Zero Waste Is the Next Big Thing in Minimalist Lifestyles—Here's What to Know

Learn all about this buzzy sustainability movement and what an environmentally friendly zero waste philosophy in your home can realistically look like.

Photo: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

The term zero waste seems pretty straight-forward—zero is zero, right?—but in practice, the zero waste philosophy actually has a lot of room for interpretation. With zero waste grocery stores, communities, books, and even weddings becoming more common, though, it's important to understand what zero waste means.

The primary goal of zero waste is to send no trash into a landfill. (Among other things—the EPA has a list of how communities around the country define zero waste.) The idea is to reduce usage of everything (including non-compostable items like plastics, reuse anything possible (turning old t-shirts into cleaning rags, for example), utilize alternative methods of zero waste disposal, and recycle anything remaining.

Ideally, though, as little is recycled as possible, because most single-use containers and plastics have been reduced and reused so well. Most of the plastic items that are ostensibly being recycled—91 percent, according to National Geographicare still finding their ways to landfills, into the oceans, and more, so avoiding using them as much as possible is the best way to reduce what's sent to landfills. Anything left, such as food scraps or cardboard, can be composted. (Though cutting down on food waste and excess in general is also part of the zero waste movement.)

Some hardcore zero wasters produce so little trash in a year (or several) that it can fit into a mason jar. While impressive, that's certainly not a realistic goal for many—and it shouldn't dissuade anyone from striving toward a zero waste lifestyle.

Many people are already practicing several zero waste habits, even if they don't realize it. Using reusable grocery bags (preferably washable cloth ones) rather than plastic or paper ones is part of zero waste. Shopping at farmer's markets, where there's little to no packaging used for produce, is part of zero waste. And avoiding packaged foods such as chips, tubs of ice cream, and more is also zero waste, even if it's done for nutrition reasons.

The difference between a typical environmentally conscious person and a zero waster is the extent to which they take their waste-avoiding lifestyle. An average person who is moderately concerned about the environment might use an electric toothbrush with a rechargeable battery, thus reducing the plastic toothbrushes they send to a landfill; a serious zero waster might go so far as to make their own toothpaste (baking soda also works), to avoid using plastic toothbrush containers. Zero waste applies to everything, not just food and drink packaging and plastic bags. All single-use plastics, even the ones that don't seem like single-use, like shampoo bottles or makeup tubes, are the kinds of things zero wasters are trying to cut out of their lives.

All that said, zero waste is a gradual process. Almost no one can cut all plastics and non-reusable items out in one day. Approaching a zero waste lifestyle might mean slowly phasing out plastic food containers in the house and replacing them with glass ones, or committing to bringing reusable containers to grocery stores and restaurants for food.

Most of all, though, despite its absolutist name, zero waste celebrates the effort. Many companies and restaurants promised to stop carrying plastic straws, though they still carry plastic utensils, for example; at least it's a step in the right direction. On a smaller scale, every plastic water bottle a person avoids using is a step in the right direction, too. The more plastics and landfill-bound materials (like Styrofoam) people use, the most steps they take, and eventually, all those steps might add up to a less polluted planet.

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