Before answering that question, let’s start with a definition of zero waste. Everyone’s definition will differ. Even the terms people use vary—zero waste, less waste, low waste, low impact. Although we may disagree on the language, I think we can all agree that we want the same thing—to generate as little waste as possible.
In reality, you never truly reduce your waste to zero. Because unless you move off the grid to a farm and grow your own food and plant the hemp to grow the fibers to weave the cloth to sew your clothes, you will contribute to the waste stream via the supply chain. The final goods you buy—such as food from grocery store bulk bins—may be free of packaging but they arrived at the store in packaging.
The term “zero waste” represents a goal, something to strive for, like straight A+’s in every class you ever took in college. But remember the saying, “C’s get degrees.” You don’t have to do zero waste perfectly to make a difference.
What about recycling?
“You must recycle everything.”
That’s what I sometimes hear when people learn that I generate almost no trash. Actually, I rarely recycle because I rarely buy anything in a package to recycle. My weekly farmers’ market hauls, for example, consist of loose fruit and vegetables that I place in my reusable cloth produce bags and reusable cloth shopping bags.
I buy most of my staples at bulk bins in jars or cloth bulk bags. Occasionally I buy something in a glass jar but the empty goes into my jar collection—and before buying, I always scrutinize not only the contents of the jar but the size and shape of the jar itself (you know what I’m talking about). So I amass very few items for the recycling bins.
And even if everyone did recycle everything and we had the infrastructure in place to recycle 100 percent of our plastic, the new items we produce would eventually make their way to landfill. According to The Plastic Pollution Coalition
Recycling paper, glass and metal is a complete cycle, while plastic is generally not…The best we can hope for is that our plastic water bottles and mayonnaise jars will be turned into other products (downcycled), such as doormats, textiles, plastic lumber, etc. These products will still end up in a landfill, and therefore, they do not stem the need for more virgin petroleum product.”
Of course, we should recycle any plastic we consume but let’s consume less of it. Reducing—not recycling—is the answer to our waste problem.
One jar of trash
Ah the trash jar. You’ve seen the images on social media of zero wasters posing with their trash for the year—or longer—stored in a single mason jar. People tend to react to the 1-year trash jar as follows:
- They feel inspired to drastically reduce their trash to the same amount—and they do it!—or
- Their eco-anxiety flares up, sometimes followed by feelings of paralysis, inadequacy and guilt.
If you fall into the eco-anxiety / paralysis / inadequacy / guilt camp or you do attempt to reduce your trash to one mason jar per year and simply cannot, perhaps subsequently finding yourself occupying the eco-anxiety / paralysis / inadequacy / guilt camp, do not beat yourself up. While I do feel it’s possible for many people to reduce their yearly trash to an amount minuscule enough to fit into a mason jar, only a small number of people will. As you’ll see, that’s okay.
Do the math
I’m going to think big about the number of people who read this blog post today and think small about the number of people who will reach zero waste. Let’s say, 10,000 people read this post and 100 of them—or 1 percent—reduce their waste to essentially zero for a year.
The average American produces over 4.4 pounds of garbage per day. So, in a year, the 100 people who have gone virtually zero-waste will have reduced their collective waste by:
100 people x 4.4 pounds reduced x 365 days = 160,600 pounds
That’s a lot of trash! I couldn’t find a pound-to-football-fields conversion calculator online—everything is measured in football fields in the US—but this is big. Bravo.
Now let’s say that of those same 10,000 people, 25 percent of them reduce their waste by 25 percent.
2,500 people x 1.1 pounds reduced x 365 days = 1,003,750 pounds
Over a million pounds of trash! That’s impressive. Now how about all 10,000 readers reduce their waste by a mere 10 percent for a year. Doesn’t sound that impressive does it, 10 percent?
10,000 people x .44 pounds reduced x 365 days = 1,606,000
Wow! Let’s look at these numbers in graph form.
Realistically, not everyone will reduce all of their waste. But reducing waste across the board by 10 percent is doable. Many of the changes necessary to achieve that—shopping with both cloth produce and shopping bags, eliminating bottled water and cutting food waste, for example—are not at all painful. And for many people who do catch the zero-waste bug, once they start and see the joy that comes from the lifestyle, they want to keep going. That 10 percent can quickly become more.
If you find the “zero” in zero-waste intimidating, consider starting out with a goal of 10 percent and working your way up. Because unlike, say, pregnancy—you either are or you aren’t—zero-waste is not an all-or-nothing proposition. You can go a little bit zero-waste.