Zero waste: an attainable guide to pulling it off, according to experts

This article is part of 'An Optimist's Guide to the End of the World,' a collection of stories aimed at disproving the idea that humanity is doomed.

The idea of a "zero waste" lifestyle is a growing trend, particularly online, where YouTubers, bloggers, chefs, and scientists have all started embracing the movement. But for the average person, the concept of “zero” can be intimidating. It feels absolute, definite. So when people hear the concept of zero waste, a way of living that requires its adherents to reduce, reuse, and recycle as much as possible, they might feel overwhelmed, especially if they have a bag full of trash in the kitchen that isn't quite as Instagram-worthy as a waste-free life. But the trend doesn’t have to be a flash in the pan or a lifestyle reserved for influencers. Experts believe that the goal is largely achievable, and even incremental movements toward it would produce noteworthy benefits for the environment.

What is zero waste?

The concept of zero waste started out as an industry certification standard. Richard Anthony, the founder of Zero Waste International Alliance, tells Mic that the original definition of zero waste "involves emulating nature, designing for the environment and absolutely no polluting discards to the air, water, and land." That has shifted in recent years, and a commonly accepted definition, offered by environmental justice organization Global Anti Incineration Alliance, is "the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health."

While the zero waste goal started for businesses, the name has been embraced by individuals who want to cut back on their own waste. Kathryn Kellogg — the founder of the Going Zero Waste blog, author of 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste, and a leading voice for the consumer movement toward waste-free living — has a simpler way to approach it: send nothing to a landfill. “The definition that I really like that applies to home living is completely write out of existence because we waste so much more than just what we put in our trash can,” she tells Mic.

Why focus on avoiding landfills? Well, on top of being sizable eyesores, these massive waste reserves are also significant contributors to climate change. As the piles upon piles of waste decompose, carbon dioxide and methane is released, and those gases are 28 to 36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100-year period, according to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The US Environmental Protection Agency reports that landfills are the third-largest source of human-made methane gas, accounting for over 14 percent of all such emissions. Research has shown that not only is the greenhouse gas emissions from landfills helping to warm the planet, but it also contributes to air pollution, which can result in all sorts of negative health effects on those exposed to it. There's also the matter of landfill runoff. Landfills leak, and when they do, they release harmful toxins in the environment and dump an unimaginable amount of plastic into waterways. The problem is so bad that some experts project that by 2050, the amount of plastic waste in the sea will outweigh all of the fish put together.

How to start down the path to zero waste

Concern over plastic waste was enough for Anne-Marie Bonneau, best known for her blog Zero Waste Chef, to upend her way of living. She tells Mic that the images of plastic waste and its effects on wildlife were enough to push her and her family toward pursuing a plastic-free lifestyle in 2011. But that shift wasn't an easy one — at least not at first. "I stood in the bathroom tissue aisle at Safeway, and I turned [to my daughter] and I said, 'How are we ever going to do this? This is going to be impossible,'" she tells Mic. That sense of being overwhelmed by the task is one that just about anyone pursuing a zero waste lifestyle is bound to feel during the process, especially if your starting point is eliminating something as prevalent as plastic.

That doesn't mean the change is impossible, though it's important to allow yourself time to make the shift, especially because much of the change required falls outside of your own control. Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, tells Mic that "While individual behavior is really important, and awareness is really important, that an individual can only go so far." She says that for zero waste goals to be more attainable, it will require industry to make more choices available. "We as consumers do not make the decisions about how items are packaged, but we can give feedback to the companies and that absolutely has an influence," she explains. "But we also need those companies to step up and do the research and development to make different priorities to allocate their funding differently so that they really start to prioritize putting products and packages into the marketplace that aren't disposable."

In the process of pursuing zero waste, there will always be sore spots in picking products that fit the requirements. For some, like Bonneau, eliminating food waste is relatively easy once you figure out where to shop. "Food wasn't too hard," she explains, noting that she started doing much of her shopping at farmer's markets and finding unwrapped produce and other bulk foods at grocery stores. This shift eliminates much of the packaging that would otherwise accompany foods, but it's likely to present a new set of challenges for those who aren't already making meals regularly. If you order a lot of take out, delivery, or pre-packaged meals, zero waste may present a shock to your diet.

It also requires a considerable amount of planning ahead. This can mean more up-front investment in food by spending more on a trip to the store knowing that the food will be prepared throughout the week. Bonneau acknowledges that it's not as convenient as buying pre-packaged goods, but once you figure out the planning process, "it solves a lot of problems." Here, too, industry can play a role in helping people better understand their food to eliminate waste. Hoover points out that date labels on foods often confuse people. "Most people think, 'That's the magic date, after that date my food will be bad and it will be it will be unsafe.' And that's not true for almost all items." She notes that dates on packages typically represent a manufacturer's "best guess as to the peak quality of that item" and have nothing to do with safety. Clearer direction on this would save people from tossing items that are still safe to consume even if those items are technically past its peak quality.

Another good place to start the transition to zero waste is not at the store, but at the trash bin. Most people have two bins: trash and recycling. Kellogg recommends starting out by adding a third for composting. “The number one place that people can make a difference right now and see an immediate reduction in at least 60 percent of their waste is to start composting. I think it's one of the best things that you can do for the environment,” she says. Just about any organic material can be composted. That includes things like yard waste — everything from cut grass to sticks and leaves — and food scraps. According to the EPA, this type of waste makes up nearly 30 percent of what gets sent to landfills each year. Instead, that waste can be used to enrich the soil, produce beneficial bacteria, and lower your carbon footprint. While composting may seem like an outdoor activity, you can actually start an indoor compost bin and, if properly managed, it won’t attract pests or create an unpleasant odor.

Not everything has an easy alternative

Note that any zero waste journey is going to have its bumps. Verena Polowy, owner of My Green Closet, tells Mic that she has found the move to zero waste to be cost-prohibitive. “If you don't have access to a store that sells bulk foods it's almost impossible to do your grocery shopping zero waste,” she says. “It can also be quite expensive — and sometimes not very sustainable — to be ordering things or buying specialty products.” She also notes that waste from something like packaging is just one part of the equation when considering a product. “I would much rather order clothing from a brand that manufactures in an environmentally conscious way and pays their workers fairly which is shipped to me in a plastic bag, than purchase clothing at my local fast-fashion retailer without the plastic bag,” she says.

Much like food, these cost considerations require planning. There are up-front costs associated with zero waste living, but Kellogg notes, “when you get to the core of it, zero waste living is really about analyzing what you don't need and removing that from your life. By ditching what you don’t need and reusing as often as you can, over time, any start-up costs should end up paying for themselves. Kellogg says that after three years of zero waste living, she estimates saving about $20,000.

Perhaps one of the hardest areas to adapt to a zero waste philosophy is personal care products. "What I found really hard was switching personal care products, especially shampoo and deodorant," Bonneau notes, calling it "a real struggle" to find suitable options. Some of that has changed. She notes that, "I remember searching for a shampoo bar years ago, I couldn't find them anywhere. And those are easy to find now.” Hoover also identified personal care products as a particular challenge for many, and called on manufacturers to embrace methods that make it easier for people to reuse bottles and other packaging when getting things like shampoos and soaps.

Less waste is the first step to zero waste

For any person who is exploring the possibility of a zero waste lifestyle, there is bound to be at least one hurdle that simply seems like it can't be cleared — a staple of your current life that feels impossible to move. Odds are, it's not as hard as you might think it is, and little changes in the right direction can show you just how attainable the overall goal can be. "Incremental change is great and is what is feasible for people," Hoover says. "If you set yourself too high of a goal and you don't need it, the danger is that you think that your efforts don't count. But the efforts absolutely do count."

Polowy says that she has seen some people pursuing the zero waste goal get too caught up in their own failures along the way and feel guilty about any bit of waste they produce. "I don't think these negative feelings are good for sustainable, long-term change," he says. Instead of focusing on the idea of zero, Polowy uses the term "low waste" as a more approachable goal. "I think a better goal is to reduce your waste and continue to look for ways you can keep improving."

Bonneau, who has been pursuing and living the zero waste lifestyle for nearly a decade now, admitted that "It's impossible to change overnight and you just get frustrated if you try to do that" — a fact she says she wished she knew at the time. But once you get the ball rolling, you might find that it's hard to stop. "It becomes like a game," Bonneau says. "You start with one thing. And then you know, it's fun [...] You start thinking, 'What else can I get rid of?' or 'What else can I change?'” Kellogg believes that once people get started making these changes, “an 80 to 90 percent reduction [in waste] would be possible for a lot of people really easily.”

At the end of the day, it's important to remember that while zero waste sounds like it provides zero wiggle room, it's not necessarily about achieving that mark. "If we had 100 percent of people reducing 10 percent of their waste, that would make a huge difference," Bonneau says. "I think maybe one percent are going to reduce it by 100 percent. I think it's possible, but I don't think that many people are going to reach it." But, she says, that's okay, as long as everybody is on board to at least do something. "I think zero kind of intimidates people, they think, 'If I don't reach zero, I'm doing it wrong.' But it's a goal. And you don't have to do it perfectly to make a difference."