Updated: May 5, 2021
When people hear the phrase “zero-waste living”, most will envision a person, sometimes a hippie, holding a small mason jar filled with trash. Modern media has led the general public to believe that that is what zero-waste living looks like: unconventional, eccentric, and extreme. In reality, a significant number of regular, everyday people have started adopting this lifestyle with no issues, and they don’t store their trash inside a mason jar either. The recent wave of interest in zero-waste living has emerged as the public has gradually become aware of the impact humans have on the environment and how much trash currently exists in the world. So if you are interested in zero-waste living or want to know what is fact and fiction when it comes to this specific lifestyle, this blog post will explain what zero-waste living is and debunk some of the largest misconceptions associated with it.
What is “Zero-Waste Living”, and Why Does it Matter?
According to the Zero-Waste International Alliance, “zero-waste” is “the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water or air that threaten the environment or human health”. Therefore, in layman’s terms, “zero-waste living” is about conserving as many of the resources you’ve taken as you can so that your individual footprint on the planet is as minimal as possible.
This concept of zero-waste living is more relevant than ever when we consider the amount of trash that currently exists on the planet. Some of you may or may not be aware of something called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is the largest accumulation of garbage in the world’s oceans, located specifically in the Pacific Ocean. The surface area of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is estimated to be 1.6 million square kilometers, which is equivalent to “an area twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France”. If you imagine the amount of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean making up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch alone, you too would be concerned about the amount of trash that we as a human species have generated within the last few centuries, especially since the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not the only accumulation of garbage floating around in the oceans and it doesn’t even account for the trash that accumulates in landfills around the world. That being said, it seems rather obvious that we all need to start reducing the amount of waste we produce, and one way to do that would be to convert to a zero-waste lifestyle.
Myths about Zero-Waste Living
What often stops people from jumping on board with zero-waste living is that there are a lot of inaccurate preconceptions about the lifestyle, which is why we are now going to unpack some of the most popular myths about zero-waste living.
Myth 1: You can’t produce any waste
False. This myth primarily stems from the fact that the word “zero” means nothing, and therefore people assume that they can’t generate any waste at all. While generating no waste is the goal or ideal scenario, this is not a requirement, nor is it actually achieved by many bloggers, influencers, or other people who practice the zero-waste lifestyle. In actuality, the zero-waste lifestyle is about your commitment to reducing the amount of waste you produce so that it is as close to zero as possible, as explained by Eco-Cycle Solutions. So don’t fret about not getting to zero-waste and put your focus on the process of reducing waste instead. By the way, you don’t actually have to store your trash in a mason jar; it is just an example of how people in the zero-waste community keep track of the trash they generate over a period of time and proves just how much of the trash we generate can be repurposed.
Myth 2: Zero-waste living is expensive
It depends. Ignoring all the external factors that may affect your current living expenses and how they compare to your expenses when you convert to zero-waste living — such as how economical you were previously with your expenses or the area in which you reside and buy your necessities from — you can potentially save money from zero-waste living. For example, investing in reusable items like water bottles, shopping bags, straws, coffee tumblers, washcloths, metal/glass containers, and so on will cut your future expenses on their single-use counterparts such as paper towels, styrofoam containers, and all forms of single-use plastic. A water bottle alone can save you $17,290, which is equivalent to a lifetime’s worth of plastic water bottles.
When you start living the zero-waste lifestyle, you will also start seeking grocery alternatives that don’t use as much plastic packaging, buy produce from farmer’s markets, and buy in bulk, which is definitely cheaper than buying from the supermarket every week. A study from Ohio State University found that packaging could cost anywhere from 1.4% to 40% of the total selling price, which goes to show just how much consumers are regularly spending on packaging alone. One caveat to this is that it does depend on the availability of fresh produce in your area and whether or not you have access to supermarkets that are package or waste-free, as a lack of access to these things will mean you may spend more than you intended on your groceries if you decide to commute to eco-friendly supermarkets that may be located further away from your home.
Another aspect of zero-waste living is that you will also become more conscious of what you are buying and may not impulsively buy things as you did before. Like zero-waste advocate Kathryn Kellogg mentions in her blog, you’ll start questioning whether you need certain items when shopping, which helps regulate your shopping habits and by extension, how much waste you will generate along with how much you spend on trivial items.
Myth 3: Zero-waste is only about how much I throw away in the trash/recycle
False. This myth comes from the idea that zero-waste living is the same thing as remembering to sort out your trash into the correct recycling bins or reducing how much garbage you take out to the curb every week. This flawed reasoning is usually used by people who start burning their trash in an attempt to reduce the amount of waste they throw out and use the fire/heat generated for energy, without considering the fact that they are increasing their carbon footprint and that burning their trash for energy is not sustainable as they will continually have to find more and more material to burn.
In reality, zero-waste living is a holistic lifestyle that looks at your impact on the environment and tries to reduce it in every aspect possible, including your trash and contribution to landfills as well as your carbon footprint. If we go back and break down the definition of zero-waste provided by Zero-Waste International Alliance, it talks about conserving all resources “without burning and with no discharges to land, water or air”, which means that burning trash doesn’t count as conserving resources because once those resources are burnt up they cannot be reused or recovered in some way. It also means that just recycling your waste is not enough, as a study has shown that of all the plastic that has been produced only 9% of it has been recycled.
Myth 4: Zero-waste living is time-consuming
It depends. As with everything else in life, how time-consuming a commitment might be is entirely up to how much you prioritize the commitment, how efficient you are, and how much time you are willing to spend on that commitment. If you’re willing to commit to the zero-waste lifestyle, then you will find ways to accommodate this lifestyle without sacrificing your other priorities and commitments as well. As always, managing your time is key, and if you are truly committed and passionate about what you are doing, there will be ways to save time.
For example, start bulk buying your groceries to reduce the amount of packaging waste you generate. You may also save yourself time in the long run because you won’t have to go to the grocery store as often anymore. The preconceived notion that zero-waste living is time-consuming stems from the initial difficulty people experience transitioning to this lifestyle and the initial struggles with switching to more sustainable alternatives. Once that hurdle is overcome, maintaining a routine, and accommodating the lifestyle into your schedule will be less of an issue. Keep in mind that there are always alternatives to certain tasks. You don’t have to follow how a specific zero-waste blogger lives out this lifestyle, as they are just one example of how a zero-waste lifestyle can look like. Find what works for you and what fits your lifestyle and schedule.
How to Get Started
If you’re still not sure of how to get started with the zero-waste lifestyle, we’d suggest taking a look at the 5 Principles of Zero-Waste for some inspiration:
Refuse items that will generate a significant amount of waste, such as produce that comes with a lot of packaging
Reduce your waste by controlling your impulse to buy things you don’t need
Reuse items whenever possible, such as buying reusable items (bottles, straws, bags, etc.), repurposing containers and old clothes, or buying items from a thrift store/second-hand shop
Compost your organic waste from your kitchen instead of throwing them out as they generally get sent to landfills where they cannot properly decompose
Recycle the remaining waste by sorting it into the proper bins and making sure that the trash reaches the proper recycling facilities
The rest is up to you and you can get creative with the entire process! There are also a lot of people in the zero-waste community who have been documenting their journey through blogs or their social media accounts if you ever need an example of how zero-waste living could look like.
Hopefully, this blog post has cleared up any misconceptions about zero-waste living that you might’ve had and inspires you to give this lifestyle a try. It helps to think of zero-waste as the ultimate goal to strive towards, but that the lifestyle is ultimately a journey that you run at your own pace. Remember that the level of zero-waste to which you reach is on a spectrum, not all or nothing and that your small contributions will make a difference in keeping our planet safe for future generations. If you want to learn more about zero-waste living or environmentalism and sustainability be sure to subscribe to our newsletter, stay tuned for more blog posts, and follow us on Instagram @wellmadewrld !