move from a linear economy (where resources are deposed in landfills after use) to a circular economy. In a circular economy, the same resources are used indefinitely, and nearly no new resources are needed.

To minimise their waste, zero wasters follow a set of set principles, called the 5 Rs of zero waste.

Refuse: Single use plastics and plastic freebies should always be refused. Want a straw for that drink? No! A bag to carry your groceries? No! A free pen at a convention? The answer should always be no. Most of these items will only be used for a few minutes or just end up at the bottom of your purse. It takes resources to create and transport them, and these products will stick around long after us, increasing our strain on the earth. Of course, there are more environmentally friendly alternatives, such as paper bags and straws. Whereas these are preferential to plastic alternatives, the best option remains to take your own reusables, such as cotton bags, and bamboo cutlery.

Reduce: We should minimise the amounts of packaging and plastic products that we buy and consume. Try to swap products in plastic for products packed in paper, or better yet, products that come without any packaging. You can also decrease your consumption by buying only high-quality products with a long lifespan. These should replace cheaper products of low quality that have to be replaced every so often.

Reuse: Before throwing something out, consider if you can reuse it. Glass pots, for example, can be reused to stock food, as drinking glasses, to freeze soup or sauce, or to organise your kitchen cabinets. Another way to reuse products is by repairing them. Ripped shoes and clothes can often easily be fixed, and in big cities, you can usually find repair shops to repair electrical appliances. By repairing instead of throwing out, you reduce the demand for new products and resources, you prevent waste ending in landfills, and you often save some pennies as well!

Recycle: Properly recycle products that cannot be reused. Sometimes you may need to separate the different materials in a product or package. For example when packaging is made of plastics and paper.

Rot: As the ultimate zero-waster you are no longer buying anything that would end up in a landfill. Therefore, every bit of waste that cannot be recycled should be organic. After you are done using it, it should be left to rot. It is essential that organic waste does not end up in landfills. Here it is covered in waste, where it does not have the oxygen needed to rot. This causes it to stay around for a long time while emitting greenhouse gasses. Therefore, the best way to let your organic waste decay is by creating your own compost pile.

However, the zero waste movement is about more than just how to prevent and responsibly get rid of waste. It is also about changing consumer habits and addressing our eternal desire to buy stuff. After all, our consumption habits account for a huge demand for resources, use of fossil fuels, and transportation. By following the ‘buyarchy of needs’, much of these environmentally unfriendly practices could be avoided. The ‘buyarchy’ helps us handle our need for new stuff by using what we have, borrowing, swapping, thrifting, or making stuff. All these options should be considered before thinking about buying a new product.

How to start

Starting a zero-waste lifestyle does not mean that you have to change your life from one day to another. Zero waste should be seen as a goal or ideal, and every little step you take is a significant accomplishment. After all, every time you drink from your refillable bottle instead of buying a plastic bottle, this means one less bottle ends up in a landfill because of you. It is important to be gentle with yourself and to accept that in changing your habits you will make mistakes. Just try to learn from them and move on!

One thing you definitely should not do is throw out anything that is not zero waste. Its environmental impact was already ‘decided’ the moment you bought it. So now the most environmentally friendly thing to do is finish and use this stuff until it runs out or breaks beyond repair. If you really cannot stand having these products in your house, always consider donating, selling or regifting them before you throw them out.

Of course, zero waste shopping and daily life require some preparations. Here are some easy ways you can prevent creating waste.

  • There is a reason that the first R of zero waste is Refuse. Rethink whether you really need that straw, napkin or bag you are being offered. Often we accept single-use plastics and freebies without thinking about it and throw it away without using it. In case you do need it a napkin, just take the number you need, instead of taking a hand full.
  • Bring a reusable bottle to prevent buying single-use bottles of drinks. Yes! We know you have heard this a hundred times, but it is important! In the US, only 23% of water bottles are recycled, while the rest ends up in landfills, oceans, or is being burned.
  • Bring a reusable bag to prevent having to use plastic bags to bring home your shopping. And while you are at it, try to use a bag made of natural materials. A bag made of synthetic materials cannot be recycled at the end of their life cycle and sheds microplastics that end up in water.
  • While we are talking bags, consider bringing small bags to replace paper and plastic ones during shopping for fruits, vegetables, nuts, and bread. These can be bought online or made from an old sheet. Moreover, those little bags that are used for washing bras and stuff? They can be used for the same cause.
  • If you like to take a coffee on the go every now and then, bring a reusable cup. Many coffee shops even give a small discount when you bring your own mug!
  • As supermarkets are all about convenience, do not expect to shop waste free there. Instead try shopping at local bakeries, butchers, grocery shops and markets. Here you are more likely to receive higher quality products and to have more options for packaging. Moreover, there is a growth in the number of bulk stores, where products are not pre-packed. You just bring your own bags and boxes to put your products in. If you have one of these stores in your neighbourhood, make sure to check it out!
  • If you like having food on the go, consider bringing your own food in a container. Most meals and snacks consumed on the road come in a plastic package, which often cannot properly be recycled. If you cannot remember to pre-pack a meal or withstand the temptation of buying lunch at your favourite lunch place, consider sitting down to eat instead of taking it to go. Moreover, to minimise waste, you can choose food options with more environmentally friendly packaging, bring your own utensils instead of using single-use ones, and refuse napkins and bags.
  • The bathroom is generally an area in which we use many products, and which is the source of much plastic waste. However, it does not need to be. Bottles of shampoo can be swapped with shampoo bars, bottles of body wash with soap, and plastic toothbrushes can be replaced by bamboo alternatives. Toothpaste can be replaced by toothpaste tablets in a glass jar. Moreover, many products that are used in our hygiene routines can be replaced by package free alternatives. Many products can also be home made with just a few household products. As an extra advantage, these do not contain the chemical substances that most commercial products do. Just use google to find recipes for alternatives. Trust me, your skin will thank you!

So what if you have taken these first steps to a zero waste lifestyle and you want to do more? What is next? Now you should take a closer look at your trash to identify patterns. What is the sort of garbage you are throwing away? Are there areas where you can make simple changes to minimise your waste, such as buying different products, or learning to repair items?

The next thing to do is to take upon each area of your life one by one. What products are you using in the bathroom, and how can you replace them with more environmentally friendly options? Now do the same for your grocery shopping, your free time, your garden, and so on. By focusing on one area at the time, you make sure you do not get overwhelmed while still making progress. And again: know that you will make mistakes. Things will go wrong, and you will have days where you do not have the energy to do the zero waste thing. Do not be discouraged when this happens. Every small effort you make is great, and next time you will do better!

Where do I look for inspiration?

As the zero waste lifestyle is becoming more popular, it is also starting to play a role in social media and popular culture. Here are some platforms you can turn to for inspiration and tips.

  • Zero waste home was founded by Bea Johnson. Although the zero waste movement existed before Bea came along, it really took off after she started writing about it in 2009. She published a book and began travelling the world to raise awareness for environmental problems and the zero waste movement. Make sure to check out her blog, social media accounts, and this inspiring Ted-talk.
  • Going Zero Waste: A true zero waste veteran, Kathryn has been committed to and writing about the zero waste lifestyle for a long time. On her blog, you will find dozens of useful articles to get you started and to grow in your own zero waste lifestyle. Want to know how to make personal hygiene products such as toothpaste or face toner? Kathryn knows! Need tips on second-hand clothes shopping? Kathryn has them! Need advice on zero waste cleaning, cooking, or holidays? Turn to Kathryn!
  • Jane and Simple Living is a blog about living a life that is good for the environment and for your health. Jane started the zero waste lifestyle in 2016 and took us with her on her journey to make her life more and more zero waste. Let her inspire you and teach you about applying the zero waste principles in your daily life.
  • Your RV Lifestyle wrote a comprehensive guide for living a zero-waste lifestyle while travelling or living in an RV. But even if you have never even seen an RV from up close, this guide is still super useful because of its advice on how to reduce your waste during your travels or at home. After all, RVs combine the best of both worlds.
  • The Minimalists: Not directly about the zero-waste movement, but certainly very relevant to it. The Minimalists help us address the never-ending pressure to make more money and buy more stuff. They demonstrate how it leads to permanent unhappiness and environmental problems. They teach us to minimise our belongings and only to keep those items that are essential or make us happy. Make sure to check out their documentary on Netflix called ‘The Minimalists’!
  • The Zero Waste International Alliance: Admitted, ZWIA is focused primarily on business, communities and governments that want to work towards zero waste. However, it also includes interesting articles about the zero waste movement and the way forward. Moreover, in case you have pull in a business, community, or government, ZWIA might just help you introduce the principles of zero waste.
  • Ecocycle aims to build zero waste communities in the USA and provides useful information for everyone who wants to know more about the zero waste lifestyle. Moreover, it contributes to school programs teaching about the zero waste movement on schools. it also funds research about zero waste to add to the political discussion.
  • There are many groups on Facebook which you can join to share problems and lessons learned with other like-minded people. Some examples are ‘Begin the Journey 2 Zero-Waste’ and ‘Journey to Zero Waste’. Looking for a group where your native language is used? Just use the Facebook search engine to search on ‘zero waste’, and you are sure to find one.

Looking for more inspiration? Have a look at the Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World and our pick in books that every Idealist should read!