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Zero waste – it sounds quite extreme and intimidating, right?
When I heard about it for the first time, I thought, “Yeah, right. Zero waste isn’t possible”, but I was interested in living more sustainably, so that didn’t stop me from exploring it more.
By trying to live an (almost) zero waste life, I found out many interesting things, including how much “zero” you can really go.
So, is zero waste possible?
Living 100% zero waste and producing no trash isn’t really possible, for the majority of people.
This is because of our linear economy – we use things, and eventually, we throw them away instead of always trying to reuse, upcycle, and recycle items (which a circular economy encourages).
However, the good news is that being zero waste doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
This article will explore why being 100% zero waste is impossible and why you shouldn’t focus on living a perfect zero waste life.
Here’s a quick preview of the contents of this article:
- When is zero waste possible
- Why zero waste is not possible (for most of us)
- My zero waste experiment: How much trash I made in 1 month
- You don’t have to go entirely zero waste to make a difference
- Sum up
When is zero waste possible?
To be 100% zero waste, you need to live off-grid, collect rainwater, and have solar panels.
You will be growing all of your food and also fibers to weave and sew your clothes.
You must reuse everything, DIY personal care products, eat 100% plant-based, walk or bike everywhere since you won’t be owning a car.
These are a couple of the things someone can do to be completely zero waste.
Theoretically, being entirely zero waste is possible. But in practice – it is a bit more complex.
For most of us, being that extreme isn’t attainable.
Why zero waste is not possible (for most of us):
1. Our economy is linear
Zero waste isn’t possible since our current economy is linear.
A linear economy is following the “take-make-dispose” system. This means that:
- we use raw materials
- we transform them into products
- we use the products for some time
- finally, we discard it as waste
The ultimate goal is to create and sell as many products as possible.
The disadvantage of the linear economy is that the production of goods is at the expense of our environment.
Excessive pressure and mining for non-renewable raw materials endanger essential ecosystems, such as water, air, and soil.
Is there a better system or economy that is more “zero waste”?
Yes, there is! As I briefly mentioned in the begining, there is a better option, called a circular economy.
The circular economy is a model of production and consumption, which involves:
- sharing, renting, repurposing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible.
In that way, the life cycle of products is extended.
When it comes to reducing greenhouse gases, a circular economy can be beneficial.
It often uses renewable energy that creates less pollution than fossil fuels.
Thanks to reusing, sharing, and repairing things, fewer materials and production processes are needed.
While circular economy sounds excellent in theory, it won’t be perfect in practice, too.
Imagine the entire world sharing, reusing, repairing, and recycling every single thing. It sounds fantastic, but also a bit unrealistic.
Even though the circular economy probably won’t be perfect, it is a much better option than the linear economy.
Alas, it isn’t something that our governments are paying any attention to.
2. Zero trash isn’t possible
If you shop from bulk stores, chances are, the products arrive in huge plastic bags when arriving at the store.
When I was living in Barcelona, I found a zero waste bulk store, which was awesome.
Once I talked with the owner because I was curious how they receive the items. He told me that often, it is single-use plastics.
He explained that they tried paper, but it was breaking, which was ending in food waste.
As for reusing plastic bags, he told me that most retailers refuse to reuse the bags due to sanitary reasons.
This was interesting for me because that wasn’t just a regular bulk store.
It was created with the zero waste movement in mind, and yet, the shop wasn’t 100% zero waste.
I still loved the shop and everything they were doing.
I’m telling you all this because it gave me a great perspective, that even if I shop only from there, I will still “contribute” to some waste, indirectly.
And that is almost always.
3. We create “invisible” waste, too
Prioritizing physical trash is excellent. However, there is much more than that, and sustainable living isn’t all about waste.
If you have a car, buy new clothes or electronics, and eat meat & animal products, you produce “invisible” waste.
“Invisible waste” refers to the large amount of waste generated during the manufacturing process of products.
The truth is that, sometimes, the “physical” waste we create is far less important than the “invisible” one.
And sometimes, the zero waste movement is focusing too much only on physical waste.
All I’m saying is that waste is being generated, extending so far beyond the final product.
4. Not everything is in your hards
Sometimes you will do everything you can. But waste will still be generated.
Eating in a restaurant probably means that some of the food came in plastic.
Ordering a drink outside can often end with a plastic straw inside your drink (even if you said you don’t need one, they usually forget).
Or you need groceries with packaging since not everything is always available package-free.
There are many more examples like these.
Feeling guilty or bad because you got a straw in your drink or because you had to buy something with packaging sucks.
You have to realize that not everything will go your way every single time.
And that’s okay. Just try to do whatever you can, but know that systematic change happens slowly.
5. Buying “package-free” things that are not sustainable
You can probably find package-free meat or dairy products. But eating meat is one of the most wasteful consumption habits.
Once I was wondering what’s more sustainable:
- Buying a plant-based (vegan) product with plastic packaging
- Buying non-vegan product (like meat or cheese) without plastic
After some thinking, I figured that the first option is far more sustainable.
Animal agriculture is an incredibly wasteful and environmentally damaging industry that I no longer want to support.
There are so many other situations in which you can buy things without producing any waste, but that doesn’t make those things sustainable.
6. Zero waste is an individual journey
Ultimately, there isn’t an end goal, and what works for some won’t work for others. And that’s okay.
No one will be 100% zero waste ever, but the good thing is that being perfect isn’t essential.
You should always focus on what works best for you and not feel guilty or bad if you produce some waste.
If you have the time and effort to minimize almost all the trash you create – that’s GREAT!
However, it can be challenging, for most of us, to always:
- Buy in bulk stores or local farmers market
- Make almost everything from scratch (tofu, plant milk, cooking dry beans, sauces, personal care DIY’s, etc.etc.)
- Buy only sustainable products and clothing items
- Not using air travel, buying only local things, biking everywhere you can, etc.
Trying to be perfect can be overwhelming.
If you find it hard to keep up – that’s okay!
Remember that you will get better with time, and whatever you are currently doing – is still better than nothing.
Everything you do piles up, and it all counts.
My zero waste experiment: How much trash I made in 1 month
I decided to do an experiment and collect my trash for one month.
I tried to collect all the waste I generated – paper, plastic, aluminum, and glass.
I must say that this month, I was very mindful about how I buy things, and I was trying to create less waste.
I wasn’t going maniacally, I was putting in quite some effort.
When I saw all the trash at the end of the month, I had mixed feelings about it.
While I think I did a good job, there were still plenty of things:
And honestly, does this look to you like zero waste? Probably not that much.
Even though I wasn’t super satisfied with the final result, I have to say – it is not that terrible, too.
I’ve changed so many of my habits, and the best thing is – there is always room for improvement.
For this experiment, I was able to create less trash by:
- Buying most of my staples in bulk (beans, oats, spices, nuts, etc.)
- Buying fresh produce from the farmers market, or supermarkets, in my veggie bags
- Choosing things in paper, glass, or aluminum, when I couldn’t find package-free things
- Making my food at home, and baking homemade cookies and cakes (I have a sweet tooth but don’t like buying pre-made stuff from the shop)
- Being mindful of what I need and what I don’t need
Collecting your trash for a month was a great, eye-opening experience, and I recommend everyone interested in living less wasteful to try it out.
It is beneficial since it will help you to see what are your most significant sources of trash.
In that way, you can try to find ways to reduce it.
You don’t have to go entirely zero waste to make a difference
It is true. Let me show you!
Statistical data found that the average American produces over 4.4 pounds of garbage per day.
Let’s assume 10 000 people will read this blog.
Out of this number, let’s say 10% (which is 1000 people) decide to reduce their waste by 50%.
For a year, that will collectively reduce the waste by:
- 1000 people x 2.2 pounds reduced (50% – half of 4.4) x 365 days = 803 000 pounds of trash. Woah!
What if 5000 of these people decide to reduce their waste by JUST 25%? Well, that will look like that:
- 5000 people x 1.1 pounds reduced (25%) x 365 days = 2 007 500 pounds of trash.
These are just some examples that can show you that you don’t have to go completely nuts on reducing your waste.
Collectivly, you can still make a pretty big difference, even if you reduce between 25 to 50% of your trash.
All in all, I think with a lot of effort, commitment, trial, and error, you can get very close to zero waste.
But to be completely 100% zero waste – hardly.
Even though getting closer to zero waste will take some time, and it requires planning, and building new habits – it is doable.
Just remember to be kind to yourself, don’t aim for perfection, try to do the best you can, and don’t compare your journey with others.
Focus on what works for you, and if your goal is to get closer to “zero waste,” – you will.