Zero Waste: Everything You Need to Know
Do you have questions about what zero waste is, where it comes from, and what the lifestyle is all about? So did I when I was first getting started on my journey. I wanted to find out as much as I possibly could on how to be a better advocate for this sustainable movement. Perhaps you are the same? If so, I put together this easy-to-navigate page here on my website to help fill you in on all the basics.
For more in-depth tips + tricks, be sure to visit the blog.
What is zero waste?
Zero waste is a concept, movement, and lifestyle centered around minimizing waste production and its impact on our natural environment. Zero waste requires a perception shift and a new design structure. The zero-waste approach recognizes materials as valuable resources rather than garbage. Products are created to be reused, repaired or recycled back into nature or the marketplace in a closed-loop system as opposed to the disposal system now in place. The zero-waste approach aims to maximize recycling, reduce manufacturing, and reduce the consumption of resources.
The concept as explained by the Zero Waste International Alliance:
The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.
Zero waste addresses the vast exchange of resources and waste in society by taking a 'whole system' approach.
How to achieve zero-waste
In order to achieve zero waste within businesses, communities, and individual households, there needs to be an action plan and measures set in place to significantly reduce waste and pollution. To accomplish this, residents, businesses, and government agencies have to be motivated to reduce, reuse, and recycle materials. It is necessary to also encourage businesses to manufacture fewer toxic materials and eliminate the misuse of resources so they can fabricate durable items that can be repaired, reused, recycled, and reused.
An action plan for zero waste falls heavily in line with the concept of degrowth. Degrowth is a critique of the growth-at-all-costs global capitalist system, which practices human exploitation and destroys the environment. The same system encourages consumerism, pollution, and excess waste. Currently, 20% of the global population has access to 80% of the world’s natural resources. The goal of degrowth is to transform societies toward environmental equality and achieve fair living standards for all. Similarly, the vision of zero waste is to leverage existing resources in an effective, sustainable, and responsible way to minimize waste, while ensuring accessible resources for all.
What is the zero-waste lifestyle?
A zero-waste lifestyle is one of the most sustainable commitments an individual can make but it is not actually zero-waste. Through this action, there is environmental impact prevented across all areas of the system: the waste going to landfills and incinerators is reduced, the pollution caused by producing, transporting, and disposing of materials is reduced, the human consumption rate is reduced, and the drive for overproduction is minimized.
Many people consider zero waste to be an elusive concept, but actually, there are really simple ways to get started. One of my reasons for starting a blog was to address this knowledge gap; to educate and empower zero waste beginners to take small steps towards a larger collective change. With the adoption of a Zero Waste lifestyle, you can often save money while reducing waste. Simple ways you can start are by reusing what you have, composting, buying second-hand, packing your own lunch, and refusing single-use items.
What are the types of zero waste?
The types of zero waste can be directly matched to the four broad categories of waste produced: industrial, commercial, domestic, and agricultural. Each contributes to the degradation of our environment in different ways, and each can benefit from adopting a zero-waste plan to better reuse, recycle, and reduce resources.
The industrial waste includes soil, gravel, masonry, concrete, oil, solvents, chemicals, glass, fabric, scrap lumber, or even food scraps from restaurants. Depending on the type, it can be solid, semi-solid, or liquid.
Taking steps to reduce waste is not just about environmentally friendly practices — it's also a cost-saving tactic. Generally, for manufacturers, the more waste they produce, the more waste they need to pay waste management fees to dispose of it. Though some large companies have begun undertaking waste reduction initiatives, the majority of the industry. Businesses of any size can experience positive effects when they reduce their waste generation.
In order to integrate a zero-waste system, industrial waste producers must incorporate the basic building blocks of any sustainability design: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Businesses also need to make smarter decisions about the materials they use in your facility prior to using them in their processes. Engaging in Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) can reduce waste generation and keep it from going to landfills.
Commercial waste is made up of all materials disposed of when conducting business on its premises. Depending on the industry, this waste could look very different. From office supplies, paper, and electronic waste in the corporate industry, to cardboard boxes, defective merchandise, and spoiled food within the retail industry. Construction, entertainment, and pharmaceutical waste are also commonly contributing to this waste category.
Similar to industrial waste, there are large cost-saving benefits to adopting a zero-waste plan. While there are laws surrounding the proper disposal of waste, these policies are limited and offer little to no large-scale punishment for harmful practices such as illegal dumping and energy/air pollutants. Both commercial and industrial waste are huge contributors to our current climate crisis. There needs to be a clear policy implemented in order to disrupt the current malpractice of waste disposal amongst capital gain businesses.
This category refers to waste that is generated from the normal course of daily living and then transported to a dumpsite or collected by a municipal waste collection program. Everything from household trash to product waste, to food waste, and single-use plastics.
At home, zero waste can be achieved through lifestyle adjustments that reduce consumption, reuse and repurpose existing goods, and choosing to recycle correctly. In my life choices and writing here at Zero Waste Creative, I put my focus on leading a zero-waste lifestyle by example and putting the environment above wasteful conveniences.
To learn more read: Living with Less: A Beginner's Guide to Zero-Waste Living
There are several types of agricultural waste. A few examples include sewage from farms, hog houses and slaughterhouses, manure from farms and poultry houses; harvest wastes; pesticide runoff; salt drained from fields; and fertilizer runoff from fields.
A way that we can impact the agricultural waste problem is to consider our own consumption habits. From a consumer’s standpoint, the biggest impact we can have on agricultural waste is to choose to eat plant-based or mostly plant-based.
For farmers looking to achieve a reduced waste capacity, planned agriculture can allow them a way to integrate zero waste infrastructure into their business practices. Some common ways to combat the waste in fields include crop rotation, contour plowing for better water use, mulching to minimize the need for pesticides, planting perennial crops, and installing riparian buffers which separate field crops from nearby streams. The farmer can also develop and implement nutrient management plans to reduce excess use of nutrients and reduce the risk of nutrient pollution.
What is the importance of zero waste?
Zero waste is important because it challenges the systems we have in place that favour convenience and profit over the health of us and our planet. The practice of sustainable living in our own lives elevates awareness and furthers conversations around environmental degradation, the climate crisis and social justice that extend far beyond simply discarding fewer items.
It has become increasingly obvious that living a zero-waste lifestyle, and instilling zero waste policies across all industries is beneficial for the environment and humans at the same time.
our waste problem
Waste decomposition in landfills directly contributes to our climate crisis and causes pollution that continues to harm wildlife and human health. Carbon dioxide emitted from landfills accelerates climate change in addition to greenhouse gas emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency promotes zero-waste living as a way of reducing landfill waste, as well as reducing climate changes. They point out that source reduction and composting are the two main strategies for minimizing landfill impact. Both of these practices are utilized by zero-waste design.
Source reduction, also called waste reduction or resource conservation, is a way of designing products that minimize the use of natural materials and prevent waste from getting thrown away and creating toxic pollution.
Compost is made up of organic waste, which is placed under conditions designed to help decomposition. When organic matter is properly disposed of in this way, it results in natural fertilization that is no longer detrimental to the planet. Proper implementation of composting systems can significantly reduce the number of emissions produced from landfills.
The Goal of zero-waste
The goal of zero waste is not just to prevent waste from going to landfills but to improve every stage of extraction, consumption, and waste management so that no resources are wasted anywhere along the way. Systematically, this concept challenges the habits and policies in place worldwide.
It could be argued that policymakers have become complacent and stagnant in their current ways. The systems in place are not reflective of the time we live in or the state of our planet. The current structure is built on profitable gains and inequality as opposed to the wellbeing of all humans and the planet. Our current climate crisis is a direct result of our inaction and continued dismissal of the error in the current design. Zero waste is an important concept to integrate into future policy and design in order to ensure the future health of humanity.
This can be achieved by a collective movement towards more sustainable action, as well as the integration of environmental policy, technology, and business processes to minimize waste. While individuals might feel too small to hold true power when it comes to change, this is not the case.
The more individuals who are actively working to live consciously and with zero waste intention, the more necessary changes in business and policy will be. It is our responsibility to be the change we would like to see for the future of our planet. It isn’t our job to do things perfectly, but the more who are trying, the bigger impact we can have.
What are the benefits of zero waste?
Among the numerous benefits of zero waste, we find that zero-waste is beneficial for our environment, but the conservation of resources has a waterfall effect to help all humankind. A zero-waste approach is choosing the most responsible course of action for the bigger picture of local communities, our health, wildlife, and the rights of workers.
Here are 9 benefits of zero waste:
Stronger local energy and food supply
Putting less dependency on raw materials, utilizing resources more efficiently, and producing compost and biogas (and heating from renewable resources) locally can strengthen supply. By ensuring edible surplus food is recovered and shared through food banks and charities, a zero-waste policy also aids in alleviating food poverty and hunger.
Lower waste management cost
Recycling, recovery, and treatment reduce the cost and maintenance demands on landfills and waste disposal sites by reducing waste generation, and increasing diversion. In difficult economic times, many municipalities spend a large portion of their budgets on finding new locations that will accept their garbage as landfill space becomes scarcer and opposition to incinerators grows. By better segmenting collections, quality resources can be recovered more efficiently and are reutilized or reused again.
'Shared economy' initiatives, like loaning libraries for tools and equipment, and community composting initiatives bring communities together. These connections can unite neighbourhoods and encourage more individuals to partake in supporting the local economy as opposed to larger retailers.
Fewer disposal expenses
A proactive waste management program eliminates waste at the source rather than delaying inevitable waste streams. It is becoming increasingly expensive to dispose of waste. It’s more economical to install systems that eliminate waste than to pay for garbage and recycling removal services.
Business practices that are sustainable enhance efficiency, which reduces costs. Energy costs can be reduced by reducing waste, and energy costs can be lowered by using renewable energy sources. It is estimated that Unilever saved more than $225 million as a result of zero waste. In addition, several jobs were created by the changes made by the company.
Promote a healthier work environment
It is possible to have a wider impact on a work environment and attract more conscious employees by promoting green change. Employees who are healthier at work will also be happier. An easy place to start might be by reusing organic waste in the kitchen trash; or by switching out harmful industrial cleaning products for more environmentally friendly ones.
Bring awareness to corporate inaction
To advocate for change, it's best to lead by example. By sharing with your family and community why you are going zero waste and the reasons behind your choice, we can better spread awareness about global issues. As more and more individuals adopt a zero-waste lifestyle, the more effectively we can communicate to large companies that we will not ignore their role in climate change.
Connect with nature
Choosing to focus your life around reducing your waste for the sake of the planet makes you realize how much you value nature. Just like when you first start dating someone, you begin to appreciate them once you spend time and effort getting to know them and what matters to them. The best way to develop an appreciation for the natural beauty in your surroundings is to take the time to learn what is important to the ecosystems of our planet and why your choices matter.
A perspective shift
Being more aware will change your relationship to your environment, people in your life, and the world as you know it today. When you realize how many social systems affect our beautiful home with corruption, damage, and a negative impact, it can be jarring at first. In time, you will gain greater awareness of what you can control and what you cannot. You can stand for or against what is important to you, but also what really matters.
Read 13 more benefits of the zero waste lifestyle by visiting my blog post here: Benefits of Green Living and the Zero Waste Lifestyle
What are the disadvantages of zero-waste?
Despite all the wonderful advantages of zero waste, there are some inevitable challenges to consider as well. All good things come at a cost, whether it be convenience, expense, stress, or a combination of all.
Here are six disadvantages to the zero-waste lifestyle:
Lack of Convenience
Depending on where you live, living zero waste can be very inconvenient. Without access to refill stores, package-free products, and bulk food alternatives, it can be very hard to implement low waste practices.
High Upfront Costs
Many products that help support the long-term savings of the lifestyle (reusables, containers, high-quality goods, etc) come at a higher cost. Even though most of these practical items will help save money in the long run, this initial cost can be a huge setback for those with limited finances.
Takes time and energy
Maintaining zero waste practices takes planning and processes, both of which add to the time required in certain processes. It takes extra effort, thought, and time to reduce waste when you are cooking, for instance. Instead of aimlessly throwing away packaging and food scraps — you need to thoughtfully minimize trash, compost scraps, properly clean and remove labels for recycling, and ensure all leftover ingredients are used.
Plastic is Hard to Avoid
Plastic can be found in everything, even our drinking water. It can be quite challenging to avoid when there are no other options. Almost all grocery stores package produce in plastic wrap, bags, or film for sanitary transportation. Zero waste enthusiasts often find themselves without alternatives that can feel limiting.
Involves learning new habbits
Zero waste can be difficult because it challenges our thinking and routines. Instead of consuming passively, zero waste forces individuals to reevaluate their needs and make the most of what they have. Instead of acquiring ‘more stuff’ zero waste encourages true minimalism. This is very different than the wasteful conveniences presented to us daily.
Waste-free claims can be misleading
Similar to greenwashing, the zero waste lifestyle has been known to misleading with marketing practices to encourage unethical spending. A product could be labelled as ‘zero waste’, but be manufactured, shipped, and packaged in an unsustainable way. This can be frustrating for those trying to be more mindful of their choices and inhibit a greater impact.
What is the cost of zero waste?
It is known that the term zero waste is viewed as a privileged sustainability concept. It is not possible for everyone to reduce consumption - many live with less because it is necessary. Though it might appear that way, and it can be costly, it does not have to be. There is an abundance of expensive zero waste products available on the market, but most (if not all) are unnecessary. Zero waste living’s true cost is in the time and discomfort of changing purchasing habits. The lifestyle in itself doesn’t need to be expensive and in most cases should actually save you money over time.
How to start with the zero-waste lifestyle?
Starting a zero-waste lifestyle is all about shifting focus and out of a known routine to make the most of what you have. You can reduce the cost of zero waste by using the resources you already have, shopping for preloved items, and making a conscious effort to spend your money wisely.
Use existing resources
Simply put, if you stop adding waste to your lifestyle, you will be able to reduce consumption and output. Zero waste begins with making the most of your existing resources. The focus is on functionality, not how it looks; which in of itself might feel like a cost for some. The more you start to see the potential in the items you already possess, the more you will realize how much money you can save by releasing yourself from a consumer-focused mindset.
Buy preloved items
Buying secondhand over new products can reduce costs from the time and energy of manufacturing, transporting, and packaging new ones. It supports the local economy and extends the life of materials significantly more than those that end up in the trash or recycling. Even recycled items requires energy to process. The more individuals chose to purchase second hard, the lesser need for new manufacturing.
You can begin living zero waste by making the simple choice to be more intentional about how you spend your money. This can be done by setting financial goals, avoiding impulse purchasing, and living within your means. Remember that you are casting a vote for the world you want to see every time you choose to support a retailer or company.
How do you live zero waste?
You can live a zero-waste life by choosing to buy without packaging, shop local, reuse what you already have, repurpose things around the house, buy eco-friendly products, grow your own food, advocate for the environment, getting involved in politics, eating less meat, stop throwing stuff away and fly less.
Over the past two years, I have slowly transitioned from a minimalist lifestyle to a zero-waste one as I learned more about my planet and its impact on the environment around me. I try to lead by example by providing my blog readers with practical information and helpful tips on my experience going zero waste.
Check out my latest lifestyle and sustainability posts below:
What are zero waste resources?
Here’s a list of resources to help get you started on your zero waste journey:
Zero Waste Books - check out my blog post highlighting my 10 favourite sustainable, zero waste, and eco-conscious books
Zero Waste Swaps - I have put together a list over over 50 zero waste swaps you can make throughout your home and lifestyle here to help get you started
Zero Waste Canadian Non Profits & Waste Municipalities - Zero Waste Canada, Gibsons Recycling Depot, HSR Recycling, Recycling Council of British Columbia, Recycling Council of Ontario, PEI Island Waste Management Corporation, Recycling Council of Alberta, Recycle Manitoba, Divert NS
Provincial Environment Networks - Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon Territory, Northwest Territories, Nunavut
What are the principles of the zero waste movement?
The zero-waste movement encompasses five main principles also known as the 5Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, and Recycle. Each “R” plays a role in minimizing waste, helping the environment, and promoting a circular economy. Read more about the zero waste movement on this web page.
Here’s a bit more of an explanation on they work together to form the principles of the movement.
The easiest way to lessen your waste consumption is to avoid acquiring it in the first place. All you need to do to get started refusing is to be comfortable saying no to things you don’t need and change your purchasing habits to match your new priorities. This doesn’t just go for physical waste; chemical waste from plastic and toxins in products end up leaching into our water and airways too. Refusing to spend your hard-earned money on companies that are unethical or unsustainable is letting businesses know that you expect better. Don’t forget that you vote with your dollar.
Some of the easiest ways to refuse waste in your life:
Say no to flyers, marketing materials, and useless freebies
Don’t rely on plastic shopping and produce bags (bring your own from home!)
Avoid buying products packaged or wrapped in plastic
Swap chemical and toxin-filled products with green alternatives
Avoid supporting unethical and unsustainable businesses
There are a lot of blogs and books out there that might tell you reduce is all about throwing out what you don’t need. In the grand scheme of things, yes — it is about decreasing the use and ownership of a lot of ‘stuff’; however, what I commonly see left out is the shift in mindset that is necessary in order to maintain this principle. In order to sustain a more minimalist lifestyle and reduce consumption long term, one must reevaluate their priorities to reflect that. Reducing attachment to material possessions will allow you to make purchasing decisions with logic instead of emotion. When reducing, do it properly. Learn how to have a successful yard sale from one of my blog articles- “How to Host a Successful Yard Sale”
An easy way to get started with this is to visit areas of your home and assess needs versus wants. Ask yourself: Do you NEED everything that I have? Are there areas of your life I can reduce new purchases either partially or all together? You might not have all the answers in that moment but try to step back and assess how you feel when you approach each area. Reducing waste in your space will look different to another household because your priorities and needs are going to be different. It is unrealistic to expect everyone to approach the lifestyle in the same way but it is possible for everyone to change their mindset and become a more conscious consumer.
A great way to minimize waste by this principle is to continue to reuse what you have for as long as possible — long after things have lost their new sheen. We live in an area of the world that puts convenience at the forefront. We are tempted daily by easy to dispose of single-use items, low-cost cheaply-made products, and unnecessary commodities.
For instance if you have a reusable water bottle that gets a bit banged up, that doesn’t mean you need to go out and buy a new one. Reuse what you have or make the choice to circulate the item back into the economy instead of throwing things away. Donating items you are finished with to an ethically run second-hand store, give them away, or resell them to someone who will make good use of it.
The principle of reuse also speaks to buying secondhand. Where possible, it is better to buy a gently used item that is already in circulation rather than purchasing it new.
One of the best ways to prevent our landfills from full of waste is to repurpose items you may already have. It is important to remember that this can overlap with the concept of recycling, although in this case, it is regarding the retrofitting or conversion of an item to fit a new purpose. Generally speaking, I believe that if our society was more inclined toward repurposing the things that we have rather than disposing of them, it would reduce the number of retail jobs that are low paying and expand the opportunities for work in the trades.
Repurposing items in our everyday lives requires a bit of ingenuity and creativity, but once you get into the habit of using items in a new way, it will transform the way you view your possessions.
Here are a few items you can easily repurpose at home instead of throwing them away:
Glass jars from sauces, condiments, and candles
Old sheets, towels, and pillowcases
Cardboard boxes and tubes
Plastic takeout containers
Check out my blog post DIY Projects for Green Living That you Can Do at Home for 22 other great ideas to make use of items around your home.
There are certain items that, despite our best efforts, cannot be reused or repurposed. As a last resort, you can recycle these items properly, so the material can be processed and brought into use again.
Though commonly seen as a highly sustainable practice, it is the final principle for a reason. Out of the five, it is in fact the least effective solution. It is important to know that although recycling can extend the life cycle of a material, it is a process that consumes resources and energy.
There are some materials, including plastic, that can only be recycled a limited number of times before their quality deteriorates and they are no longer recyclable. Recycled products can save 30-90% of the energy it takes to make new products and reduce the manufacturing use of trees, oil, natural gas, minerals, and raw materials.
Remember that just because you put something in the recycling bin doesn’t guarantee it will be recycled at all. Oftentimes recycled items that are left dirty, or sorted incorrectly end up in the landfill along with your trash waste. In order to avoid this, be sure to check with your municipal waste management system for sorting tips and best disposal practices.
Learn more about what recycling symbols mean by visiting: Get to know more about the recycling symbols
Is zero waste really possible?
The zero-waste movement aims to solve the problem of waste by directly addressing the problem head-on but more than anything zero waste is aspirational in our current society, economy and culture. Although fast-growing numbers of consumers and producers actually support the philosophy, there remains a fair amount of skepticism among some, who consider it impossible in our modern world.
A 90% reduction has been suggested as having strong effectiveness by Zero Waste International Alliance, though there are no rigid restrictions or guidelines in determining success. The goal of the movement is to redefine the way we look at waste and to use the five principles in tandem with our own needs to further develop and improve the efficiency of our waste management process. Zero waste is about building awareness, taking personal action, and actively standing behind the environmental change.
To accomplish zero waste, we must avoid generating waste where we can and find efficient and effective ways to manage that waste in a way that benefits the future of the planet. By banning wasteful products and packaging, holding producers responsible for their waste, and encouraging the reuse and repair of materials, it is possible to achieve resource recovery and protect from the scarcity looming over us.
What country has zero waste?
Sweden is a champion country that is aiming to become zero waste by adopting a circular economy, encouraging people to repair and adopt a zero-waste lifestyle. The government offers cheaper repairs on used products and unwanted clothes are transformed into new ones. The Swedish Waste Management Association is planning to adopt a circular economy, where products are reused or used for a longer time.
Japan's Kamikatsu is great another example of somewhere in the world that has successfully come close to zero waste. By actively reducing garbage production and maximizing recycling, the town was able to significantly decrease its garbage disposal costs and overall carbon footprint. When citizens realized incinerating their garbage was destructive to the environment, they came together to initiate change. If you are interested on learning more about this special town, check out this mini-doc.
Can zero waste help climate change?
A Zero Waste system can reduce climate emissions substantially by addressing what and how much we buy, what resources went into making it, how long it is designed to last, how much is reused, recycled or composted, and what we discard. It is truly one of the straightforward and easy-to-understand concepts to help contribute change to the current climate crisis.
Here are 3 ways reducing waste can help with climate change:
Zero waste conserves land
One of the major reasons to reduce waste is to conserve space in our landfills and to reduce the need for building additional landfills, which take up valuable land and contain pollutants both inside as well as outside the landfill.
zero waste conserves our natural resources
Recyclable materials and reducing consumption lowers our resource consumption rate, promote healthy ecosystems and protect the natural habitats that support humans and every species on Earth.
zero waste saves energy
In comparison with the creation of new materials, recycling consumes less energy. A large amount of energy is consumed during the manufacturing process of consumer goods, so by limiting the number of new resources required, the process helps save.
Read: Why is it Important to Live Sustainably in 2021 for my personal take on the current climate crisis.
What are the best zero waste organizations in Canada?
There are not a whole lot of zero waste non-profits here in Canada but I have compiled a list of 15 organizations with serious sustainable initiatives that are worth learning more about: