What is Zero Waste?

A Drop in the Ocean Shop What is zero waste and a circular economy?
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 This post first appeared in our weekly Make Waves Mondays email series on January 10, 2022.

Hello, friend! How was your weekend? If you’re in the Tacoma area, did you get to enjoy some of that gorgeous sunshine we had yesterday?? I don’t know about you, but I am SO ready for spring and summer and sun. 

But, alas, it’s January 😂 At least the days are getting longer!

Like I said last week, since it is January, the start of a new year and a time for slowing down and reflecting, we’re gonna get back to basics here for the next couple of weeks. 

So today we’re gonna go alllll the way back to the absolute basic of basics… What is zero waste?

It’s a simple question, that on the surface may seem like a simple answer.

But if you know me, you know I’m not usually one for simple answers. I don’t believe there are black-and-white solutions to most things, and I don’t believe there are one-size-fits-all ways to be sustainable. So let’s take a closer look at this question for a second.

What isn’t zero waste?

Let’s start with what zero waste is not. Because I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there.

First, zero waste is not possible.

Yes, you heard me (read me?) right.

Zero waste - in the sense of actually creating zero, zilch, nada waste whatsoever - is not possible in our current economy.

We live in a linear economy, or a “take-make-waste” economy. In simple terms, we extract resources from the earth, make things, and then throw those things away. That’s just how society works right now.

A Drop  in the Ocean Linear Economy Diagram

Does that mean we shouldn’t do our best to create less waste? Absolutely not. But it does give us grace to recognize that it’s okay to not be “completely” zero waste. I see comments like this all.the.time. in zero waste groups and forums. People starting posts with “I’m not completely zero waste, but…” But it’s not possible! None of us are! Unless you’re living naked completely off the grid, then, maybe. But since you’re here reading this, I’m assuming you’re not off the grid. Naked? Maybe. I don’t know your life.

Second, zero waste is not recycling more.

I’ve heard this a lot over the years. I’ll tell someone I’m trying to live a zero waste lifestyle and their first response is, “That’s great! I recycle everything. My recycling bin is always overflowing!”

Yeah, recycling is great, but recycling is great when it’s done correctly, and it’s great when it’s done as a last resort.

Third, zero waste is not throwing away all the plastic in your home.

The only thing worse than a single-use item is a zero-use item. If you’ve got plastics or plastic-packaged things around your home that are still in great working condition, keep using ‘em!

The urge to purge of all plastics can be strong in the beginnings of a journey towards a more sustainable lifestyle. Don’t give in! If you’ve already got it, use it.

Okay, so what is zero waste, then?

What a great question, my friend 😁

Zero waste is about creating a circular economy.

So I’ve already mentioned that zero waste isn’t possible in our current, linear, take-make-waste economy. But, then, what’s the alternative?

The alternative is a circular economy.

In a circular economy, nothing goes to waste. I love this diagram from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that really demonstrates what a circular economy would look like wayyy better than I can in words.

MacArthur Foundation Circular Economy Diagram

The larger the circle in the image, the more resources it would take to make that thing happen. So, for example, it’s way less energy to share resources among ourselves as consumers (the innermost circle on the right), than it is to recycle them (the outermost circle on the right).

At the core of a zero waste lifestyle, it’s about pushing for broad-scale changes that will move us all towards a circular economy that will benefit all, not just the few who actively choose to and have the means to live a zero waste life.

It’s bigger than ourselves.

And I think that’s really freaking cool.

Zero waste is about using what we have.

It boggles my mind how I used to buy so much stuff. I could walk into Target and walk out with $100 worth of dollar-section ~stuff~ I was never actually going to use. (I mean, how many post-it notes do I actually use?! The answer is maybe one a month.)

How many pens and notebooks and clothes did I buy for no reason other than they were on sale??

I literally once impulse-bought a stapler. I later returned it because I had a come-to-Jesus moment realizing I already owned three other staplers. Who needs these things???

My closet was overflowing with clothes I thought were, eh, okay, I guess, but just HAD to have them because they were 70% off.

Have you been there, too, maybe?

When we start seeking a zero waste life, we look at what we have, and we find value in those things again. We take a lesson from Marie Kondo and we really learn what sparks joy for us.

Zero waste is about more than trash.

I love the term zero waste because it grounds me. But it doesn’t mean just creating zero trash.

For me, waste is more than trash.

There’s wasted time. Wasted energy. Wasted resources. Wasted money.

And if we look at “zero waste” through that lens, we can see how it can be such a useful term to help us reduce our impacts in all ways.

How can we reduce our time wasted? How can we reduce wasted energy - whether our personal energy or the energy powering our homes? How can we reduce wasted resources? How can we reduce wasted money?

It’s more than trash.

Zero waste is about rethinking…everything.

You may have heard of the 6 R’s of Zero Waste. It’s a rethinking of the 3 R’s we all know and love, reduce, reuse, and recycle.

The very first of the 6 R’s is rethink.

Zero waste is about rethinking. It’s about asking why.

Why is something being done the way it is? Can it be done better?

If you’re familiar with Moji Igun, she often refers to cultivating a zero waste mindset. And that’s really the truth of it. And it doesn’t have to be difficult.

Lemme share a quick example.

For the last, I dunno, year? I’ve been recording the audio for these emails and blogs in my coat closet on my phone. Something about the acoustics in a tiny space sound better than an open room. And since I didn’t want to spend the money and the resources on new equipment, I hauled all the packing supplies out of the closet every Monday afternoon and plopped my booty down on the floor with my laptop and phone and talked to myself with the door shut.

But this year, we’ve got some big things in the works, and I decided it’s time to invest in some new equipment.

I could have easily gone to Amazon, typed in “microphone,” one-click purchased the first result that came up and had it in my hands two days later.

That’s what pre-zero waste Krystina would have done.

But Zero Waste Wannabe Krystina was like, nah fam. Imma zero waste this ish.

I hopped on the Facebook Marketplace and OfferUp and found SO MANY Yeti microphones available. (Apparently lots of people started and gave up podcasts in quarantine 😂). I ended up finding one in its original box, working and looking like new, for nearly half of what I would have paid if I’d gone to Amazon, and zero new resources used. I sprayed it with some sanitizer, cause, ya know, covid, and BAM. I’m now proudly sitting at my desk - not in my closet - recording this Make Waves Monday.

It wasn’t hard. It wasn’t inconvenient. I saved money. I saved resources. The money I did spend stayed in my local economy. And all it took was a mindset shift.

Just a little rethinking.

Zero waste is about doing what you can, when you can, where you can.

We can’t do everything, but we can do something.

Sometimes life happens. Sometimes a global pandemic shuts down bulk bins at the grocery store. Sometimes life gets a bit full and pre-packaged snacks are like a gift from the gods. Sometimes cauliflower only comes in a plastic bag.

Zero waste is not about depriving ourselves. It’s not about forcing ourselves to live a life we don’t love. It’s not about sacrificing our joy.

It’s about living in alignment with our values, finding the things that spark joy, doing our best, with what we’ve got, in this one life we have to live.

There’s no room for guilt when you’re out there living your life so in alignment with who you are and what you value and doing what you can, when you can, where you can.

Now tell me… What is zero waste for you, my friend?

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