Looking at how to go zero waste is something we should all be doing. These simple, ethical, and earth-friendly tips will help.
By Prarthana Majumdar
The zero-waste lifestyle is a lifestyle that is idealized by the principle that the resources we use should be reused with the least possible leakage into nature. The goal is that none of the by-products of our consumption should end up in landfills, oceans, or incinerators. But there is a slight limitation to this philosophy. In nature, it is hardly ever possible to have airtight systems from which no material or energy flows in and out. As such, prevention of complete leakage into nature is more of a goal rather than a hard target. And we can only asymptotically reach a point where our waste is minimal, but never exactly zero.
The zero-waste philosophy believes that waste prevention is a much better way for natural preservation than end-of-pipe solutions. As a goal, it can only succeed when the whole society adopts it, resulting in no waste. But social action normally begins when a small group of people, known as early adopters in society, adopt the change. The change then spreads throughout society and is progressively adopted by an increasing number of people. As a result, when we adopt a zero-waste lifestyle as individuals, we pave the way for the practice to diffuse to a larger section of society in the future.
So, how do we adopt a zero-waste lifestyle at an individual level on a day-to-day basis? Zero-waste goes a little beyond just minimizing our tangible waste and disposing of it appropriately. The concept is more about thinking at a systemic level. After all, we as consumers are an important part of the whole production-consumption system. And our consumption behavior has a direct upstream influence on the production systems. Also, we as networked players in a society, directly impact and influence the actions of others in the network. Given that we do have a role at the systemic level, we enlist seven simple ways here by which we can effectively reduce waste in our day to day lives.
See also: Living Zero Waste – Mistakes to avoid
7 Simple Techniques – How to go Zero Waste
- Reduce Reuse Refuse
The most basic rule when it comes to the zero-waste lifestyle is to reduce consumption of materials that are unlikely to go back to their natural forms or will take ages to disintegrate into molecular components found in nature, once discarded.
For instance, metals are unlikely to go back to their ores and most plastics are unlikely to disintegrate into natural components soon. It is almost impossible to avoid such materials completely.
Materials have their own properties that sometimes make them indispensable in products. Imagine the metallic components in a watch that are resilient to atmospheric conditions and can maintain operational precision.
But we can reduce their consumption (e.g. carrying a glass bottle instead of buying bottled water), reuse them (repurposing packaging wooden crates as storage containers) and sometimes even refuse them (carrying our grocery bag instead of using one-time plastic bags given in stores).
- Recycle, Upcycle
Recycling is the most popular method of modern waste reduction.
Recycling entails the recovery of both material and energy from discarded products. Besides its environmental benefit of preventing waste from leaking into nature, recycling has an economic significance also.
It reduces the waste of useful materials and the need for extracting or producing fresh new materials. When we sort our trash and send recyclable materials such as glass, paper, plastics and metal components to appropriate disposal systems, we aid this process of sending the materials back to their root.
However, recycling is not a 100% regenerative process. Most materials will never return to their virgin form after recycling. Recycled paper can never be A-grade paper again and recycled plastics always degrade in molecular composition and properties.
The recycling process itself is labor and energy intensive. It involves collection, separation of components, disintegration, reforming and repackaging.
Upcycling, on the other hand, skips most of the energy and labor-intensive steps of recycling and puts waste materials into products with higher value, usually in artistic or environmental terms. When you are creating a beautiful vase from a plastic bottle or a reclaimed wood stool from waste wood, you are essentially regenerating without consuming much energy or resources.
- Separate your waste
No matter how much we talk about the regenerative use of waste, one of the biggest hurdles in the process of recycling is the process of collecting the waste.
In the US, only 20% of the consumed plastics are recycled annually. The proportion is slightly higher in developing countries where waste collection is also largely done by rag pickers working in an extensive informal recycling sector.
Whether done in the formal or the informal sector, all the material components in our waste have to be separated first. We, as consumers, can greatly aid this process, by separating the waste ourselves and trying to keep similar materials together.
For instance, when we cut open a tetra-pack or a wafers pouch or chocolate wrapper, we can avoid making a through cut and keep the cut section attached to the larger packaging. That way, we make sure that the orphaned parts are also recycled.
- Use emotionally durable products
Rather it is the rapid boredom that we develop with material objects. Blame it on our hyper-consumerist culture or blame it on the production system that leverages seasonal trends. But we generate the highest amount of waste out of our boredom and rapidly changing tastes. It is not hard to address this problem though.
When we change our buying behavior and give preference to products that are more emotionally durable, then we are less likely to discard them before the end of their lives. How do we recognize an emotionally durable product?
- Slow-changing trends
- Classic designs
- Good aesthetics
- Products with special meaning such as DIY, personalization, gifting, etc.
- Take good care of products
Buying durable products with long lifespans is definitely less waste generating than using non-durable products which are likely to end up in landfills sooner.
But another important step we can take in reducing the industrial waste we generate is to take good product care which ensures that a product is optimally functional for a prolonged period.
If something is broken, we can try to fix it first before replacing it entirely. The right to repair movement which gained ground in the last decade advocates the same logic. If you buy a product and it is broken, you should be able to fix it for at least a reasonable amount of damage without having to discard the product.
The manufacturer has to make available parts, tools, and information to its customers such that not every damage lands a product in a scrap heap.
- Walk and cycle
One of the biggest sources of waste in modern day life are the emissions that our vehicles give off.
How much we impact the atmosphere with our daily commute was clearly visible during the lockdowns imposed by various governments for controlling Covid-19 in the last two years. Almost all cities around the world noticed a jump in the Air Quality Index during this period when most of the workforce was working from home. When we talk about the zero-waste lifestyle, we tend to predominantly imagine the tangible waste that we generate in our homes.
Frequently ignored are the various emissions from our vehicles such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds and benzene. If we switch to biking and walking even partly, we can greatly reduce our carbon footprint (albeit invisibly) and also have a more active and healthy lifestyle. Not to mention, the mental health benefits of being outdoors.
- Use power thriftily
Electricity is probably the cleanest form of energy known to man. But the production of electricity, unfortunately, is still not a clean process.
The world still heavily relies on coal and natural gas for its production. In the United States alone, about 65% of power comes from coal and natural gas. Clean sources such as wind, solar and geothermal combined, account for only 11.8% of the total power generated.
Designing our homes to have solar and geothermal installations cuts down our carbon footprint significantly. But such steps might not always be feasible. Even small measures such as
- Turning off lights and fans when not needed
- Using energy efficient appliances
- Opening a window instead of using air-conditioning indiscriminately
- Use warm clothing instead of using heating too much
- Switching off appliances when not in use
- Avoiding putting appliances on stand-by mode for prolonged periods of time and switching them off instead
are some of the ways in which we can reduce our power consumption and reduce our individual carbon footprint.
We can mold our daily lifestyles to generate less and less waste.
But the base truth will always remain that we can approach the zero-waste benchmark only if we reduce our consumption of materials goods. In the modern day society, purchase and discard is such a deeply embedded cycle in our daily lives that we can hardly imagine how much more sustainable we can be if we just develop interests that are non-material in nature.
We could fill our days with fun activities such as trekking, gardening, socializing, reading, composing music, engaging in sports, etc. which reduces our mental inclination towards consumeristic behavior. And that indirectly impacts our carbon footprint as well. Fun is not just good for us, fun is good for the planet too.
Prarthana Majumdar is a founder of the sustainable lifestyle brand, Dzukou (www.dzukou.com) which aims to replace plastics from products with alternate eco-materials.
Dzukou also works with rural craftsmen in East India to tinker and experiment with them. The aim is to innovate new eco-materials for products and also help these craftsmen to reach western markets.
Prarthana is also a researcher in the field of Sustainability and Design for Emerging Economies. She is currently pursuing a PhD from Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati and Technische Universiteit Delft (The Netherlands).