Zero Waste: What is It?

I had never heard of the concept of “zero waste” until my friend Kate Pepler started promoting her new zero waste cafe in Halifax, The Tare Shop.

I’ve always considered myself an environmentalist.

When Kate told me about her shop, I was already using reusable shopping bags and carrying a reusable water bottle and coffee mug.

But I didn't realize the true scope of the problem.

What is Zero Waste?

Zero waste, or the zero waste lifestyle, aims to send nothing to the landfill, and to never use single-use items, usually plastics.

This means shifting to multi-use items (reusable coffee cups, for example), reusing as much as possible, recycling some, and composting.

Personally, I’ve found the philosophy of zero waste to mostly be about shifting mindset.

I now think about what I’m consuming, how much I’m throwing out, and the impact my choices have daily.

Why Not Recycling?

Well, for one thing, the recycling rate for plastics is typically around 9%. That means over 90% of plastics head straight to the landfill.

Even in Nova Scotia, where I consider the recycling program to be good, 52 percent of residential waste and 71 percent of business waste is reusable, recyclable or compostable.

Nova Scotia, like many other places, also ships a lot of their waste overseas to let countries like China deal with it (spoiler, they’re not recycling either).

This is largely an issue with recycling habits and mindset.

Most of us in the Western world have poor consumption habits, don’t recycle properly, and send a lot to the landfill.

But the reality is that plastic, while often recyclable, gets “down-cycled” - turned into another plastic product which will also degrade, and then get thrown out.  

Meaning that even if plastic is properly recycled, it still ends up as trash eventually.

By contrast, glass is 100% recyclable for an infinite amount of time, as is aluminum.

How Much Does One Person Matter?

A lot, it turns out.

A study published in 2013 found that Canada produced the most garbage per citizen out of all the countries ranked - a staggering 777 kg per year, or 2.1 kg (4.6 lbs) per day!  

Americans are similar, producing 2 kg / 4.4 lbs per day.

For someone who has 50 more years to live, cutting their personal waste in half would reduce their lifetime waste by 19,425 kg, or over 19 metric tons of waste!

Zero Waste is a Mindset

Zero waste is not about perfection - it’s not about instantly switching to never producing any waste at all.

Instead, it’s a philosophy or mindset shift towards avoiding single-use consumption.  

Things like:

  • Finding ways to use reusable products, like coffee cups and water bottles.
  • Using materials that can be fully recycled instead of plastics, like glass and aluminum.

And more generally, trying to make small changes that will eventually add up to large results.

Benefits of Zero Waste

Ultimately, the philosophy of zero waste has little downside.  

It often means shopping locally for fresh goods, which also supports local providers.

Zero waste is often cheaper.  

It often means higher quality (sometimes luxury) items instead of cheap and disposable.

It requires an investment in learning to start.  But it soon becomes second-nature.

Where to Start With Zero Waste

I’m going to continue publishing posts on how to get started with Zero Waste.

In the meantime, check out this post on the Top 10 Ways to Get Started on Waste Reduction from the Going Zero Waste blog.

This post on the Trash is for Tossers blog is also good: 10 Waste-Free Changes That Don’t Cost Any Money.

Need More Motivation To Go Zero Waste?

If you’re still not convinced, all you need to do is check out a Google search like this one, where there are endless photos like the one below.

That should be more than enough.

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

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