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What is zero waste?

Zero waste is both a philosophy and a strategy for living that aims to reduce the human production of garbage to zero. That’s right, zero! Now that is a tall order! Have you ever tried living one day without producing any garbage? In our society it is extremely challenging!

Did you know that the average American produces 4.4 pounds of trash per day (2 kg)? That is 1606 pounds (728.5 kg) of garbage that is thrown away per person per year in the United States alone! Germany is not much better. Since 2010, Germans have been throwing away an average of 617 kg of garbage per year per person. That is 136kg more garbage than other Europeans.

Overflowing trash receptacle in the Stadtpark in Hamburg, Germany

What is it that we are throwing away in such quantities? A lot of our trash consists of food waste, plastic food wrappers, disposable product packaging and cheap disposable goods that are designed exclusively to be used once and simply thrown away. If you think about it, much of what we buy and use on a daily basis is designed for quick and easy disposal.

Plastic wrapped produce in Toronto, Canada

If you look for disposables in your kitchen will find them: cling film, plastic resealable bags, paper towels and napkins, plastic produce bags, not to mention food packaging: chip bags, cookie packages, soda cans, juice boxes, tetra packs and plastic water bottles.

If you look for disposables in your bathroom you’ll find them there too: plastic toothbrushes, dental floss, tubes of toothpaste, plastic sticks of deodorant, plastic razors, aerosol cans of shaving cream and hair spray, disposable makeup wipes, disposable pads and tampons, plastic bottles of shampoo, conditioner, hand soap, body wash and so on.

The next time you’re in the supermarket have a look around for disposables and instances of single-use plastic. Do the same the next time that you’re out at the mall, the movie theatre, your school, or workplace, or while you’re out at your favourite café, restaurant, or bar.

Litter strewn across a shopping plaza in Utrecht, Holland

It is time to admit that we are living in “throw-away” culture. Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. The zero waste movement aims to transform our relationship with stuff from one based upon disposability to one grounded in sustainability.

Zero waste living empowers each of us to part ways with single-use plastic and disposables as a measure to decrease our individual production of waste. The zero movement waste embraces composting, bulk shopping, secondhand shopping, the sharing of resources and the repairing of goods as effective strategies for sustainable living.

Bulk aisle at Bio.lose in Hamburg, Germany.
Bulk aisle at Bio.lose in Hamburg, Germany.

What about recycling, you ask? Unfortunately, recycling is not a simple solution to plastic waste. The reality is that recycling in its present form is simply incapable of keeping pace with the huge quantities of plastic that we humans are producing and throwing away at record speed.

Due to limitations of recycling infrastructure, much of the planet’s plastic waste is actually downcycled into low quality disposable products, dumped into landfills, incinerated, or even worse, it makes its way into the natural environment and eventually, the ocean. While we are often quick to fall back on recycling as a measure to cope with the copious amounts of plastic that we humans are generating and throwing away, the reality is very different. For this reason, recycling is seen by the zero waste movement as more of a last resort. Better to avoid plastic packaging wherever possible, opting instead for glass, paper, or your own reusable containers.

The Path To Zero Waste

Zero Waste is like the North star: a point of orientation with which we can navigate our lifestyle choices. Sometimes our path is direct and on course, sometimes there is quite a bit of meandering. No matter. We still have the beacon in our sight and it is lighting our path.

I think that it’s useful to think of the Zero Waste lifestyle in this way. It is the gold standard, against which we can measure our own lifestyle choices in order to ascertain their ecological impact upon the planet. As soon as we come to personally understand what the zero waste lifestyle looks like and the actions required to sustain it, we begin to realize just how unsustainable a prototypical western consumerist lifestyle actually is. In our current consumer culture, living the zero waste lifestyle is quite radical and requires tremendous effort and commitment. This reality speaks volumes. The gap between the zero waste lifestyle and mainstream consumer culture is wide and deep.

The silver lining is that there is tremendous opportunity in day-to-day life to simplify our lifestyles and to cut out wasteful and unsustainable products and practices in ways that directly benefit our planet.

Much love and happy journeying!

Jenna

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