Updated: Dec 29, 2021


Could you fit all the trash you generate each year into a single mason jar? Although it might sound impossible, it’s a feat attained by regular people across the country who are joining the zero waste movement.

What Is Zero Waste?

“Zero waste” describes a lifestyle whose proponents aim to send absolutely no waste to a landfill, incinerator, or the ocean. Instead, they focus on finding ways to recycle, reuse, or refuse items. The concept is often considered part of the larger cradle-to-cradle manufacturing movement. A cradle-to-cradle material or product is recycled into a new product at the end of its life so that there is no waste. In contrast, most traditional manufacturing is considered cradle-to-grave, a linear model wherein a raw material is extracted from the earth, manufactured into a product that’s sold to consumers, and then disposed of in a landfill when it breaks, is used up, or once the consumer no longer wants or needs the product.

However, with global temperatures on the rise, extreme weather events, the ever-increasing size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and an alarming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, many people aren’t waiting on manufacturing practices to change. Instead, they’re taking things into their own hands, seeking to reduce their resource consumption, purchase items secondhand, reuse products, and get their net trash output to zero – or as close to zero as they can.

The Zero Waste Movement

The zero waste movement has been rapidly gaining popularity over the past decade, and most zero waste bloggers and lifestyle experts point to Bea Johnson as the mother of the movement. Johnson, who started the blog Zero Waste Home in 2008 chronicling her family’s zero waste journey, is one of the movement’s most famous spokespeople. When she launched her quest, most people had never heard the term “zero waste” as it was mainly used in government documents and by manufacturing companies.

Due to a combination of factors, from the 2008 financial crisis to the increase of extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy, people were poised to take matters into their own hands and reduce their household waste and expenditures. Today, zero waste is no longer a quirky habit practiced only by hippies with compost piles in their backyards; it’s a movement that doesn’t show any sign of slowing down.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans generate about 262 million tons of trash each year, over half of which goes to a landfill. This averages to about 4.5 pounds of trash per person in this country of 330 million, every single day. By contrast, in 1960, the average person generated 2.68 pounds of waste per day. The United States is home to only about 4% of the world’s population but produces almost 30% of its waste. It’s no wonder people are trying to reduce the amount of trash they’re personally responsible for generating.

How You Can Work Toward Zero Waste

In addition to saving precious and non-renewable resources, pursuing a zero waste lifestyle can save you time and money. Johnson, for example, estimates that going zero waste helped reduce her family’s household costs by 40%, which was a welcome bonus when they started their quest in the depths of the Great Recession. Buying less and taking care of the things you already own so that they last longer can save you money both in the short and long run.

How can you work toward zero waste in your life? Most zero waste proponents recommend following five key tenets, in order of priority: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot.

1. Refuse

This one is easy: Simply refuse any items you don’t need, and don’t bring them into your house. That includes anything a person or company tries to give away for free, such as:

  • A promotional tote bag from a work conference

  • A free pen from your bank

  • A plastic bobble head figure from the local ballpark family night

  • The plastic utensils, straws, and paper napkins that come with your takeout order

At first, you may be tempted to accept such things just because they’re free and it’s hard for a budget-conscious person to pass up the lure of free stuff. However, anyone who has taken an introductory economics class knows the maxim “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” In other words, nothing is truly free; someone, somewhere pays for the cost of an item, and that cost is usually eventually passed onto the consumer.

2. Reduce

This is one of the zero waste tenets that will probably save you the most money, especially at the outset. It’s also pretty self-explanatory: Reduce the number of things you buy and consume.

Every time you consider buying something new – from clothing to electronics to home accessories – ask yourself if you really, truly need it. Most of the time, the answer will be no. You’ll likely be surprised by the sheer number of stuff you stop buying once you start to question every purchase you make.

You can also work to reduce the things you do need by changing some of your practices. If you’re in the habit of buying potato chips in pre-portioned, individual packages for convenience, consider buying one bag and portioning it out yourself as needed – or give up eating chips altogether. Reduce your reliance on single-use items, such as disposable plastic razors, plastic water bottles, and individual yogurt cups.

From a budget perspective, single-use and small-portion items are usually more expensive than their reusable and bulk counterparts. A reusable bottle and distilled water from home are virtually free, whereas Americans pay an estimated 2,000% markup on bottled water, which is the same thing. Retailers know they can charge a premium for convenience, so by reducing how often you buy these items – or eliminating them altogether – you save money as well as the environment. For an incentive beyond your budget, keep in mind that single-use items account for almost 90% of the plastic in the oceans.

Instead of buying disposable paper or plastic plates, cups, and cutlery and plastic baggies and single-use storage cartons, switch to reusable items. If you host parties and cookouts a few times a year, investing in some reusable melamine plates or other non-breakable dishes will reduce your trash output and the number of items you need to buy in preparation for these events. When storing food, choose containers you can use over and over again, such as glass baking dishes and beeswax-coated food wrap.

Switch to reusable canvas grocery bags or use the plastic single-use bags you probably have an enormous collection of under your sink or in your pantry. You can also use these as trash can liners instead of buying plastic trash bags at the store. For every item you buy regularly, ask yourself if there’s a reusable version you can buy just one time or fashion a version from something you already own instead.

Finally, reduce the amount of energy you use. Set your home’s thermostat lower in the winter. Practice meal planning to reduce your grocery bill and food waste. Services like HelloFresh will send you enough food for your meals, helping to eliminate waste. Anything you can do to reduce the resources you consume will help you work toward zero waste and save you money.

3. Reuse

Reuse everything you can, for as long as you can, in all the ways that you can. This category can be fun as it helps you stretch your imagination – who doesn’t love the treasure hunt aspect of secondhand shopping?

For example, if one of your favourite cotton t-shirts gets a hole in it, pull out a needle and thread and repair it instead of tossing it in the donate pile. If you don’t know how to sew, find an online tutorial to teach you. This simple fix can get you a few more years of wear out of the garment and keep you from spending money on a replacement.

If the shirt eventually wears out to the point that it’s no longer worth fixing, cut it into squares and use them for cleaning and multi-purpose rags instead of relying on disposable paper towels. This will save you money at the grocery store and save a tree. The National Resources Defense Council estimates that 500,000 acres of arboreal forest are cut down every year for pulp to make disposable products. What’s more, the plastic packaging from a pack of paper towels ultimately winds up in a landfill. Finally, once you’ve used the shirt to the point that it’s just a few shreds of cotton, you can compost it (more on that coming up).

Think about how many single-use items are based on reusable versions that our grandparents used. There was no such thing as a disposable razor or single-use plastic pen during the Great Depression. Look at the disposable items you use each day and ask yourself which reusable versions you could use instead. Instead of getting a disposable cup each time you visit a coffee shop, bring your travel coffee mug when you’re on the go. Stop buying boxes of tissues and instead use a handkerchief or square of old T-shirt to wipe your nose.

When you apply the reuse principle to everything you own, you’ll be surprised by how many things you can reuse instead of buying them new. From reusing coffee grounds to giving a second life to items like pasta sauce jars, get creative and see how long, and in how many ways, you can make something last. Every time you go to throw away an item, ask yourself how you can reuse it instead. If you need inspiration, turn to the Internet, which has a plethora of zero waste blogs, discussion boards, and communities of people seeking to decrease their environmental impact and monthly budget.

4. Recycle

Once something has truly reached the end of its life, you can then recycle it. In addition to setting things like plastic milk jugs and paper bags out on the curb for pickup every week, recycling also means figuring out how to properly dispose of things you can no longer use. There are a number of ways to responsibly dispose of hard-to-recycle items, including finding a local organisation such as a Habitat for Humanity ReStore to take your old household appliances to, searching the Earth911 database to find a recycling centre near you, and sending Brita filters and alkaline batteries to TerraCycle to be responsibly recycled.

If you’re getting rid of something you no longer need that’s still perfectly good, you can also recycle it by sending it into the secondhand economy so someone else can use it. Do this by listing it for sale or giving it away for free on sites such as Craigslist or apps such as Letgo. Put an ad on your apartment building bulletin board or ask your friends and neighbours if they need or want it. Doing so could help you earn a little money and will keep the item from heading to the landfill or getting recycled while it’s still perfectly usable.

If you’re wondering why “recycle” is so far down the zero waste list, it’s because simply tossing an item in the recycling bin doesn’t guarantee a happy ending. In fact, by some estimates, almost 25% of the things an average consumer puts out with their municipal recycling actually ends up in the landfill for several reasons.

Customers don’t always know what can and can’t be recycled. If they throw something in their recycling bin that can’t be processed, that item can actually contaminate the entire recycling batch, which means the whole thing has to be sent to the landfill instead. Dirty or food-soiled containers also can’t be recycled, so if you don’t wash out a tomato sauce jar, or you throw a cheesy, grease-soaked pizza box into the bin and hope for the best, those items have to be painstakingly pulled out of the stream either by municipal workers or at the recycling facility.

Finally, in the past, much of our recyclables were shipped to China instead of being processed in the United States. But ever since China banned the import of many types of plastic and paper in January 2018, recyclers and waste management companies have had literal tons of recyclable materials on their hands and nowhere to send it. In many cases, it’s more cost-effective to send this stuff to the landfill than recycle it.

There are also a number of materials that can only be recycled once, or down-cycled. Plastic especially, due to the nature of its molecular makeup, can often only be melted down and re-formed once, often in the form of other lower-quality plastic items like plastic lumber and insulation materials. These second-generation plastic items, once they break down or are no longer wanted, are then sent to the landfill.

In all cases, choosing reusable containers and reducing the need for single-use plastic items is better than absolving your conscience by throwing them in the recycling bin.

5. Rot

The final tenet of zero waste is rot, another way of saying “compost.” If you’re new to composting, it’s the aerobic method by which organic waste breaks down. Most of us probably learned about the breakdown of organic matter way back in elementary school when we buried both a banana peel and a plastic bag in the ground and then dug them up six weeks later to see what had happened. The banana peel, aided by bacteria and oxygen in the soil, began to turn into dirt, whereas the plastic bag just got dirty.

Why bother composting when you can just throw food waste into the garbage and let it compost in the landfill? You may be surprised to learn that most items destined for the landfill don’t actually decompose. Landfills are lined with non-porous materials, such as plastic and clay, to contain trash and keep it from leaking into the ground below. This keeps everything in the landfill quarantined from soil and air, both of which are essential to composting. Landfills also mix everything into one big pile, instead of separating things that will turn back into dirt, such as banana peels, and things that never will, such as plastic.

For these reasons and more, avid zero waste followers compost everything that can’t be refused, reused, or recycled, either by starting a compost pile in their backyard, setting up vermicomposting in their kitchen, or finding a community garden where they can compost their kitchen scraps and plant cuttings. I live in a high-rise apartment building with no outdoor space and don’t have the kitchen capacity to host 30,000 worms, so I found a local nursery with a small composting setup to send my scraps to instead. The high-quality dirt that composting creates is an added benefit of keeping this organic matter out of the landfill; it’s better than any plastic bag of potting soil you buy at the store, and it’s free.

Pitfalls to Avoid

If you’re ready to jump on the zero waste bandwagon, there are a few things to keep in mind as you embrace this lifestyle.

1. You Don’t Have to Buy Anything New

You don’t need to buy special items in your quest toward fewer throwaway items and less packaging. Many zero waste bloggers post pictures of their reusable metal straws, fancy mesh produce bags, and beautiful Le Parfait storage containers, but you can simply opt out of using plastic straws and transport produce from the grocery store in any cloth or vinyl tote bag you already have. Instead of investing in a brand-new set of matching glass containers, re-use old pasta sauce and spice jars to store bulk food items, or pick up some canning jars from your local Goodwill for pennies.

2. Don’t Toss Things You Already Own

You also don’t have to buy fancy new eco-friendly shampoo or toss out all the cleaning products currently under your bathroom sink. An important part of zero waste is using what you already have instead of being lured by the siren song of something new. It can be tempting to want to buy a pretty new stainless steel travel mug for your daily coffee, but the free reusable mug you got from your last work event or public radio station donation works just as well.

3. Progress Is Better Than Perfection

Figuring out what to do with all the stuff you already have can get exhausting. If you find yourself overwhelmed with questions about how to reuse or responsibly dispose of something, don’t despair. The zero waste lifestyle isn’t a competition; if you never get your family’s yearly trash output to fit into a mason jar, you won’t be kicked out of the movement. Any step you can take is better – both for the environment and for your budget – than doing nothing at all.

Set a goal for yourself or your family, and make it a fun competition instead of yet another chore. If you hit your target, reward yourself with something that’s not a physical item, like a fun family activity, an ice cream outing, or dinner at a favourite restaurant.

The Final Word...

There are a number of resources that can help you on your quest toward zero waste, such as local “Buy Nothing” groups, OLIO (an app made for food sharing), the Freecycle Network, and zero waste bloggers. Learn to love shopping secondhand, embrace the sharing economy, and think creatively about the items in your house, and you’ll be well on your way toward lessening your environmental impact and increasing your savings.

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