Why Is "Zero Waste" Still a Thing?

Over the past couple of years, the zero waste movement has shot up in popularity, inspiring millions of people to take a closer look at how much stuff they’re throwing away. Not only are people are talking about it on social media, but mainstream news channels have picked up on it too, bringing the message to a greater amount of people. Even big businesses have been influenced and are offering more sustainable options to customers like bulk bins, plastic-free produce, and selling reusable grocery bags.

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This is obviously a good thing, right? Well, yes and no. Of course anything that encourages people to cut down on plastic, recycle more, and seek out less wasteful alternatives when possible is going to have a positive impact. But is basing an entire movement off of a phrase that is unattainable and misleading and therefore inaccurately represents the goal of the movement really the best way to encourage more people to join?

It’s easy for people to assume, based on the label, that zero waste is about producing no waste at all, and get scared away because they don’t feel like they could ever produce zero waste. And they’re completely right. It is not possible to produce no waste, or to have no negative impact on this earth. Even the people who can fit their trash for a year into one little mason jar… still have trash and still contribute to waste aside from that physical trash.

When we think of our impact as simply how much stuff we throw away, we’re ignoring the reality that we don’t see most of the waste we contribute to. You can buy all your food at bulk stores, DIY all your cleaning, beauty, and hygiene products, and only buy other things second hand, and you’ll still be contributing to tons of waste each year.

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We don’t often think about the resources that go into making the things we buy. Food, clothes, electronics, furniture, vehicles, even our handy little eco-friendly products. Most of them are made in factories.. that produce waste.. and pollute the air with fossil fuel emissions.. and pollute waterways as well. Machines that transport goods around the factories may run on diesel fuel. Sometimes the items are wrapped in large quantities in plastic that you’ll never see. And that’s all before they’re even being shipped out.

Everything we buy requires transportation. Take bananas for example, they may travel from a plantation in Panama by truck to a storage facility or a container terminal until they can be loaded onto a boat. During this time they will need to be cooled so they don’t rot, which takes energy. Then they may travel a couple thousand miles by boat to New York or France which may take 1-2 weeks, using more than 100 tons of fuel oil per day. Then they’ll be distributed by truck all over the region. All of this has huge environmental consequences, even though when we get those bananas, we only have to throw away that tiny little sticker. Or if we don’t compost, the peels will go to the landfill too and they won’t biodegrade because organic matter can’t break down when it there’s no oxygen flow, which is usually what happens in landfills.

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Even recycling, which many people do as part of their ‘zero waste’ lifestyle, is not remotely waste free. You could be the perfect recycler, but if your items end up being contaminated by other items that are not recyclable or were not properly cleaned, they could get sent to the landfill. Items that make it past that will get shipped to the highest bidder, which will often mean a long boat ride overseas. In some areas, the bids aren’t high enough for it to actually be profitable, and therefore, a lot of the recycled materials end up getting sent, again, straight to the landfill.

There are many other areas of life that we create waste as well, even the ‘zero wasters’. Every time we take a shower, some of that water technically goes to waste because we could’ve taken a quicker one. Everytime we order a new eco friendly plastic-free item online from Australia if we live in, say, Germany, that item has to take a long trip to get there and it might’ve been more sustainable to buy a locally made version that comes with plastic. Driving to work has an impact. Flying to visit family or go on vacation has an impact. Even buying second hand has an impact. Most of what we do and use has a negative impact so why do we continue to use a term that makes it sound like it’s possible to eliminate that?

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Right now, zero waste is much more popular and widespread than low waste, conscious waste, or low impact, which are all terms that not only more accurately describe the movement, but are also more inviting to people who don’t want to or can’t devote a lot of their time to trying to produce a mason jar of trash a year. People are much more likely to give something a try when it has an attainable goal. Even if zero wasters are constantly saying zero waste isn’t about zero waste, that’s the impression most people get based on the name. And not only that, but it makes those who are trying to be zero waste feel like they’ll never get there and can discourage them, leading them to give up.

Reducing your impact on this planet requires sacrifices. Not everyone wants to make the same amount of sacrifices and not everyone can. In many ways, reducing your waste can be free or even save you money, but in other ways it can be expensive and not an option for lower income people or those with limited access to low waste options like bulk food stores, second hand stores, or purchasing locally grown food.. or buying a label maker to make their instagrams more aesthetically pleasing.

The term zero waste might get the most clicks and views right now, but the more online content creators that switch over to accurate and attainable terms, the more popular those will become. People who come across low waste or low impact rather than zero waste might be more likely to look into leading more sustainable lifestyles, and do the best they can for their circumstances, but also hopefully see that being conscious of their impact extends further than just what goes in the trash can.

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We can’t escape the fact that to be alive means to have some amount of negative effect on our planet so to all the bloggers, youtubers, instagramers, facebookers out there, and even those who don’t share about eco friendly living online, let’s make it easier for people to know that sustainability is not about having a completely plastic free home, getting all your food in bulk, or only buying second hand. Those things are amazing but you don’t have to do those to be conscious of and reduce your waste and overall impact. A million people implementing a couple sustainable practices or items into their lives is going to do so much more than a hundred people who consider themselves ‘zero waste’. So do what is practical in your life, and know that that is enough.