Zero waste living - what it is, where it came from and how can you start today
May 2020

Lucie Stepankova
A marketing and media student with a passion for all things sustainable and zero waste living. While studying, Lucie also works as a freelancer, writing articles about sustainability and helping eco-businesses with their marketing needs. In her writing, she hopes to inspire people to make small changes that can create a big difference in the world. 

 Published 19.05.2020 

You may have been hearing about zero waste recently and wondering what it actually is. Do some people really manage to create no waste? And what about clothing tags? Household cleaning? Or toilet paper? Zero waste has become a hot topic lately, with more and more people adopting the lifestyle, or becoming low waste or plastic free.

Defining zero waste living sounds simple, but there is much more to the lifestyle than a simple definition. It is a way of living with the ultimate goal of sending no waste to the landfill (or incineration plants, or the ocean… you get the gist). It goes beyond plastic free and tackles all the different sources of waste polluting our planet. This simple essence drives a series of more complex principles, which we will go through in this article, along with examples of how you can implement them in your own life.

Where did zero waste come from?

While zero waste is a relatively new way of living, it is part of a larger movement: environmentalism. Environmentalism, concerned with the preservation and restoration of the natural environment, is a much older movement, dating as far back as ancient Rome.

The founding of the zero waste movement itself can be attributed to Richard Anthony and his team of scientists, activists and waste management professionals. 

Together, they organized many events and attended conferences to spread their message and attract more people to the cause, ultimately creating ZIWA: the Zero Waste International Alliance. ZIWA’s main goal is to set standards for governments, waste management and businesses, which will help the world transition from a linear to a circular, zero waste and plastic free economy.

However, many people are more likely to recall names such as Bea Johnson or Lauren Singer when it comes to the most prominent figures within the zero waste movement. That is because the popularization of the zero waste movement and plastic free living is largely due to the internet and social media. Have you even been on Instagram in the past couple of years, if you haven’t seen a mason jar containing the only waste a zero waste enthusiast has produced in a month, or even a year? Social media is largely responsible for the expansion of zero waste ideas, starting with spreading the word about the lifestyle itself and ending with zero waste alternatives to deodorant or toothpaste.

So how do you zero waste

Now that we have established where zero waste has come from, let’s have a look at its basic principles. One of the most popular frameworks within the movement is the inverted pyramid of 5R’s, established by Bea Johnson. It provides a great summary of how exactly zero waste enthusiasts treat the waste they create in order to limit its amount to a bare minimum. 

When figuring out how to limit the amount of waste you create, you should go down the pyramid and do the first possible step that you can apply to your particular situation. This simple framework can help you go zero waste, low waste or plastic free gradually, without the need to turn your life around from one day to another.


Refuse what you don’t need

The first step of the pyramid is to simply refuse. By choosing not to buy, or not to receive something, you are bringing less stuff into your home, which you will later need to dispose of. 

However, you are also lowering the demand for these products in the long run. For example, if you refuse to take a goodie bag of things you have no use for at an event, the event organizers will note that and next time, they will only cater to that lowered demand.

Reduce what you do need

The second step, reduce, helps you be more aware of what you need in your life and what you are bringing into your home. You may want to let go of items which no longer serve you or rethink some regular purchases.

For long years, you may have been using fabric softener when washing your clothes. During this step, the framework prompts you to think about whether you need to be using it and whether it’s worth the waste it creates and the chemicals it releases into the environment. For me, the answer is a definite NO. What about you?

Reuse what you have, or choose reusable alternatives

Often, what we think we need to purchase to solve a problem is already within our possession. This goes for everything from kitchen utensils to clothing and can save an enormous amount of waste. If you really can’t solve a problem using what you already have, invest in a reusable alternative, rather than a cheap single-use or low-quality item. Why not also reuse what has already been loved by someone else and try shopping second-hand?

Have you been meaning to get a water bottle for your visits to the gym? Rather than buying a cheap plastic bottle, which you will likely have to throw out in a couple of months, choose a durable stainless-steel bottle – it will last you for years.

Recycle what you can

Taking this step may require some rethinking of what limiting your waste production actually means. After all, many of us have been taught that recycling is the #1 way to reduce your waste and, on this pyramid, it is only the second to last step.

Recycling is a great way to give some materials a second life since most metals and glass can be recycled indefinitely. However, be careful about paper and plastic, because they cannot be recycled in the true sense of the word: they can only be downcycled. This means that they can be only recycled a few times before they become unrecyclable. The best way to deal with these materials is during one of the previous steps.

Rot all your food scraps and cardboard

Do you compost yet? Because you should be! Composting has evolved and no longer requires you to have a yard. You can actually buy a home composter which can sit in the middle of your kitchen! This is the best way to dispose of food scraps and some other items such as cardboard, since food scraps sent to the landfill release methane, one of the most dangerous greenhouse gasses.

Are you ready to reduce the amount of waste you are producing? Going zero waste or plastic free is no science. Try referring to the 5R’s when making different choices and watch your waste bin get emptier and emptier every day.

Are you on a zero waste journey? We'd love to know which priciples you're nailing and which can be difficult. Reach out on social media and tell us more.

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