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Zero Waste

By ALLISON PILCHER ’19

There is a growing population of people who are concerned about climate change, pollution, or other environmental issues and, especially in developed countries, want to minimize their personal impact by living a more sustainable lifestyle. Environmental scientists know that our current way of living is not sustainable. At some point, we will need to drastically change our way of life, preferably sooner rather than later. A zero waste lifestyle focuses on closed loop rather than linear systems. Our current method of consumption, which is linear, flows from raw materials to production to consumption to disposal.

The trend has been growing worldwide over increasing concern for the environment. The goal is to limit your impact on the environment as much as possible, starting with avoiding trash and eventually reducing energy and water consumption. In a society full of disposable goods, not producing trash seems impossible. Yet it can be done with a little effort to create new routines. The key is to plan ahead.

The simplest step is to phase out the disposable products in your life. Reusable water bottles and coffee mugs are an easy place to start, but once you get started, you will be surprised by how many opportunities there are. People who live zero waste avoid disposable products such as paper napkins, paper plates, plastic utensils, plastic bags, plastic cups, anything typically considered single-use. They cook from scratch with fresh ingredients to avoid food packaging and bring their own containers to the grocery store for bulk products. They make their own cleaning products, toiletries, and cosmetics as well, using ingredients that can be found in bulk in health food stores.

Many people who aim to live waste-free also avoid plastic. Many plastics are recyclable, but are often downcycled into products that are not. Dyes, fillers, and additives can also make plastic difficult to recycle. In these cases, recycling plastic may not be cost-effective. Plastics are not biodegradable and require non-renewable fossil fuels to produce. Metal and glass, however, can be recycled indefinitely with no loss of quality, reducing trash and the need for fossil fuels. For this reason, the zero waste lifestyle encourages food and other goods to be bought and stored in metal and glass containers. Growing food, canning, and making your own salad dressing and condiments from scratch is popular in the zero waste community.

A closed loop system requires you to be conscious of both where your things came from and where they go when you are done with them. It is best to use what you have first. If you do not have something you need, then you should look to borrow, swap, thrift (buy used), make it, or as a last resort, buy the item new. When purchasing new things, the zero waste philosophy encourages you to seek out companies with sustainable manufacturing practices.

According to the Center for Sustainability & Commerce at Duke University, the average American produces 4.3 pounds of municipal solid waste (MSW) each year, 1.6 pounds more than in 1960. 55 percent of this ends up in U.S. landfills. Incredibly, one proponent of zero waste boasts on her blog that she only created one shoebox worth of trash in an entire year. The six
“R”s guide consumers towards the best disposal practice. It is best to refuse an item in the first place if you do not need it to avoid having to throw it away eventually. Reducing the amount of things you need in general has the same effect. Reusing things extends their life cycle and postpones the need to acquire new ones. When it is time to get rid of something, you can recycle, rehome, and rot (compost).

As we can see, especially from the principles of reuse and reduce, zero waste living often coincides with minimalism. On the journey to zero waste, many fall into minimalism as well. Minimalism (as a lifestyle) is considered a separate movement, but is certainly relevant. While the idea is to focus on the non-material aspect of life in a consumerist society by possessing only the things you truly need, there are great environmental benefits as well. Not acquiring “stuff” is a great way to reduce your carbon imprint. Minimalism aims to make people conscious of what they own so that they do not waste their lives trying to accumulate material items that they do not really want or need. Minimalism is a tool to get rid of whatever you see as being excess in your life, including, among many things, material “stuff.”

After tackling solid waste, water and energy become the next focus. Once again, many steps can be taken to limit environmental impact. Rain barrels can be attached to rain gutters to collect water for gardens. Some people even go as far as to install composting toilets to avoid water use. Beyond conserving electricity and using efficient appliances, renewable energy can be produced through solar panels and wind turbines to avoid burning fossil fuels, which are known to be large contributors of climate change.

Science Daily reported in 2008 that the average carbon footprint of an American is 20 metric tons per year, compared to the worldwide average of four tons. Outcomes of zero waste living include fewer greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change (including methane produced by anaerobic digestion in landfills), fewer raw materials are needed, less manufacturing energy is used, compost is produced for gardens, and pollution from trash incinerators is avoided. While the concept of living completely waste-free first appears too extreme for many, the movement does show how many opportunities there are in our daily lives to reduce our environmental impact- and that every little bit helps.

About the author

Allison Pilcher