What is Zero Waste?

Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. – Ancient Proverb

If you’re anything like me, you know that you care for the environment and you’ve known this for a long time. In that time, you may have come across tidbit advice here and there: take shorter showers, drive less, eat local and so on. After awhile, you’ve collected so many little “to do’s” that you’ve simply lost track of them all. Their relative importance with one another can escape you. Worst of all, if someone were to quiz you on why you do those little eco-tasks, the question can leave you staring blankly. This is the sad state of environmentalist affairs.

It is also why I’ve been so enamored by the zero waste movement. I see it as the answer to these problems.

I’m not saying the movement is perfect, it does have its own problems. The main one, in my opinion, is that it focuses on only three parts of the supply chain – acquisition, use and disposal. This leaves production, shipping, labor and animal issues somewhat neglected.

Zero Waste is a personal sustainability project that one can take on to drastically reduce their environmental footprint and to comprehensively change one’s lifestyle. Béa Johnson, author of The Zero Waste Home, created a system called the 5 R’s, which, if addressed in order, places eco-tasks in a hierarchy and involves the full process of consumption.

zero waste home

The Five R’s Are:

  1. Refuse what you do not need. This is refusing a plastic straw, a business card, a swimming pool, junk mail, a second home, etc. The list can go on and on and will vary from person to person. What is my “don’t need” could be another’s “must have”. The point is, that evaluating what we take into our lives and being vigilant gatekeepers is a crucial first step. Simply don’t bring into your life those things that you do not agree with or that do not support your lifestyle. This will actually affect some areas of the supply chain. When we consume something, we tell the industry and our community that something is acceptable. Likewise, if we choose to abstain, we can send the message that certain things are unnecessary or unethical.
  2. Reduce what you do need. Living on this Earth requires the consumption of resources. However, we can choose how big or small our consumptive impact will be. We can eat less, lower on the food chain, we can collect fewer clothes, fewer trinkets, we can use less energy, less water, extend the life of our stuff, and so on.
  3. Reuse what you do consume. Reuse means finding ways to keep manufactured goods going. This means buying used and secondhand, it means bringing cloth bags shopping, bringing a water bottle, using rags instead of paper towels, repairing goods and so on. It means ditching the disposable in favor of the re-usable.
  4. Recycle. Recycling is a process that transforms a material into a new good and it requires additional inputs such as water and energy. Some materials are more easily recycled and can be recycled over and over again. For the most part, this is metal, glass, and paper/cardboard. Plastic has a very limited number of times that it can go through this process and still create something useful. This is why many zero-wasters avoid purchasing as much plastic as they can.
  5. Rot/Compost the rest. Composting is nature’s way of recycling. This can be more than table scraps too. You can compost hair, fingernail clippings, the contents of a vacuum cleaner or your dust pan.

Consider the plastic grocery bag. Technically, they are recyclable, but whether or not they can be or will be depends upon what the local recycling center accepts and what the consumer is willing to do to get it recycled. However, by using the 5 R’s, a zero waster has already refused the single use plastic bag in favor of a reusable cloth one by following the first and third R’s. Therefore, figuring out what to do with the plastic bag is a non-issue.

Here, the order of the 5 R’s allows you to efficiently overcome the more difficult waste problems by avoiding consumption first, reducing the amount consumed overall, reusing whenever possible, and only then looking to dispose of the much reduced waste within the context of recycling or rotting.

Zero Waste Isn’t About Recycling More

As Béa Johnson is known for saying, zero waste isn’t about recycling more. I think it’s about a comprehensive lifestyle redesign. This sounds ominous, but the layout is all right in front of you in the 5 R’s. That’s the beauty of it. And it starts with embracing simplicity.

Until next time, live lightly and shine brightly!

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