What is Zero Waste?
Zero Waste, for the purposes of this blog, refers to eliminating or significantly reducing waste. This includes recycling.
The larger answer is that we aim to redefine the economy. We currently live in a linear economy. We create products from raw materials, use them, and then toss them. In contrast, in a circular economy, we create products that are meant to last from raw materials, use them, and when they are no longer usable they are turned into new materials and enter the economy again. This photo from The Story of Stuff perfectly sums up the difference between a linear economy and a circular economy.
Why does zero waste include recycling?
When given the choice between recycling and not, recycling is always the better choice. However, there are many issues with our recycling system.
In the United States, we export about one-third of our recycling to China. In late 2017, China announced that it would no longer be accepting recycling from other countries - and who can blame them? So what does that mean for us? It means that in most cases, our recycling is now trash.
For items that are able to be recycled, most of them cannot actually be fully recycled. Many of us have probably seen clothing advertising to be made of plastic bottles. And if you're like me, you thought "Wow! That's amazing! Our bottles are being reused in such a fantastic way!" And while I am still thrilled that these bottles are not taking up space in our landfills, these bottles were downcycled, and these fleece sweatshirts and other clothing items are not reducing the demand for new plastic bottles. We are still extracting new resources to create new bottles.
How much do I have to reduce my waste before I can call myself "zero waste"?
Here's the thing. None of us will ever be completely "zero waste". At least, not until we have a complete overhaul of our economy and become a circular economy. No matter how small our trash cans (or iconic trash jars) are, we will still be creating waste upstream. We may purchase all of our food from bulk bins in our own containers, but those bulk foods had to be delivered to the store somehow, and they may have very well been shipped in a large plastic bag. But, even if that is the case, we're creating less waste than if we purchased the items individually wrapped.
If you are making any effort at all to reduce your waste, that is amazing and I applaud you. Zero waste is not about being perfect. Every small change we make adds up to huge impacts for our big blue planet. Each of our individual drops in the ocean add up to the whole ocean together.