10 Assumptions about Zero Waste

1)    Everyone practicing Zero Waste is a crazy extremist!

When people hear “Zero Waste” many conjure up images of a family that has one teeny, tiny jar of waste for the entire year.  This may not feel very inclusive to an outsider.  In fact, seeing as though most of us have trashcans and use them, Zero Waste, right off the bat, insinuates that we are bad, and wrong.

But please don't fear me for being a Zero Waster.  I am not the trash police.  We are in fact, more similar than we are different.  I too, create waste.  Ten years on this path and I still have trashcans and I still create trash that goes to the landfill.  I am informed and prepared to make good choices that lead to less landfill waste, but my end result is not yet perfection or zero.  My ideal may be zero, but my real goal is to take small realistic changes each day and each month to replace wasteful habits with waste-free habits.   I don’t want to scare people off, rather I want to inspire and encourage simple, small changes on the large scale, rather than extreme change on the small scale. 

2)    It’s somebody else’s job/problem to deal with trash. 

We have been trained by our society to have an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality about trash.   Our culture has trained us to bag up trash and place it on the curb, and “poof” it’s gone.  We have made it so easy to ignore our trash.  How many of us have every visited a landfill or even considered knowing more about what happens after the curbside collection? 

In Taiwan they are making an effort, to make taking out the trash, more mindful, and the effort is paying off.  In 2014, the average Taiwanese citizen produced less than a kilogram of trash per day (Taiwanese Institute for Sustainable Energy). By comparison, the average American produces roughly two kilos (or about four and a half pounds).

Taiwanese citizens not only receive environmental education, but citizens are more actively involved in the trash process.  In Taiwan, when the trash trucks arrive, they come playing fun music like that of an ice cream truck.  The sound tells people it is time to bring their trash out and toss it into the truck.  That’s right, you produce the trash, you bring it to the truck.

There are also many movements right here in America to inspire people to pay attention to their trash, one such movement is called “Trash on your Back” (http://www.trashonyourback.com), where all the trash you create for 5 days, you carry around on your back.  This confronts us with the question, what would happen if I were responsible for all the trash I created?

3)    I’m never going to have “0” waste, so what’s the point?

 My favorite new quote is “If you’re not for Zero Waste, how much waste are you for?”  Ask yourself, what is an acceptable amount of waste for each human to contribute to the growing landfills each year and multiply that number by the billions of people on the planet.  

According to CompostingCouncil.org, “The US EPA has identified landfills as the single largest source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is 23 times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.

When you really think about it, any reduction in waste headed to the landfill, multiplied by billions of people will make a monumental difference.  Small, individual changes across the large scale are much more significant that extreme change on the small scale. 

 4)    Can’t we just burn our trash?  

Just like landfilling, burning waste also contributes to climate change by releasing greenhouse gases.  Plus, incinerators are known to emit toxins into our air, water and ground.  Additionally, incinerators fuel our system of production and consumption that requires continued use of raw materials.  This goes against the principals of Zero Waste, which seek to create a natural cycle of recovering resources and feeding reused, recycled and composted materials back into the economy to save energy and resources.  

According to Zero Waste International, “Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.  Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.”

5)    Anything “green” must be more expensive.

This is a complete false assumption when it comes to Zero Waste.  Buying in bulk is nearly always more economical than buying small, individually sized containers of the same item.  When we shop like a Zero Waster, it saves us tons of money as we stop and think before we buy, and ask ourselves if we can live without this item.  Then, if we decide to buy an item, we think about bulk buying or buying a version with less packaging.  Sure, its possible to buy fancy, green products that are expensive, but the most basic premises of Zero Waste are about reusing, repurposing, repairing and buying second hand.  All of these actions save you money!

 6)    I already recycle, so I’m doing everything I can. 

When we think of Zero Waste, many people think of recycling and stop there.  What many people don’t know about Zero Waste, is that recycling is actually very far down the chain of desirable Zero Waste choices.   Zero Waste is a strategy that revolutionizes the way we deal with “stuff”.  A classical way of thinking about Zero Waste is the 3 R’s (Reduce, Reuse Recycle).  However, now a more complete picture involves 5 R’s.  Coming in ahead of #4 Recycling are #1 Refuse (decline), #2 Reduce & #3 Reuse.

And when it comes to recycling, most people are not in fact recycling all they can.  Some of the biggest culprits we forget to recycle are bathroom products, junk mail and harder to recycle items like e-waste, styrofoam, batteries, etc.  There are countless numbers of items that don’t belong in your curbside bin, but can still be recycled around town.

And after we recycle all that we can, the final “R” is to #5 Rot (Compost).  Composting is an amazing way to take responsibility for your organic waste, instead of letting it rot in the landfill and produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. 

7)      The car I drive and the energy I use is more important to the planet than reducing my waste.

 Sure, saving the planet involves more than just Zero Waste.  There are 3 key areas of individual action: transportation, energy and waste. 

But the importance of waste is often downplayed.  Perhaps the reason is that our consumer culture is driven by corporations whose profits depend on us buying more and more.  But there is also a scientific component. 

Zero Waste is actually not included on most climate action plans, according to EcoCycle, “When the EPA calculates greenhouse gas emissions from waste … they only look at the emissions from landfills and incinerators.  But waste isn’t just what happens after you discarded the product—where are the emissions from all the energy and materials used to extract, process and deliver that product to you?”

EcoCycle also makes this very critical point, “…the way we produce, consume and dispose of our goods and food accounts for 42% of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. This means the choices we make about our “stuff” has a bigger impact than driving our car or heating our homes.”

 8)    Zero waste is about trash, which is gross. 

Trash is gross, yes.  But Zero Waste is beautiful!  Yes, beautiful!  Think about it.   Plastic bags are ugly, especially when you see them floating and blowing around in nature.  Trash wrapped around wild life is disgusting and disturbing.  The floating island of trash in the ocean is so disturbing and mind blowing. 

But Zero Waste means less trash.  Picture shopping at the local farmers market, perhaps with a fair trade woven basket, picking out colorful produce (that is not shrink wrapped in plastic).  Or shopping at the market with cool, funky reusable bags, rather than a cart full of plastic produce bags.  At home, it is a pantry full of beautiful reused glass jars filled with cereal and snacks rather than obnoxious cardboard boxes covered in product advertisements. 

Zero Waste is about less clutter and about clean, simple living.  It is about quality, reusable items, over single use, meaningless items.  When you start living a Zero Waste lifestyle, you begin to see all the ways in which it is special and beautiful. 

9)     Zero Waste seems complicated.   I never know where to put anything. 

 Sure, sometimes recycling rules can be confusing.  The main reason is, rules vary from city to city and they often change.  But once you understand your city’s rules, and some simple rules of thumb, you can know where to put most commonly used item.  Additionally, there are resources out there to help!  Kelly Green Consultant LLC was created out of my desire to simplify Zero Waste and make it easy and accessible for everyone.   

 At its most basic level, Zero Waste is a simple shift in the way we relate to “stuff”.  It’s about the pause before we buy or throw something away, to make the best possible choice.  It’s about small changes that, with repetition of action, become habit.  And we all know that once something is habit, it’s easy.  Let’s take a great example of Zero Waste in action: reusable bags.  We have plastic bag ordinances all over the country.  We responded to this call of action by bringing our own bags and guess what?  It’s easy, and it feels great!

10) I don’t have time to think about Zero Waste.    

 We are living busy lives where convenience is crucial.  However, convenience is often wrapped in very wasteful packaging.  Waste is a terrible strategy in any context.  It only works if you have unlimited resources. 

 One thing I have come to learn is that if something is meaningful or rewarding enough, we make time for it.  Being busy is not an excuse for living in a bubble of obliviousness and denial.   Take for example picking up your dog’s poop.  No matter how busy someone is, it’s not an excuse for not taking responsibility and picking up the poop. 

 What finally snapped me out of my denial was the threat of a proposed landfill very close to the neighborhood of my home on the beautiful little island of Kauai.  Living on a small island is in many ways a microcosm of the planet earth.  Most of all the trash you create stays right there.  Recycling is minimal when there are no recycling facilities and transferring them via ship to the mainland is very costly.  I didn’t want a landfill as my neighbor and that meant I had to face the facts about what I contributed to the mounting trash problem.

 When we start to live mindfully, we can stay connected to that which is important to us.  For me, this mindfulness led me to the Zero Waste movement.  I believe Zero Waste is the call to action that will produce the greatest impact on reversing global warming.  Zero waste is simple, efficient and convenient. 

If you have somehow managed to make it to the end of this, you likely are coming to see the beauty and simplicity in this call to action.  And just by knowing what you know now already, you are well on the Zero Waste journey.  Good Luck!