I consider myself pretty green. I am a vegetarian and grow much of what I eat in my home garden. What my wife and I don’t eat we compost, which gets cycled back into the garden. We’re a one-car family, which works for me as I bike to work every day. I pay attention to the products I buy, choosing eco-friendly and nontoxic cleaning materials whenever possible. I also have made a conscious effort to reduce my waste, from buying a sturdy, refillable water bottle to canvas tote bags for groceries. Which all leads me to think, if anyone could create no trash for a whole week, it would be me. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there’s a lot more to zero waste than being green.
What Is Zero Waste?
Let’s start with the basics: What does zero waste really mean? On its face it seems simple: adherents should commit to making no waste during the course of their day. But in practice, there’s a lot more nuance.
- San Francisco, which aims to be “zero waste” by 2020, defines it as sending nothing to landfills or incinerators.
- Maryland pulls its definition from the Zero Waste International Alliance, calling it “a set of principles by which ‘all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.’
- The GrassRoots Recycling Network called it a “21st century philosophy”—a radical new way of living that changes priorities and our relationship to the resources we use.
To truly capture the spirit of zero waste, you have to go beyond not throwing things in the garbage can. After all, disposable and non-recyclable items you buy today are tomorrow’s trash.
But incorporating some of these broader ideals to produce zero trash is a lot harder than you’d think.
Meeting these standards requires navigating a surprising number of challenges simply doing the everyday things that make life easier, more convenient, more comfortable or more normal. Creating waste is baked into Americans’ lives, and it’s going to take behavior and habit change on a grand scale to get to a zero waste world.
Prepare to Make Compromises (and Know When Not to)
From the start, everyone will have to make a few exceptions for the things they already own and the constraints of their life. For instance, I work for an Internet-based company, so even though not all parts of a computer can be recycled, I can’t stop using one tomorrow. I also have a vinyl garden hose. While I could buy a watering can made of a recyclable material, in many ways that violates the principle of reducing resource consumption. If I were to start a no-trash challenge tomorrow, I’d already be hobbled by necessary compromises.
In the scheme of things, a computer and a garden hose aren’t a huge deal. But, I wondered how easy it could be for others who didn’t have a predisposition to green living or a lifestyle conducive to reducing waste.
- If I was a new parent, would I have the time to use only cloth diapers and also bike to work?
- If I was diabetic and experiencing a drop in blood sugar while out, would I be able to find something to eat that didn’t come with some kind of packaging?
Prepare to Say No
Cutting out waste can mean having to turn down a lot of things. Some are pretty obvious, like single-serving snacks and sodas. But dig a little deeper, and you find there are all sorts of waste-creating things that you’d have to say no to. You can only go out to eat at restaurants that use cloth tablecloths and napkins, but what happens if you still have food left at the end of the meal and their takeout containers are styrofoam? Is it more wasteful to use a product that would sit in a landfill or to waste perfectly good food? Both violate the tenets of zero waste. You could bring Tupperware from home—but what if you forget? You may end up having to stuff yourself to the gills to avoid violating your tenets.
Though food waste—both food itself and the containers it comes in—presents a lot of challenges, meals aren’t the only times you may need to say no. If you go to the movies, does the ticket count as waste? I don’t know many folks who keep and frame them, but until every theater and venue offers mobile phone scanning or another technology, it’s hard to avoid. The same goes for receipts at stores and restaurants. Lots of places offer to email you a receipt, which is a great option. But it can be hard to avoid the places that don’t.
Prepare for the Unexpected
With heightened awareness, you can start to predict where conflicts could arise and change course, but, as with life, you can’t plan for everything. Say, for example, your pen runs out of ink. I’ll admit I usually don’t blink before throwing away a spent pen. Turns out, you can’t just toss spent ballpoint pens in your curbside bin. Sure, refillable pens exist, but in the modern world, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a large number of folks willing to return to the messy practice of pouring ink in their pens every time it runs out.
Being strictly zero waste can also create some awkward moments. If your office celebrates a co-worker’s birthday with cake, what do you do if there are only plastic plates and forks? For most of us, eating with our hands is not an option in a professional setting. The first answer is to forgo the treat. But it could also be an opportunity to share your challenge and raise awareness among others about just how often we participate in our “disposable culture”—even without meaning to. If you’re lucky, you may even convince your office manager to buy a few more metal forks so everyone could be a little greener during shared treats in the future.
The more I try to reduce waste in my own life, the better I understand what the GrassRoots Recycling Network was talking about. Zero waste isn’t just about my tote bags for groceries or carrying Tupperware around for leftovers. It’s about changing the way we look at our lives and our place in the world. To end our dependence on landfills once and for all, we’ll need to change our relationship to the things and resources that sustain us and allow us to thrive. We may not be able to change overnight, but we shouldn’t make perfection the enemy of progress. Instead, I’m trying to be a little more aware and a little less wasteful every day. Care to join?
About the author
Joe Baker is the Vice President of Editorial and Advocacy for Care2 and ThePetitionSite. He is responsible for recruitment campaigns for nonprofit partners, membership growth efforts and all editorial content. Prior to Care2, Joe was the Executive Director of N-TEN. Joe serves on the Board of Directors of Death Penalty Focus, the Advisory Board of GiveForward and volunteers for the Sierra Club and Amnesty International.
Feature image credit Stokkete / Shutterstock