What Is Zero Waste?
Zero Waste is a little word that is going to make big changes in the world.
However, despite its huge potential, you might have only heard of it a few times before and don’t exactly know what it means. Maybe you’ve realized that you’re hearing about this unfamiliar concept more often these days. And there’s a reason behind that that we’ll explore. But first, you’re probably still asking the most pressing question:
What exactly does zero waste mean?
Well, this “topic of the moment” means exactly what it says on the tin: Zero waste. No bells and whistles, no fancy name, there’s no messing about when it comes to something so important
Zero Waste is a waste prevention system that aims to limit the amount of resources used in the creation and packaging of products.
Primarily focused on making every material used in product production either recyclable, reusable, or biodegradable so that as little waste as possible ends up in incinerators, landfills, or in the ocean.
If this seems impossible, it’s not. Just think of the banana. The subtly intricate and flawless design of the banana makes it completely zero waste. Its protective skin is usually thrown into a compost bin where it fully biodegrades. And its fruity body, whether eaten or not, is also completely biodegradable – returning all of its valuable nutrients to the earth’s soil or your body.
“But surely that can’t work for everything?” you might be asking.
Proponents of zero waste are looking to mimic this cycle in more day to day synthetic products like shampoo, toothpaste, makeup brushes, containers, and hairbrushes. Every day there are innovations being made in both the industry and the service sector to make their production cycles more sustainable.
After hearing this, most people would be left wondering what exactly these zero waste products are made out of, and if you’re one of those people, I’m going to answer your question for you.
Zero Waste Materials
How could any material possibly be zero waste? Surely actual zero waste products don’t exist? And zero waste toothbrushes? Hardly!
Well, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised. Especially since you probably have many of them in your home right this minute!
It doesn’t need to be fancy!
Listen, we all know that it’s tempted to fall for the stereotype that zero waste products are completely different from anything else but just look around you.
Does your dog drink from a metal water bowl? If so, that’s zero waste!
Do you have any ceramic cups because they’re also zero waste!
And now to answer the pressing question of zero waste toothbrushes.
Gasp! They exist! Can you believe it? Some of them are even made with a bamboo handle.
But yes, you can even get wooden zero waste toothbrushes and completely biodegradable toothbrushes.
But moving on – zero waste home
Zero waste products are so plentiful and reliable nowadays that the ‘zero waste home’ is becoming a more popular concept by the day.
So, while zero waste might not be at its full potential just quite yet, it’s getting there. And it’s certainly possible to achieve a zero waste world.
Perhaps you’re thinking something along the lines of “Too much, too fast!”
Perhaps this sounds like a bit too much change, a bit alien and unheard of. You wouldn’t be alone in thinking this. Though most people like the idea of zero waste, it can seem like a daunting concept.
We’re much more familiar with the environmentally-oriented words we’ve been hearing for years e.g. eco-friendly, compostable, recyclable, reusable. The thing is, zero waste simply unifies all of these concepts and takes them to the next level. However, despite its good intentions, zero waste is often met with backlash or dismissive comments that aim to hinder its progress.
Fortunately, there are ways of combating this reluctance towards a change to zero waste, and the most powerful method is by far education.
Why do we need zero waste?
In 2012 the World Bank stated that 1.3 billion tonnes of municipal waste was produced by urban populations and estimates that that number will reach 2.2 billion tonnes by 2025 (Global Solid Waste Management Market – Analysis and Forecast).
And that’s insane.
That’s simply far too much and completely unsustainable. If we continue burning through our resources like this, it’s only a matter of time before we run out. And if we run out, future generations will not thank us.
Let’s consider some more shocking facts about waste:
- We bin around 50 million tonnes of electrical waste every year.
- Between 20% and 40% of harvested fruit & veg won’t even make supermarket shelves as it does not meet their high standards.
- About 21.5 million tonnes of perfectly edible food is thrown away every year.
That’s a hard amount to imagine. In fact, it’s probably completely impossible to imagine.
Let’s try to scale it down so we can get a better and more personal grasp on the immensity of these statistics.
To begin with, the average person generates around 4lbs of waste every day.
If you’re thinking “now way, not me!” right now, you wouldn’t be alone.
We live in a largely disposable society and an ever-increasingly materialistic world. We don’t tend to value our belongings and think nothing of buying replacements. So, if you’re not living a zero waste lifestyle, that’s normal.
There are still many people out there who are dedicated to an eco-friendly and sustainable lifestyle and still struggle to reduce the amount of waste they produce. You see, even if you barely throw any material out every day, perhaps you still put your dinners leftovers into the bin or accidentally put a recyclable bottle into the general bin.
What’s more, is that a lot of the products that we use day to day are produced by corporations that either do not have waste management policies in place or have yet to improve their current policies.
The whole line of production matters. From product design to delivery, to our shelves – it all counts, and it all generates waste. And though we don’t intend to, by buying these products we contribute to the amount of waste made.
All in all, the average amount of waste we individually produce is 1.5 tonnes a year – and that’s just solid waste.
This needs to change
There’s 7.6 billion of us on this earth, and that number is growing by the day. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 815 million of those people suffer from starvation and undernourishment, yet 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted globally every year.
Give yourself a moment to take that in.
Even more pessimistic still is that if we consider the rate at which the earth’s population is growing, these numbers are only set to grow.
We are also running out of natural materials and resources and this is largely due to the synthesizing/manipulating of these materials into ‘unmeltable’ or non-reusable products.
Can you imagine if we just never had the ability to make new things again?
Can you picture the negative effects this would have on all vital industries from biopharmaceutical/medical to transportation? If this all sounds familiar, all this talk of looking for renewable sources before complete depletion, there’s a reason for that.
Where have we seen this before?
The push for renewable energy swept the world throughout the 90s and reached its full vigor in the 00s. The movement arose as scientists began to publish research on the harmful effects of burning fossil fuels and people had enough of corporations charging them huge amounts of money while destroying their atmosphere/environment.
Furthermore, scientists and specialists claimed that at the rate the world was burning through its fuel, it wouldn’t have any left for the future. And without fuel, the world stops.
Thanks to many driven activists and inquisitive researchers, policies were introduced in countries all around the world that promised to increase the usage of renewable energy.
Solar panels and wind farms popped up all around the world and restrictions were put on coal/oil usage.
It’s this same revolutionary spirit that we see arising in the zero waste movement today!
As a result of its astonishing ‘recycling revolution,’ Sweden has now almost reached the ‘zero waste’ level and even imports two million tonnes of waste from other European countries. The zero waste lifestyle is now considered the norm in Sweden, with most people belonging to zero waste homes.
Colombia has also taken great strides to introduce the zero waste lifestyle to its citizens. The ‘Ecobot’ is a recycling initiative that promotes the culture of recycling across the country. This nifty little ‘bin-like’ machine accepts plastic bottles and their caps in exchange for coupons, and coins.
Continuing on …
Moreover, depleting our resources is not our only worry. You see, the many animals that share this planet with us are often the ones most harmed from introducing excessive waste to the environment.
I know we don’t mean this to happen, but the plastics we so often tear off our products end up in the streets or landfills. Particularly single-use plastics.
It’s always going to be impossible to keep so many bits of plastic together in one place, especially since they come in all different sizes! And their light-weight nature doesn’t help matters by any means.
It’s even probable that you’ve witnessed this (and be inconvenienced by it) a few times. For example, you know those times when you absentmindedly throw something in the bin and it floats off to the side and peacefully down onto the ground?
What about when you’re emptying bins or tying up bin bags to dispose of? You can consider yourself the luckiest person alive if no little bit of plastic or cardboard has ever escaped.
If you somehow manage to dispose of all your waste without a single runaway piece of plastic, can you be sure it won’t happen somewhere along the waste disposal process? Consider bin men hoisting up bins onto the bin truck before they’re emptied. Or when that very bin truck empties its load into a landfill (or worse yet, the ocean.) Something is bound to escape.
Furthermore, we’re only human. We make mistakes. And our ability to recycle is no exception. Let’s be real, we’re not all experts in recycling … yet, which means that we sometimes but the right thing into the wrong bin.
Where does it go?
No one is under the illusion that all of our waste just somehow disappears into thin air or is zapped out of existence. We know that it ends up in landfill heaps, incinerators and to our great dismay, it sometimes creeps its way into oceans.
But did you know that landfills can be toxic? They choke up our air by producing 20% of the worldwide methane emissions! They aren’t aerated for proper decomposition of natural materials and toxins from cleaners, batteries, makeup, and small electronics leach into the soil and eventually make their way to our oceans or lakes.
Perhaps it’s because landfills are more visible and much more of an eyesore but incinerators usually fly under the radar when it comes to criticism of efficiency, pollution, and lack of eco-friendliness.
Incinerator companies have also done a good job of “greenwashing” their true impact on communities and the environment by implying that so-called ‘waste-to-incineration’ facilities are a convenient alternative to landfills.
There’s also a common misconception that the heat produced from incinerators can be used as renewable energy. This simply isn’t true and only feeds into what the incinerator companies want us all to believe.
The truth is that burning our waste does the same harm to the environment as if it were left to rot in a landfill.
Not only this but burning our waste poses considerable risks to the health and safety of nearby communities who often tend to be of low-income/disadvantaged areas.
And that’s completely unfair.
Also, did you know that incinerators release more toxic pollution than coal-fired power plants per unit energy? So, while we were all rallying against the powerplants and how harmful they were for the atmosphere/environment, we should’ve also been looking closer to home.
So, though we may think we personally play no part in the amassing of waste, the simple truth is that we do. We are largely underestimating our ability to harm the environment, and it’s this misconception that prevents improvement.
However, we’ve been given a second chance to right our wrongs, and that chance comes in the shape of zero waste. And luckily for us, it’s getting easier to be zero waste by the day.
But, before you take off on any journey, it’s always good to know your destination. Better, yet is to have an in-depth knowledge of where you’re going.
So, what exactly is the goal of zero waste?
Zero waste can be described by many terms: eco-friendly, sustainable, environmentally conscious and the goal associated with all of these terms tend to be a healthier environment and a happier world.
This is first and foremost what zero waste aims to achieve – a greener and more environmentally friendly world.
However, zero waste tends to go a bit further. Zero waste is looking forward to a world where no waste is produced.
Here are just a few of the many goals zero waste hopes to achieve:
- 9% of plastics that are thrown out are recycled. The goal of zero waste would be to make 100% of plastics recyclable.
- Sustainable product production and means of distributions for businesses
- Aims to redesign resource lifecycles so that all products are reusable and recyclable.
- Completely remove plastics and other synthetic materials from our waterways.
- Drastically reduce littering frequency
- Raise awareness of the harmful effects that waste has on every corner of our world’s environment.
- Redistribute leftover or waste food that’s still perfectly edible.
Essentially, the overall aim of zero waste is to write trash out of existence and to work towards a greener world for all.
Benefits of zero waste on industry
It can seem as though the environment and corporations don’t get along, with many business owners often associating eco-friendly measures with lower profits.
But zero waste can change all that.
It turns out that zero waste isn’t just an environmentalist’s dream, but also a business priority.
You see, we tend to associate being eco-friendly with making sacrifices. And if we think along those lines, it’s difficult to see why any business would consider going zero waste.
But let’s go a little deeper into the logistics of it, shall we? To begin with:
Here are some of the unexpected upsides for a company switching to a zero waste policy
- Reduced production costs
- Faster production
- Increased sustainability
- Reselling of recyclables
- Better customer and employee satisfaction
Seeing all of these valuable benefits, it seems like a complete no-brainer for a company to become zero waste!
Companies give themselves the chance to enter into the circular economy, of repurposing their recycled materials to be sold for a profit.
The recycling industry is a large part of the circular economy as they repurpose most of our collected recyclables into products that we’ll buy off the shelves again!
To top it all off studies have shown that 24% of customers care deeply about the recycling policies of the businesses they shop at.
So, what’s standing in their way?
It’s not exactly always corporation greed like we might expect, sometimes the answer is a little simpler.
As of now, becoming zero waste isn’t exactly a smooth transition, especially if your business wasn’t founded on its principles.
To become zero waste, a company must delve deep into all of its domains, branches, activities, and processes with the aim of rooting out any wasteful practices. This can take months, sometimes years to complete!
Then the company must effectively craft a zero waste system by redesigning many vital processes. Think product design, logistics, supply chain decisions, product design, and recycling considerations. These are all processes that a company must commit to either making subtle changes or drastic upheavals.
Not to mention that the company often has to change the very heart of its business, meaning that customers can be lost along the way.
The company also needs to succeed in getting all of its employees on board with their ‘mission zero’ goals, and this can require many hours of communication, writing e-mails, sending updates, and keeping a steady stream of information on environmentally friendly practices running through the business.
So, though the vast majority of businesses already have green policies in place, many have not yet made the leap to zero waste.
Some companies have taken this challenge upon themselves, becoming the trailblazers and pioneers in a much-unexplored world. Even better is that the results these companies are publishing show that the pros of going zero waste aren’t just estimations.
The benefits are real
And just one of the companies that are reaping these bountiful benefits is the lucrative car-manufacturing company, Subaru.
Subaru reuses and recycles everything. In fact, not a single Subaru manufacturing plant has sent any waste to local landfills in over 12 years. How impressive is that?!
Perhaps most encouraging of all is where Subaru’s inspiration for becoming a zero waste company came from – its employees. And Subaru can thank them for their initiative as they now save up to $1 million to $ 2 million annually – not a number to be scoffed at!
But what’s about companies we see and use every day? It’s easy to put the blame and focus on car companies as they’re well-known for their contribution to harmful emissions and waste production, but what if we looked elsewhere?
And as I mentioned before, we bin almost 50 million tonnes of electrical waste every year! Microsoft is looking to put a stop for that, and being the leading software, and hardware technology producer, it’s in a good place to do so.
Microsoft as of 2020 is almost a 100% zero waste corporation.
Benefits of zero waste on life
Scientists have found plastic fragments in literally hundreds of species, including 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species, and 43% of all marine mammal species.
Ingesting these materials can prove fatal for an animal, either choking them or making them so ill that they cannot take care of themselves. The toxic chemicals found in the waste can also harm animals and be spread around the food chain meaning that no animal is safe.
In a zero waste world, there would be no zero waste in any animal’s habitat. Both the humans and other species could thrive once again in their respective ecosystems.
Perhaps the most amazing benefit of zero waste on life is that animals such as sea turtles, seals, whales, and many species of fish, is that they could no longer face the threat of extinction.
As for humans
Not only do we get to enjoy a clean conscious, but we also get to benefit in a number of other fantastic ways from living a zero waste lifestyle:
- Decreased cost of living
- Give back to the community (food waste/repurposed goods)
- Better air quality
- Reduces social/income inequality
- Creates jobs (in recycling and elsewhere such as repair shops, tailoring, and reuse businesses.)
Think about it, we spend hundreds if not thousands every year paying bin services and taxes for waste disposal services. It’s not that these things are necessarily bad, they keep the world clean after all, it’s just that we’d need less of these services in a zero-waste world.
And last but by no means least – why zero waste is important for the planet.
It would be almost impossible to list off the innumerable benefits of zero waste for the planet. You’d be reading for the next few days and I’d never stop writing! But I’ll try my best to keep it short, sweet, and informative!
- Reduces carbon dioxide emissions
- Stores carbon in the soil for a more fertile earth
- Frees air of harmful toxins & greenhouse gases
- Reverses global warming
- Encourages trees, plants, and flowers to grow
- Cleans the oceans of plastics, Styrofoam, and other harmful materials.
Won’t this decrease the quality of my products or lifestyle?
The short and fast answer to this question is no. The longer answer is that zero waste products are held up to high standards and must pass certain tests before they can be sold. Just from reading zero waste blogs or watching zero waste vlogs, you’ll see up-close and in-depth reviews about almost any zero waste product you can find. Finding a local zero waste shops are also a good bet if you’re not sure about shopping for zero waste products online yet.
There are loyal adherents of the zero waste/eco-friendly lifestyle that only produce around a jar of waste every single year. It’d be ridiculous to expect us all to immediately be able to do the same, but it is the standard that we should always be aiming for.
To find more inspiration, these strict zero waste proponents can usually be found writing on their zero waste blogs or posting zero waste vlogs so why not go give them a look?
And to finish …
I hope this article has offered you valuable insights into what it means to be zero waste and what it will mean for the world. There is so much left to do and you could be just the right person to start doing it! So, why not keep doing your research and joining the zero waste movement today? You can get started by heading over to my article on “how to start zero waste lifestyle” where I go into detail on how best to get started on your zero waste journey.