The Zero Waste Movement: What You Can Do

recycle binsRecycling is an excellent way to reduce the waste we send to landfills, but unfortunately, we consume much more waste than can be recycled, and some materials cannot be recycled efficiently with our current technology. On its own, recycling is not a complete solution to decreasing waste. Given the fact that the global population continues to increase and people are living longer than ever, more waste is being produced and the challenges of managing this waste grow greater every day.

However, the zero waste movement offers a potential solution to our global waste management problem, by helping people consume less overall and generate less trash in the first place. Read on to learn more about it.

The Current State of Waste Management

Modern life requires a large amount of natural resources and generates an incredible amount of solid waste that can be difficult and costly to dispose of. According to 2013 estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans produce about 254 million tons of garbage every year—this number works out to an average of 4.40 pounds of trash per person per day.

In the US, most municipal waste collected from homes, businesses, and public facilities ends up in a landfill, but many are running out of room—some experts estimate that most landfills are within 5 to 10 years of closing, unless they are expanded. Because space in local landfills may be limited, some cities even export their trash long distances. In 2011, New York City spent the equivalent of $1 million per day transporting waste to landfills in neighboring states. Disposal in landfills can also be problematic because pollutants can slowly seep into the groundwater, and methane (a potent greenhouse gas) may be released into the atmosphere.

Another option for getting rid of waste is to incinerate it—in some European countries where land is scarce, a majority of the waste is incinerated. But even though incinerating trash dramatically reduces demand on landfills, it can release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And while modern technologies can remove much of the harmful toxins produced by incinerating waste, the ash that remains can be highly toxic and may require disposal at a special facility.

What You Can Do to Reduce Waste

Fortunately, it’s not very difficult to dramatically reduce the amount of waste you produce at home and work. Here are four simple principles from the zero waste movement that can help you get started:

basic homeReduce – You don’t have to live like a monk, but think carefully before buying something. Like as not, it will eventually end up in a landfill. Do you really want or need it? Could you postpone buying it? If it’s broken, could you fix it, rather than buy a new one?

When you shop, look for items that have minimal packaging. For example, you might be able to buy foods in bulk; this reduces the packaging waste you’ll generate and it may be cheaper, too.

In addition, remember that you may be able to get what you want without buying it. For example, if you’re planning a ski trip, consider renting your equipment rather than purchasing it. Rather than buy a DVD, subscribe to a service like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime to watch your favorite movies and TV shows.

Reuse – Avoid one-time-use products—like plastic bags at the grocery store—as often as you can. Buy some reusable cloth bags and stash them in your car, so you’ll always have them on hand when you shop. Save paper plates and plastic forks, knives, and spoons for rare occasions; try to use regular dishes and cutlery on a daily basis. When cleaning, opt for cloth rags instead of paper towels or disposable disinfectant wipes.

Investing in a reusable water bottle and drinking tap water is also a great idea, as a staggering number of disposable plastic water bottles end up in landfills every day.

If you’re looking for a new outfit, piece of jewelry, or furniture, consider buying from a consignment, antique, or secondhand store.

Refuse – If you don’t need something, politely refuse. This can be as simple as saying “no” to a printed receipt at the store, or refusing a plastic straw from the waiter when you’re eating out.  

Recycle – Check with your local recycling facility or city curbside collection program to see which items are accepted. Typically, paper, aluminum cans, plastic beverage containers, and glass bottles are accepted, although many programs will take a far greater range of items.

Composting is also an excellent way to go zero waste. Returning items like food scraps back to the land as fertilizer is not only good for your garden—it also keeps these items from being picked up by the trash collector, going through the waste management process, and ultimately ending up in a landfill.