Zero Waste 101: Everything You Need to Know
Quick Key Facts
- Zero waste dates back to the 1970s when the term was coined by chemist Paul Palmer.
- Today, zero waste includes the 5 Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot.
- A zero-waste approach can reduce waste management emissions by 84%.
- About 146 million tons of waste end up in landfills in the U.S. alone each year.
- Food is the largest component of landfilled waste, about 24%.
- The U.S. food system requires 10.11 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) of energy.
- Clothing production requires 79 billion cubic meters of water per year.
- Global e-waste reached 53.6 million metric tons from 2010 to 2019.
- Recycling produces about nine times more jobs than landfill disposal.
- Composting produces about double the amount of jobs that landfill disposal requires.
What is Zero Waste?
You’ve likely heard the old adage, “reduce, reuse, recycle.” While this has been a cornerstone of sustainability, with many kids hearing this golden rule over the years and repeating these steps well into adulthood, there’s a more updated framework that can help consumers strive for zero-waste lifestyles.
Zero-waste refers to principles of minimizing waste production as much as possible. Béa Johnson of Zero Waste Home calls the framework for zero-waste the 5 Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot.
In reality, before the rise of plastic production in the mid-20th century, many people naturally followed a zero-waste approach to waste management. But human dependence on plastic, a material that doesn’t easily or quickly break down, has left us with landfills and oceans full of trash.
The idea of zero-waste is to produce as little waste as possible, to begin with. Then, with any waste that is generated, compost, reuse, or recycle whatever is left.
How the Zero Waste Movement Started
Throughout history, zero-waste living was the norm. Rewearing your clothing, preserving food or eating all of the food you purchased, hunted, gathered, or grew, repairing tools and furniture, and reusing items as much as possible were typical for many people.
But as plastic use increased in the 1960s, humans began quickly generating massive amounts of trash. A rise of “throwaway” culture took hold, where people found convenience in tossing out plastic dining ware or food packaging.
This approach has extended to many types of products. Phone breaks? Toss it and buy the latest model. Favorite T-shirt rips down the side? Toss it out and buy a replica. Food waste on your plate? Dump it in the trash, rather than fussing with a smelly compost pile.
But all of this waste and consumption has major impacts on the environment and climate change. Waste ends up in landfills, polluting cities, and ecosystems, or floating in garbage patches in the oceans. More resources are required and more emissions are emitted as humans source materials and make more and more goods for people to buy.
The concept of zero-waste was first coined in the 1970s by Paul Palmer, a chemist and Yale graduate and founder of the Zero Waste Institute. Palmer had noticed that chemicals discarded by emerging tech companies in Silicon Valley were reusable, and he founded a company to find new uses for these waste chemicals.
Similarly, in 1995, Daniel Knapp, a sociologist and founder of Urban Ore in Berkeley, California, toured Australia giving talks on minimizing waste. This was after he had spent several years in the U.S. discussing a concept called Total Recycling, which was later used to define zero-waste planning approaches for cities around the country.
This idea from Knapp led the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government to create a “No Waste by 2010” campaign.
In 2000, the larger zero-waste movement began to take place, as evidenced by a conference on the subject: Zero Waste Conference, which was held at the Kaitaia Community Centre in Kaitaia, New Zealand.
From there, more environmental organizations took up the concept of zero waste, and an international Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) was formed in Beaumaris, Wales in 2003.
Reasons to Go Zero Waste
Repairing and reusing your items, recycling, composting and refusing excess items you don’t need, all have many benefits. These actions can save individuals money and even generate more jobs for local economies compared to conventional disposal, while also saving Earth’s resources, minimizing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving relationships within communities.
Reduce Climate Impact
Focusing on a zero-waste approach can reduce total emissions of the waste management sector by about 84%, according to a report by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA). This is a reduction of about 1.4 billion metric tons of emissions, equivalent to the impact of taking all motor vehicles in the U.S. off of roads for one year.
The same report also found that composting specifically can make a big impact on methane, which is significantly more potent than carbon dioxide. Source-separated collection and treatment of organic waste along with mechanical recovery and biological treatments of residual waste and biologically active landfill cover can reduce methane emissions by 95% on average, the report found.
Improve Community Relations
From connecting to the farmers that grow your food to redistributing excess goods throughout a community, zero-waste living can strengthen relations and social equity within communities.
For instance, the growing number of people joining localized groups like Buy Nothing can borrow and swap items, rather than going out to buy new. Organizations can accept donated items like furniture and clothing and provide these items to people in need.
Groups can take in surplus food to redistribute to those who need it, and communities can work together to build gardens and compost extra food to fertilize those gardens, growing food to share with one another.
People can support local economies by spending their money at local refill shops, where they can purchase food and household items by filling their own containers, rather than buying more products in plastic packaging at conventional grocery stores.
Encourage Sustainable Businesses
In addition to supporting local refill shops, people who are spending less money on single-use items or conventional consumer goods to focus on reducing, reusing, and repairing instead can help encourage even large corporations to work toward more sustainable operations.
For example, some brands like Cascade, Pantene, Clorox and Gillette have partnered with Loop, a reuse platform, that manufactures products in reusable and refillable packaging. While these companies still make products in single-use packaging, offering more refillable options in select markets is a step in the right direction.
Reduce Landfill Trash
As of 2018, the EPA reported that municipal solid waste totaled 292.4 million tons in the U.S. alone, nearly 5 pounds of waste per person. While some of that waste was composted or recycled, about half of it (146 million tons) was sent to landfills. Yet much of what goes to landfill could be diverted. Food makes up the largest portion of landfilled waste, followed by plastic, then paper, and finally textiles, rubber and leather.
The EPA noted that landfill disposal should be the lowest priority, and it is with a zero-waste approach. Instead of sending food to landfills, where it can’t decompose organically and will emit methane, food waste could be composted. Textiles could be repaired or reused rather than sent to landfills.
Reduce Food Waste
Because food waste generates harmful methane emissions in landfills, consumers who focus on zero waste can reduce their food waste at the source by meal planning and buying only what they need. Extra food can be donated, while food scraps like lemon peels or onion skins can be repurposed (like for homemade cleaners or vegetable broth), or composted.
Save Energy and Water
Producing more food or manufacturing more tech or clothing to meet demand in a throwaway culture requires extensive amounts of energy and water.
In the U.S., the food system — from agriculture to transit to handling — requires 10.11 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) of energy. Agriculture alone makes up 80% of all water use in the U.S., and animal products require the most amount of water. Wasting food means the energy and water that goes into growing, producing, transporting, stocking and selling that food is wasted.
It takes about 3,000 gallons of water to produce just one cotton T-shirt, and the fashion industry uses about 79 billion cubic meters of water to make clothing per year. Making repairs to old shirts or reusing fabric from clothing can reduce demand for new clothing and ultimately save the water needed to produce more clothing items.
Then, there’s tech, which requires extensive amounts of energy to mine for materials and manufacture the devices. Despite all of the resources and energy that go into tech, many devices are simply disposed of when the latest version of a device is unveiled to consumers. As of 2019, e-waste generated globally reached 53.6 million metric tons. But consumers can save energy, water, and other precious resources by using tech for longer and reusing or recycling electronics properly when they are no longer useful.
Boost the Economy
Palmer’s concept of zero-waste in the 1970s didn’t come about as a way to save the environment. Instead, it was more economically motivated, a way to make money on useful chemicals that were being wasted.
Recycling can produce about nine times more jobs than disposal does, according to Tellus Institute with Sound Resource Management. The Institute for Self-Reliance reported that composting requires about double the amount of jobs as disposing to landfills and about four times more jobs than incinerating.
Pros and Cons of Zero Waste
With so many benefits to going zero-waste, it can seem like an easy decision. So why aren’t more people, businesses, and governments focused on zero-waste approaches to waste management? While there are many pros, there are some drawbacks that have limited widespread adaptability.
There are several pros to zero waste for individuals and larger communities:
- Long-term financial savings: Once you have an arsenal of containers and other reusable items, you’ll save money over buying items in single-use packaging.
- Job creation: Recycling and composting create more jobs for local economies than disposal or incineration.
- Minimal pollution: A major benefit to zero-waste living is that less pollution flows into landfills and the environment, keeping our planet clean and safe for other organisms.
- Climate: By reducing waste in many sectors, like food, clothing, and tech, we can reduce the emissions required to make these items as well as the emissions from waste in landfills or incinerators. Reducing emissions can help curb climate change over time.
Zero waste isn’t as convenient as tossing out items once you’re done with them, and it also isn’t an attainable lifestyle in communities where food, money and other resources may already be scarce. Some of the drawbacks of zero-waste living are:
- Short-term financial costs: If you don’t already, you’ll need to create your own zero-waste kit of reusable bags, straws, utensils, containers and other items to cut back your consumption of packaging. On a larger scale, businesses and governments may need to invest in new methods and infrastructure to reduce their own waste and switch to reusable or refillable alternatives.
- Less convenience: The dependence on single-use items is all about convenience. It’s not always convenient to keep reusable utensils on hand or repair a worn-out pair of pants.
- Accessibility: Many communities do not have access to a refill shop or even fresh produce, and zero-waste living isn’t easy, affordable or even available for many people. With the short-term, higher upfront costs of zero-waste lifestyles, it can be challenging or simply improbably to get started.
Zero Waste Inspiration
Zero waste is becoming more mainstream, with influential figures, companies and even governments taking more initiative to reduce waste and change the way we consume and dispose of items.
For example, Queens in New York City recently started the first borough-wide curbside composting program, making composting more convenient and accessible even for residents of a big city. Other cities, like San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, also have composting programs, and California and Vermont even have statewide composting requirements.
In Maui, Hawaii’s first zero-waste to-go container program has helped local restaurants provide reusable food containers rather than single-use trays and containers that are often sent to landfills or end up in the ocean.
Many U.S. states and countries around the world, including Canada, India, Chile and China, are enacting bans on single-use plastics, notably plastic bags, straws, and polystyrene (often known by the brand name Styrofoam) to reduce the amount of this waste sent to landfills.
As for electronic waste, the European Union has taken action to help individuals repair their own tech devices while also fighting against planned obsolescence, in which electronics are planned to only work for a limited amount of time to encourage purchasing newer models and therefore promoting a throwaway culture.
How to Go Zero Waste
There are many ways to start down the path of a zero-waste lifestyle. While recycling old papers or composting food scraps are a good start, there are many actions you can take collectively to reduce your impact and inspire governments and businesses to create policies around and invest in a circular, more sustainable economy.
Reduce and Refuse
Rather than trying to correct overconsumption through recycling and composting, we should start by focusing on consuming less. Reducing the amounts of goods we consume, and waste, is a critical step in zero waste. When it comes to refusing, you can practice saying “no” to any unnecessary items, like plastic utensils with your take-out food or free plastic pens from the bank.
Avoid Buying Single-Use Items
Single-use items are designed for convenience, but they also amount to a lot of waste. Unless you need single-use items, avoid buying or using them as much as possible. That might look like bringing a reusable travel mug to your favorite coffee shop or packing reusable utensils in your bag.
Instead of throwing out your favorite sweater when it snags or tossing out a broken necklace, show your possessions a little TLC by taking the time to repair them. Many repairs may be simple and less time-consuming than you think. Of course, if you aren’t sure how to repair your items or don’t have the time to do so, you can support local repair shops or ask skilled friends and family for help.
Borrow and Thrift
In alignment with reusing, reducing, and refusing, borrowing and thrifting items you want or need is a smart and often fun way to work toward zero waste. Looking for a kitchen gadget, some home improvement tools, wall art, or books? You can ask friends, family, and neighbors for things you need, whether to keep or to borrow. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, you can also thrift second-hand items rather than purchasing new ones.
Compost Organic Waste
Because of the methane food releases when compacted with other waste in a landfill, composting your organic waste, like food scraps or grass clippings, is a helpful way to reduce emissions and landfill waste. You can compost in your own backyard, either keeping the compost for your own gardens, sharing it with neighbors, or giving back to your community. If you don’t have a garden or outdoor space, you can also check with your city to find a composting center or places that accept compost.
Many people are familiar with recycling, and if you don’t already, you should start. Set up a small bin or multiple bins in your home to organize and hold recycling, then drop it off in your property’s blue bin or to a place in your community that collects recycling.
While recycling is an important component to zero-waste living, the focus should first be on reducing consumption, reusing items you already own, and repairing broken items first. Recycling is a second-to-last resort before sending anything to a landfill.
While shopping less is often easier said than done, it’s a goal that is worth at least working toward. According to a Slickdeals survey, the average person spends $314 per month on impulse purchases as of 2022, an increase of 14% from the previous year. Not only is that a lot of money lost, but it also means a lot of purchases for unnecessary items.
One way to avoid impulse purchases is to shop less. Feeling bored? Try going for a walk, calling up a friend, or practicing your hobbies, rather than heading to the mall.
When you do need to shop, make a list and stick to it, while also adhering to other zero-waste principles, like reducing your consumption and skipping single-use items. You can also try borrowing or thrifting items you need rather than going to buy something brand new.
While companies and governments need to take more substantial efforts to curb waste and ultimately minimize the impacts of climate change, individuals can help minimize their own emissions and waste and encourage change by embracing a zero-waste lifestyle. The focus should be on progress, not perfection since many individuals making small changes can add up to larger impacts. By reducing excess, reusing and repairing items, and participating in a circular economy, individuals can also reduce demand for new products and single-use items, instead showing companies that reusables are a better investment.
Zero waste can seem daunting, but simply being more mindful about purchases and taking care of the things you already own is a great start, and the impacts will only grow the more you practice.
Some companies and governments are already taking individual actions and demands into account, changing their products, packaging and policies to be more sustainable moving forward. By adopting more zero-waste-friendly practices, the positive changes are sure to continue and grow in the future.