Is Zero Waste Really Sustainable? How Can You Make It Better?

A closer look at things you can do differently.

Explore in this Article

  1. Is zero waste actually sustainable?
  2. Why does zero waste not work? 
  3. Aspects of sustainability to consider while going zero waste

The zero-waste concept talks about minimizing your trash by sending as little as possible to landfills. You can easily achieve it by simply following the 5Rs of a zero-waste lifestyle – reduce, refuse, reuse, rot and recycle.  Although, people often ask – Is zero waste really sustainable? 

Let’s find out the answer to this question and better understand the significance of a zero-waste lifestyle. 

Is zero waste actually sustainable?

Yes, a really big yes! There’s absolutely no doubt that zero waste is sustainable. In fact, the zero-waste movement has taken a significant leap, looking at various plastic bans across the planet. 

The zero-waste movement has notably helped many to understand the ongoing waste problems, the toxicity of waste, and its environmental impact. This movement encouraged many to take matters into their own hands.  

The internet today, is flooded with content creators talking about ditching single-use plastics and various zero-waste swaps. In fact, finding zero-waste products like a zero-waste shampoo bar or a reusable water bottle, is now, just a few clicks away. 

According to the EPA, an average person in the U.S generates approx. 4.4 pounds of trash per day. If each person decides to minimize this trash at an individual level, it will make a huge impact. 

When a community of such like-minded people comes together, the difference becomes exponentially larger. This proves that a zero-waste lifestyle can bring about a change. In addition, it helps the planet by reducing the waste in landfills, and oceans. 

trash in a dustbin
Markus Spiske / Pexels

Like any other revolution, the zero-waste movement has its own set of challenges. It does not mean you are doing it wrong. Or that, zero waste is not sustainable. There’s always room for improvement.

Let’s have a look at what you should do to make it better.

Why does zero waste not work? 

While living a zero-waste life can help you significantly reduce landfill waste, it is important to go about it the right way. Often, due to a lack of knowledge or resources, going zero waste can be challenging and might seem like it’s not working.

Are you just beginning your zero-waste journey? If yes, here are 3 things that you should know.

1. You skip the first 4Rs of zero waste

There’s always an easy way out, but it’s not necessarily right. It’s a lot easier to put a used paper cup in the recycling bin than reusing it. Or adding it to a compost pile at home. 

5Rs of zero waste on a tote bag
Goodguilt / Canva

According to a study conducted at Boston University:

  • When a trash can was kept near the sampling table, people used the same cup to sample different flavors of a drink.
  • When the trash can was replaced with a recycling bin, people used separate cups to sample each flavor.

Clearly, people choose recycling over reusing.

No, it is not wrong to recycle items, but recycling takes up energy. In most facilities, this energy is generated using fossil fuels. In addition, you are not really considering the entire life cycle of products before recycling them. 

This is one factor that is mostly used as a greenwashing tactic. Greenwashing is a marketing ploy where brands give misleading or false information about their product’s environmental impact.

Customers end up buying these products thinking they are planet friendly. When in reality, they are not (B’bye sustainability goals!) This increases both consumption and waste.

Let us think about it practically; what will earn more? A good reusable product that will last you a lifetime. Or a good recyclable product that has a shorter life cycle.

The answer is quite obvious – the latter will earn more because it seems less wasteful and comes without any guilt. 

recycling bin yes or no
Lara Jameson / Pexels

Wondering what can make all the difference? Consider the first 4 Rs refuse, reduce, reuse, and rot (compost) before you skip to recycling. There you have your first step to go zero waste.

Recycling might be a faster way to get rid of trash and please your guilty conscience; but it really isn’t the best way to go zero waste. It’s essential to note that recycling should be the last resort. Always. 

Related Article: Is recycling really helping the planet?

2. You may be wishcycling

Even if you have recycling as a last resort, there are a few things that you might be wishcycling. This means that you have the correct intention, i.e., to recycle. Despite that, the items will not be recycled and end up as landfill waste. 

Contrary to popular belief, did you know many recycling programs do not accept ceramics for recycling? Even if you add pieces of broken coffee mugs or plates to your recycling bin, they will mostly go to landfills.  

This is because most facilities are not equipped to recycle these items. If you ever added ceramics to your recycling bin, you were probably wishcycling it. Similarly, there are many common household items that are non-recyclable, and you should never add them to your recycling pile.

3. The absence of a circular system

To achieve a completely zero-waste lifestyle, a circular economy is very important. It mimics nature and there is no trash in nature.

Similarly, having a circular economy means taking natural resources from the Earth, making them into products, and giving them back to the Earth without any waste products. 

Unfortunately, in today’s linear economy, natural resources are turned into products and sent as trash to landfills after use. And that’s what makes all the difference.

Moving to a circular economy will take a lot of time and effort. It is important to make the best of what we have. There’s already a shift in the markets, with consumers making conscious choices by looking for planet-friendly products.

It may not be possible to go completely zero waste in the absence of a circular economy. But living a low-waste life is surely a good start! 

Aspects of sustainability to consider while going zero waste

When it comes to zero waste and sustainability, there’s definitely room for improvement. Here are a couple of things you can do to make your low-waste life more sustainable.

1. Reduce your ecological footprint

Your ecological footprint is a step ahead from sending less waste to landfills. According to The Global Footprint Network, our ecological footprint refers to ‘the only metric that measures how much nature we have and how much nature we use.’  

Reducing your ecological or environmental footprint means reducing your overall impact on the planet. This includes minimizing your carbon footprint as well as your water footprint, for starters. 

tips to reduce carbon footprint

Your carbon footprint refers to the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere (also known as carbon emissions). This includes other carbon compounds and greenhouse gas emissions as a result of daily activities.

From your drive to the grocery store, to how your online shopping order reaches you, everything has a footprint. You can easily calculate your carbon footprint using a carbon footprint calculator. 

Similarly, your water footprint is the amount of freshwater you consume every day. It not just refers to the amount of water used for drinking, washing, cleaning, etc.

It also includes the indirect water used to make the clothes you wear or grow the food you eat.  You can keep track of your water consumption using a water footprint calculator.  

2. Support the local economy

Supporting the local economy is a great initiative to cut down your carbon footprint. It also financially aids local businesses and small families in your community.

Support local economy
Goodguilt / Canva

When you buy products from local markets, there is a good chance that the raw material used to make the product was also locally sourced. This means valuable resources were not wasted by bringing in raw materials on a plane from another part of the country.  

Moreover, locally-grown produce and other edible products are fresher, made with little to no processing. Less processing means lesser energy used, which again, results in lowering your water and carbon footprint.

 3. Be a more conscious consumer

When talking about a zero-waste lifestyle, it is mainly concerned with reducing the waste produced at a personal level. To make zero waste more sustainable, it is important we look at the bigger picture.

conscious consumer quote by emma watson
good.guilt / Instagram

While a product might be zero waste, if it reaches the store from across the world, it certainly is not that sustainable. To be more conscious as a consumer, you must keep yourself aware of everything.  

  • What is the product made of?
  • Where was it made?
  • How was the raw material obtained?
  • Who made it? Were they compensated fairly?
  • How does the final product reach the designated store?

Once you start asking yourself these questions, you are bound to make well-informed choices that are good for you and the planet.

Bottom Line

Zero waste is not only a trendy lifestyle, but it’s the kind of lifestyle the world needs to adopt today. All your trash has a devastating impact on the environment, and there’s no way to completely avoid it.

quotes on zero waste - Anne Marie Bonneau
Good.guilt / Instagram

The change begins with your personal habits and choices. Leading a zero-waste lifestyle does not only make your life simpler but also more sustainable.

Get started with a zero-waste approach to life with these 50 Simple Tips For Zero Waste Living.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Does going zero waste make a difference?

Yes, going zero waste makes a difference. It helps you rethink your relationship with the waste you generate. The zero-waste approach encourages you to make small changes. Be it skipping single-use plastics and products or thinking twice before tossing something in the trash can. These habits eventually make a huge positive impact on the environment.

2. How does zero waste help the environment?

Zero waste is all about considering 5 Rs; reduce, refuse, reuse, rot and recycle before we put anything in the trash. This helps the environment by minimizing the waste that ends up in landfills and oceans.

3. Does zero waste mean no waste?

Yes, zero waste literally translates to no waste. It means sending nothing to landfills. It is essential to understand that, doing your best to reduce waste is more important than doing zero waste perfectly.

4. Does zero waste mean no recycling?

No, zero waste includes recycling. It is one of the 5 principles of zero waste. However, the concept does emphasize on keeping recycling as the last resort.

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