Zero Waste – What is it?

Check out this crazy/inspiring video of Lauren Singer’s  zero waste life. She has a little jar where she keeps all the trash she’s generated in the last two years. What’s even crazier is that she’s not the only one doing this. In fact,  Bea Johnson’s book Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste has a huge following. Both of these just came onto my radar this year, and since then I’ve been hearing this phrase “zero waste” bandied about all over the place. What does it mean, why is it important, and is it really an achievable goal on a personal or household level?

Why Aim for Zero Waste?

Trash is an enormous problem in the world and will only get worse as the US exports its consumer lifestyle to the four corners of the Earth. Lebanon’s current garbage crisis has been in the news, and a 2014 article about Bangalore, India,’s garbage crisis in The Atlantic shows how landfills can overflow and how citizens sometimes take to dumping trash in the streets. This trash causes illness outbreaks such as dengue fever and poisons water sources.

The author, environmental law professor Noah Sachs, notes that the current crisis is only the tip of the iceberg, as Bangaloreans currently produce only ¼ or less than what the average American does. He writes, “We’ve nearly doubled our per capita output of garbage since 1960, to the point where we now generate 50 percent more trash than Western Europeans and two to three times more than the Japanese.”

Whether we dump waste directly into rivers or use it to turn otherwise arable land into toxic, methane-emitting dumps, we are degrading the natural resources we depend on every time we throw out a bag of trash.

So, What is Zero Waste?

The Zero Waste International Alliance defines zero waste as

“a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.

Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.

Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.”

What is meant here by products is pretty clear, but what about processes? These can include the following:

1. Manufacturing processes

What happens to all the scraps and by-products that result from the manufacture or processing of various products? For example, what happens to all the whey that is extracted from Greek yogurt? It sounds silly, but it’s a real question. If you ever buy something that is made from recycled materials, it’s interesting to see how much of that is “post-consumer,” meaning stuff from someone’s recycling bin, vs. “post-industrial” or re-claimed scraps that have not been bought by anyone but would have gone to landfill anyway. Of course, this problem can be addressed by designing smarter manufacturing processes that don’t leave scraps or by-products, or we can find uses for all those scraps. Hefty is now making “Renew” trash bags with 65% post-industrial plastic scraps. They are more affordable than Seventh Generation’s Tall Kitchen Trash Bags, which have 55% recycled post-consumer plastic.

2. Housekeeping processes

What is all the trash are we bringing into our homes, and how can we stop bringing it in? In order for Lauren Singer to fit all her annual trash in a jar, she goes so far as to make her own toothpaste, deodorant, and other products that come in packaging that can’t be recycled or composted. This might be more extreme than most of us are ready to go, but it is worth thinking about the packaging we’re buying along with our products. I draw the line at those huge plastic clamshell things covering the apples at Costco (what is that?!). And my quest to avoid styrofoam and plastic bags is made much easier by Seattle’s laws on those materials. Which brings me to #3, which has to do with what towns & cities can do to help our households reach zero waste goals:

3. Waste management processes

Our tendency towards “Out of sight, out of mind” is not helpful when it comes to trash. So it was super enlightening for my Japanese students from Keio University to go to a Recology Cleanscapes facility last summer to see how workers and machines sort Seattle’s commingled recycling stream. They came back saying they felt really bad for the workers picking through the materials and were suddenly felt much better about having to rinse and sort their own recyclables back in Japan.

When cities like San Francisco, New York, Vancouver and Seattle work towards their “Zero Waste” goals, they mostly change waste management or regulations about take-out packaging, plastic bags, construction/demolition waste disposal, etc. Seattle, and places in Japan and Korea from what I’ve heard, also charge for solid waste disposal by amount, which incentivizes people to avoid non-recyclable packaging.

Will dire future circumstances lead governments to further restrict what kind of trash companies can package our products in? Or will enough of us go “off the grid” and “zero waste” enough to stop buying packaged products altogether?

In my Zero Waste series, I’ll look more closely at what towns can do, and tell you more about how I’m working towards my own zero waste goals. What do you say, will you join me in going asymptotically Zero Waste by 2020? To be continued next #ZeroWaste Wednesday!


  1. A

    I want to do this! We have it down to one trash bin every two weeks or so, but I think we can get to zero with a little effort 🙂 lets make a zero waste club and do it together!

  2. G

    Yeah, sounds good!

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