Guest Writer: Julie Trager
WHAT IS ZERO WASTE?
It’s the process of reducing the amount of waste that you personally generate that would go into a landfill at any point in time. While the short term goals are to refuse, reuse and recycle, the final destination of a zero waste lifestyle is to buy only what truly you need or love. Zero waste is ultimately about waste prevention, not waste management.
HOW DO I START?
To begin, refuse anything offered to you that will ultimately go into the garbage – cheap giveaways at conferences, plastic utensils, and straws from takeout joints, makeup samples, business cards, food samples at the grocery in those little plastic cups…you get the idea. There are so many items we are handed every day that we never intend to use. Understand that our politeness and unwillingness to say ‘no’ have consequences. Know that the average Canadian sends 6 pounds (www.crcresearch.org) of waste to landfills each day, largely due to unconscious consumption.
Reuse. When possible, shop for gently used, rather than new, items at consignment and secondhand shops or use apps and social media outlets such as FB Marketplace, Next Door, and Ebay rather than purchasing new. And please, sell or donate those items that are stored in closets, garages and attics that haven’t seen the light of day in years. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, so don’t cling. Consider that stuff has an energy all its own and the more stuff you have, the more weighted down you are likely to feel. Clearing out what you don’t use will leave you lighter, less anxious, and more free.
Next, realize that recycling is not a panacea. As consumers, we have been led to believe that by recycling, we are eliminating most of the hazardous consequences of our buying habits. Certainly this practice has alleviated some trash, but it is much less than you think. Statistics indicate that only about 20% of what you place in your recycling bin, particularly plastic, is actually transformed into other goods and services. The rest is diverted rather than transformed into other goods. This “un-recycled recycled material” ends up in underdeveloped countries, landfills and our oceans. In fact, sending our over-consumptive trash to nations that lack the technology required to repurpose it is a social justice issue that no one is talking about. And according to the on-line publication Science,
“The world’s oceans are drowning in human rubbish. Each year more than 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally, and 10 per cent will end up in the sea. It is estimated that there is now a 1:2 ratio of plastic to plankton and, left unchecked, plastic will outweigh fish by 2050.”
In reality, there are still so many items that just aren’t, or can’t be, recycled at this time. Recycling is still not supported in poorer neighborhoods, recycling programs across the country vary widely in what they will or won’t accept, and surprisingly, much of the plastic packaging you see in your grocery store is not recyclable at all. If you are a fan of fast fashion (inexpensive clothing based on runway model trends), the cheap price means that most of us buy far more clothing than we need or wear. Many fast-fashion pieces are made from fabrics that rely heavily on the petroleum industry, which means that the clothes you throw away end up leaching chemicals and micro-plastics into the soil of our landfills. Think about how many items of clothing you have in your closet that still have the tags on them or that you have worn once or twice and multiply that by millions of others whose closets look like yours. Take time to educate yourself on the true consequences of our consumer culture.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES OF ZERO-WASTE LIVING?
Changing our habits is mainly a challenge around time and our beliefs. First, zero waste is a bit of a misnomer. There are certainly people who generate very little waste, but let’s face it, we live and shop in a sea of plastic and other non-recyclable containers, so getting to a zero-waste lifestyle anytime soon is probably not feasible. If we believe that we must change overnight and that the goal is perfection, these beliefs will stop us in our tracks before we even get started. So from the get-go, realize that this is a process that takes time, that each person’s zero waste journey is unique, and that actually generating no waste is not the end goal here. Aim simply to find ways to drastically reduce not only what you throw away but what you buy in the first place and take it one step at a time.
Reducing your waste and consumption takes time and effort. Educating yourself on the level and type of waste you generate is always a good place to start. Pay attention and take an inventory; for a month or two, see where you, your family and your lifestyle contribute most heavily to waste. Make a list, then decide what steps you can take, steps that work best for you, to begin reducing that waste. And for each purchase you make, ask yourself – do I need it, do I love it, will I use it, and what will happen to it when I no longer want it in my life?
Some of the most well-known ways to reduce waste mean giving up some convenience and some bad habits. They include shopping at farmers markets or creating relationships with local farmers (using your own cloth bags to tote your purchases home), participating in a produce co-op, opting to purchase as much as possible in recyclable glass jars and cans, buying in bulk, composting food scraps and cooking most of your meals. When you eat out, refusing plastic straws, ordering smaller meals that don’t require doggie bags, carrying your own reusable coffee cup for your morning java run as well as using your own utensils and napkins for takeout (forgoing the plastic utensils and paper napkins they throw in the bag), and refusing the plastic bag itself, all make a difference. Shopping for bath, beauty, cleaning and laundry products at a local refillery, whittling your routines down to only the products you use consistently, and learning how to make some of your own products that forgo non-recyclable packaging are also ways to reduce waste. Purchasing more clothing at consignment and secondhand shops and avoiding cheap or trendy clothing for items of good quality that will stand the test of time also make the grade. Committing to waste prevention and reduction is a lifestyle that takes time and effort as we reconsider how we shop, how we eat, where we purchase, and what we truly need.
IS ZERO WASTE WORTH THE EFFORT?
YES! Going zero waste offers some unexpected surprises for those who choose to embrace it. In addition to contributing to the health of our planet, people who adopt a minimalist lifestyle tend to:
- be more creative
- spend more time outdoors
- improve their health, reduce medication use and even reverse chronic illness
- feel happier and report less depression and anxiety
- get more rest
- spend more quality time with the people they love
- have more money to spend on fun experiences and to save
- donate more to causes they believe in
- think deeply about who they are as people and what they want
- live their passion and purpose
Bottom line – zero waste can be a catalyst to a healthier, happier, more meaningful life.
The zero waste movement encourages us to live a more conscious life. Those who adopt a minimalist lifestyle understand that you don’t need even half as much stuff as you think you do. Zero wasters hold a deep knowing that things don’t make us safe, yet at the same time, they hold a deeper appreciation for the things they have in their lives. In addition, they spend much less time shopping, instead resting, creating, playing and having new experiences. Finally, they tend to love, love spending time in their homes because they find them exponentially more relaxing as they declutter, organize and live in simplicity.
Know that at its heart, the zero waste movement is about changing the way that we consume. It forces us to acknowledge that when we throw something away, there actually is no “away”. It asks us to recognize that when we buy more than we need of anything, we are contributing to a whole host of social justice and environmental issues.
As you begin to create more awareness around the waste you generate and develop a mindset of waste prevention, you have already begun. Simply consuming less is the biggest part of the equation. And please, as you enter into your zero waste journey, don’t let misplaced guilt consume you or derail your efforts. Have some fun with it. Don’t strive for perfection. Know you are going to backslide occasionally and accept that this is part of the process. Remember that moving towards a zero waste lifestyle provides us all with the opportunity to stretch our creative muscles and cultivate more time and joy as we take steps towards a healthier planet.
Though it takes some time and effort, buying less, having less, and wasting less creates a lightness of being, a freedom, and a peace that most of us don’t currently hold. At the same time, living more consciously guides us to an awareness that we each have an opportunity to live lives that are in service to all humans and to Momma Earth and there is nothing more fulfilling.