There’s no way around it. From plastic in our oceans to global climate change, unsustainable demand on our planet’s resources is starting to leave its mark. As more people become aware of the need for change, various green lifestyle trends have risen to the forefront of the conservation conversation.
When going green hit the mainstream, we learned that not all environmentally conscious trends are created equal. With green fads that promote conspicuous consumption and greenwashed products that make ethical shopping harder, it’s important to make sure we’re investing our time, money, and effort where it matters.
One philosophy that has gained a huge following is the zero waste movement. At the individual level, the definition of zero waste is sending as little garbage to a landfill or incinerator as possible. In the bigger picture, a zero waste home or community’s goal is to change the way people view trash to fit nature’s no-waste policy.
The Dirt on Linear Economies: Mending a Messy Situation with Zero Waste Living
Trash is a human invention. In nature, one system absorbs and uses the by-products of another. Water that falls as rain evaporates back into the air. Animal remains go on to fertilize the plants that other animals eat. This circular system uses and reuses resources in a cycle that produces zero waste.
Accepting the concept of waste results in a linear economy instead of a circular one. Societies mine raw materials, process them into products, throw those products away, and then mine more resources to feed demand. The problems with a linear system are obvious: what happens when our resources are limited? And, what do we do with all that waste?
Where Does Trash Go?
Americans tend to be disconnected from their garbage, which can make zero waste living a hard sell. Most of us don’t have to look at our trash after it’s out of the house, so it’s easy to kick it (or roll it) to the curb and forget about it. This might explain why Americans lead the world in wastefulness, creating up to 250 million tons of garbage each year, or about 4.4 pounds per person per day.
There are three waste management options for trash: recycling, landfill, or incineration. Recycling is by far the best method, but it’s not perfect. Only a small amount of collected items is eligible for recycling because of moisture, food, or chemical residues. Plastic also presents a problem. Since we can’t truly recycle plastic, we downcycle it into poorer forms until It ends up in the dump.
Landfills and incineration plants offer an even worse deal for the planet. Because landfills often cover their waste, even biodegradable items can’t break down in the open air. Their decay then produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Incineration is flawed, too. Burning trash at waste-to-energy plants is a relatively inefficient way to create energy, and it also releases pollutants.
How Sustainable Lifestyles like Zero Waste Can Help
Zero waste living helps individuals and communities think about their household trash, where it goes, and its effect on our ecosystems. By paying attention to what we throw away, we can learn to get more out of what we already have and build ethical, eco-friendly habits.
The best way to start a zero waste journey is to take a trash audit. Note everything that goes in the garbage for a week and look for patterns. Are plastic dinnerware, beauty product bottles, or takeout containers repeat offenders? Pinpoint the areas where you waste the most and consider what lifestyle changes you can make that will have the biggest impact.
Principles of a Zero Waste Home
The 5 Rs of zero waste are a good beginner’s guide to cutting down on trash in many aspects of life. Simply follow the steps, here listed in order of importance, to rethink and revise your choices for a healthier earth:
Start by saying no to things you don’t need, such as plastic bags at the supermarket, straws in drinks, or promotional freebies like pens and stress balls. Refusing also means checking for harmful chemicals or excessive packaging before you buy. Instead, choose eco-conscious alternatives like natural cleaners, bulk foods, and other zero waste products.
Limit your future needs by developing waste-free habits. Cook at home more often, grow your own herbs, or sign up for electronic bills. Not all of our waste ends up in the family trash can, either. Buying energy-saving bulbs, unplugging appliances when not in use, and riding a bike when possible also conserve resources. Even these small adjustments can have a big impact on waste output over time.
Try to reuse what you have instead of buying something new. For example, find creative ways to reinvent leftovers rather than cooking another meal. Swap clothes with a friend when you’re craving new outfits, or repair rather than replace furniture. For necessities, pick reusable zero waste products, such as washable cloth towels instead of disposable paper ones.
Recycling is better than sending trash to a landfill, so it’s still an option for items you can’t eliminate, avoid, or reuse. Do some research into recycling services in your area to find out which items you can and can’t recycle. Rinsing and drying recyclables before sticking them in the bin can also help them make the cut.
Buying just the amount of food you need is always the goal, but life sometimes leaves you with leftovers. Instead of sending old food to a landfill, let it break down naturally via composting. There are a variety of easy indoor and outdoor composting methods perfect for a big backyard or a cupboard under the sink
Are Zero Waste Products and Programs Worth the Hype?
The zero waste movement is not without its criticisms. Access to waste-reducing community programs and zero waste shopping choices is uneven. People in large cities or high-income areas have an easier time maintaining sustainable lifestyles across the board, including zero waste. Then there’s also the underlying doubt that plagues all green movements: does zero waste make a difference?
One person, business, or community can’t save the planet alone, but that’s where trends do their best work. The power of social movements and ideas lies in their ability to unite people around one goal. As multinational companies adopt zero waste policies and megacities like Los Angeles commit to zero waste programs, an environmentally responsible future seems that much closer.