Is Zero Waste Possible?

empty glass jars

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.

This haul includes twist ties around the carrots :O

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.

empty glass jars
Reused and rescued jars

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:

  1. They feel inspired to drastically reduce their trash to the same amount—and they do it!—or
  2. 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.

The pie slices represent the number of pounds of trash reduced per group
Lowering the bar to raise the bar: number of pounds of trash reduced per group

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.


15 Replies to “Is Zero Waste Possible?”

  1. Thank you for this, I found it very encouraging. I sometimes get totally overwhelmed by trying to reduce my family’s waste and feel that I’m doing such a bad job. I think the term ‘zero waste’ can be very unhelpful.
    Greetings from the UK 🙂

  2. Well done…I agree it would be hard to actually have completely zero waste but I waste as little as possible like you I buy from the market and use my own bags we also grow what we can…Lovely post will tag you in my waste not want not tomorrow….

  3. Zero waste and graphs. My favourite things. Love it. X

  4. Your posts are just fantastic. Great graphs and great words 🙂

  5. Well, this makes me a bit more optimistic! Thanks!!

  6. I found a fun fact that I like to think of often. If you buy dry goods like rice or beans in a large bulk bag rather than a bunch of little bags, I reduce your waste by 15%.

  7. I like the zero in zero waste, but I love aspirational goals! It’s all in the effort! We are a family and our trash doesn’t fit in a jar, but we are down to 6 tall kitchen bags per year which is a huge reduction for us. One of our biggest sources of waste is mail. Our family sends plastic-wrapped toddler gifts wrapped in trash, and we have had almost no luck eliminating non-recyclable junk mail. I’m wondering if others are tossing non-recyclable junk mail into the recycling anyway or if they’ve truly found a way to stop it…

    1. Only thing I can think to do is to contact sender and ask to be taken off the mailing list. Give reason that mail is not recyclable. Lots of work, but hopefully it’ll work.

  8. I’m so glad you have posts like this. We live in a very rural area with a short growing season. We have limited access to farmer’s markets (even though we have a great farmer’s market when we have one). We’re just not in the sort of place where we can easily access zero waste items. We end up mail ordering items because we have limited shopping. However, we are more aware when purchasing items about the packaging it is in. Recently, our recycling center has reduced what it will accept (we now haul any glass over the border when we are there). So we have to think a bit more. We know we will never be as zero waste we want to be but we feel each change we make will make a difference.

  9. I live in the UK in the London Borough of Islington, where we have a very successful food recycling scheme,very gratifying to those of us without outside space who can’t make compost. Biodegradeable bags for collection are available free in the public libraries. It astounds me that I, living alone, manage to generate so much waste in the form of vegetable peelings, tea leaves, egg shells, apple cores, fish bones etc etc. I wish we had had a similar scheme when I was bringing up my family. The waste eventually becomes electricity to power local authority buildings.

  10. While it helps to avoid risking people seeing goals as hard, I think it also helps to clarify the joy that comes with each step. That is, reducing waste is like learning to play an instrument, where the more you practice, the more playing becomes joyful and expressive and less like work, at least in my experience.

    Many people mistakenly anticipate reducing waste is like an unpaid job — a distraction. I found only getting started hard. Then it saves time and money, giving back more than you put in, because food becomes more delicious, there’s more community, more fun, etc.

  11. I think the math you did speaks volumes. Nice work.
    MikeThatFoodGuy.com

  12. I’m planning on growing a lot more veg in the garden this year, hopefully this will bring my Zero Waste grade up a few levels 🙂

  13. The Decoupling Couple says: Reply

    Great read!

  14. I love that you adress the recycling focus and encourage reducing instead. Growing up, we’ve all heard about the 3 R’s: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. For some reason only the last one sticks in the mind of folks. Personally, I’m trying to reduce my waste. Thank you for the lovely post!

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