EXPLAINER: What Is the Zero Waste Movement?


The term ‘zero waste’ is one which has been popping up more in my newsfeeds. But what does it even mean?

Towards ‘Zero waste’

When we go to a cafe and use a straw in a milkshake, we often don’t think about where that straw has come from and where it’s going.

But the reality is that that small piece of plastic will live on to damage the environment for many years, into the lives of our great-grandchildren. When we consider all of the plastic we interact with on a daily basis, this is causing damage, too – plastic bags, packets of chips, bottles of water.

When we are done with our plastic straws, they often go to landfill – but we’re learning more and more that even landfills damage the environment such as polluting groundwater. 

It feels like future generations will judge us for this lack of foresight – we get into routines and habits where, on a daily basis, we use – and then throw out – a single piece of plastic.

The solution? Use less plastic.

Using single-use plastic is a choice and one we can often avoid through changing our habits. Don’t accept a straw. Bring your own coffee cup. Dine in rather than takeout. Bring your own bags when you buy groceries. Buy veggies with no plastic wrapping.

All these little actions that add up.

Once you’ve shifted your habits, you will find that you’re sending very little waste to landfill at all. What waste you do create can be recycled, repurposed or upcycled.

So the phrase “zero waste” refers to this goal – can you get to a point where you aren’t sending any waste to landfill at all?

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Is there more to it?

Now, obviously, to live a zero-waste inspired life, we need to think about everything we consume – it’s not just plastic. Can we shift our thinking to be about everything we own?

Our old clothes can be upcycled to be used as cleaning cloths. Our jam jars can become future lunch boxes. Repairing and upcycling what we already have is a part of this.

Some would argue that one of the easiest ways to start on the zero waste journey is to just simply stop buying things we don’t need. Australians throw out 23kg of clothing a year into landfill – because we bought clothes we didn’t need in the first place.

Do you need that new dress for that wedding – or do you have one that is perfectly good at home? Do you need to buy a physical copy of that movie – or just download it? Do you need to buy that book – or does your library have one you can borrow?

Getting started

It can feel a bit overwhelming when you start thinking about all the plastic you’ve used in your lifetime – and probably still use!

But the important thing is that now you’re aware of it, you can start making small changes that make a difference.

Its often recommended to do a ‘trash audit’ – or, to make it sound a bit more Aussie, I like the sound of a ‘rubbish review’. Its where you look through your rubbish and see where the plastic you’ve used is from, so you can make a plan to address it for next time.

For example, if in my rubbish bin is a plastic container my flour came in, next time I shop, I’m going to find the one with paper packaging instead.

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Here are my results from the #futuristicfebruary 2019 challenge! I kept my non-perishable trash and recycling for the month of February to audit my waste. • Not pictured: ~ The privilege that allows me to choose less wasteful options (access to high quality grocery stores, having my basic needs met, $ that I used to purchase low waste swaps, etc.) ~ 1 greasy pizza box ~ 1 styrofoam takeout container that my husband accidentally threw out ~ a few other trash/recyclables that I didn’t keep ~ composted fruit and veggie scraps ~ perishable & personal care waste (rotten food that I couldn’t compost, tp, contact lenses, etc.) ~ dog food packaging and my dog’s medical waste ~waste that was created by the companies that grew and prepared the food that I ate ~ water & energy consumed • The point of this challenge wasn’t to make participants feel guilty (though I have to admit that I did) or compare ourselves to others- the goal was to raise awareness about waste and consumption issues and help people identify ways to improve. • We all [even the “zero waste” influencers!] create waste since we’re part of a linear economy and many people don’t have access to the resources that make a low waste lifestyle feasible. All we can do is do our best to consume and waste less! • Things I’ll do to improve: ~unsubscribe from junk mail (can’t believe how much we got in just 1 month!) ~buy fewer packaged food products ~ask my local grocery stores to sell package-free organic produce!! • I’m proud of all of the changes that I’ve made since I discovered the #zerowaste movement in 2015 and I’m SO proud of my family, my friends, and the members of this online community for all of their efforts to live more consciously & sustainably. 💚 • What’s one change that you can make to waste less?!

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I personally find it just as easy to look around my house and see my plastic use in my pantry rather than diving into my bin, but the important thing is that you critically assess what you’re using which involves plastic, so you can switch.

In some cases, you might need to Google to find an alternative. For example, I knew I used shampoo in a plastic bottle – but I didn’t know what alternatives existed. But through googling, I discovered that shampoo bars exist – which I now use instead.

And, sometimes, you just need some supplies to help you make the switch, like buying a permanent replacement. Coffee cups often can’t be recycled because they are lined with plastic. Buying a reusable coffee cup is a really simple switch.

Making one swap at a time, one month at a time, is a really simple way to make change which is totally realistic.

Does ‘zero waste’ exist?

Can I ever live a life where I produce no rubbish at all? I don’t think so.

I think of ‘zero waste’ as ‘towards zero waste’; it’s an approach to life, rather than a goal we can achieve. I would be surprised if I could live completely zero waste living in a modern world – but I would love to prove myself wrong one day!

I want to do my best to focus on every good choice I make to avoid sending plastic to landfill, rather than dwell on the times I did throw something out.

We might forget our reusable coffee cup one day, but we can learn from our mistakes and pack that reusable coffee cup. Every time with miss our goal, its a lesson for next time. And it think that’s pretty good life lesson in itself. We might slip up, but we learn from it and try again.

We don’t succeed in life by thinking about things, we succeed through practice, making mistakes, learning from them, and getting better at it.

So for me, ‘zero waste’ is a practice: every day, I’m practising to get better at reducing the waste I’m creating, upcycling what I have, and I’m trying to make wiser decisions where I buy just what I need, no more.

DIY inspo

When you’re grocery shopping this week, instead of using plastic, choose the plastic-free version of whatever you’re buying.

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