Zero Waste in Real Life: Including Zero Waste Pioneers You Won’t Believe


The Trash Problem

The EPA reports that in 2012 Americans disposed of about 251 million tons of solid waste; that’s almost 4.5 pounds per person per day. A little more than a third of this waste was recycled or composted, leaving 164 million tons to go to landfills and incinerators.

All that trash began as life-supporting raw materials. Once it hits the landfill or incinerator most of those resources are no longer useable by us, so we need to mine or harvest more. Disposable plastics require the extraction of ever more petroleum products, at a mounting fiscal and environmental cost. Disposable paper products accelerate the pace of deforestation.

Unfortunately while the resources are lost to us, the hazardous byproducts don’t disappear so readily. Physicians for Social Responsibility reports that incinerators frequently emit heavy metals, acid gases and dioxins into the atmosphere; people living near incinerators suffer increased rates of lung and stomach cancer. Landfills may pollute groundwater with heavy metals and other toxins, and they also emit gases.

A study by the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health showed increased respiratory ailments among neighbors of one landfill, which emitted high levels of hydrogen sulfide, and similar cases have been reported in other areas. The people most likely to suffer from these waste-driven illnesses are those who are least likely to have access to quality health care, since waste disposal usually takes place in low-income areas.

Just Say No to Trash

The national problem may feel overwhelming. But each of us contributes to it on an immediate, personal level. Some people have made it a top priority to stop being part of this problem and have joined the movement called Zero Waste. The name says it all. They set out to throw nothing away. So far none claim to have succeeded totally, but some have achieved amazing waste reductions, showing a year’s worth of trash fitting into a mason jar.

But achieving zero waste requires more than keeping your trashcan empty.

Let’s take a closer look at that daily per capita figure of four and a half pounds of trash. About one-fifth of that–a little bit less than a pound–is post-consumer waste, discarded directly by individuals. The rest is preconsumer waste generated in packaging and production. So zero-waste households have to work on two fronts. One is monitoring what goes out–trying to reuse, recycle or compost all wastes. (Reusing and composting are sure-fire. Recycling is good when it actually happens. Too often recyclables are landfilled when the market for their base materials goes down.) The other is monitoring what comes in, minimizing purchases and choosing those, which were produced in a way that minimizes the generation of waste.

Zero-Waste Pioneers

Some zero-waste crusaders have gone public with their work to stop draining ecosystems and filling dumps. They describe their own motivations and journeys and offer a plethora of practical tips to new zero-waste aspirants.

Bea Johnson, a native of France and current resident of California, has been living waste-free with her family since 2008. Her motto is “Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.” The Tips section of her website, Zero Waste Home, suggests zero-waste techniques and products for the kitchen, wardrobe, bathroom and much more. The Archives section delves deeper into the daily ups and downs of zero-waste living with children, and into her motivation for going zero-waste to begin with–which included, but were not limits to, ecological concerns. Johnson notes, “We not only feel happier, but we also lead more meaningful lives based on experiences instead of stuff.” Johnson is the author of the book Zero Waste Home, and she speaks worldwide about her experience with waste-free living.

Bea Johnson’s example inspired Lauren Singer of New York City, an environmental studies major in NYC. In the course of her studies Singer became uncomfortable with the gap between what she knew and how she lived. Once she heard of Zero Waste she saw a way to align her daily life with her values. She now blogs about her commitment to zero-waste living at Trash is for Tossers.

Zero Waste

First Steps to Reducing Waste

Most of us are a long way from zero-waste living. These simple first steps can get us moving in the right direction:

1. Compost
Compost biodegradable wastes. 40% of yard trimmings went into landfills in 2012. That material could instead have been turned into valuable fertilizer. Food scraps are another valuable food source that too often ends up being made into waste.
2. Buy Secondhand
Buy secondhand. This keeps useful goods out of the waste stream, reduces the need for new purchases and manufactures, and eliminates packaging.
3. Reusable Items
Carry your own reusable silverware and dishes if you’re going to restaurants or parties where paper and plastic disposables may be used. Take a reusable bag, water bottle and handkerchief with you wherever you go.
4. Buy from Bulk Bins
If you’re lucky enough to live near affordable bulk suppliers of food or eco-focused stores, take your own containers and fill them instead of buying food in disposable packages. Some groceries are set up specifically to facilitate this: see Zero Waste Grocery Store.
5. Live Simply
Resist sales pressure. Advertisers spend millions of dollars trying to convince us that buying Product X will get us the love, happiness and freedom we deserve. We need to see through those messages and learn to find fulfillment in activities that don’t ruin our budgets or our planet.