What is zero waste really about?


I guess we all have an idea of what zero waste means. It has its connotations. Certain images come to mind when we think about it – mostly pretty layouts with cotton tote bags, reusable bottles, and mason jars

But that’s just the image we have of zero waste. And it’s pretty far from the original concept.

Ok, so what is zero waste really about?

Surprise surprise, the idea of zero waste was not made for individuals to use in their particular lives, but as a model of industrial production and waste management.

Let me elaborate.

We live in what is known as a linear economy. Meaning we extract raw materials, we produce, we use, we throw away, we repeat.

And of course, as I’m sure you have noticed, this is an UNSUSTAINABLE and OUTDATED system.

Zero waste tries to reach an ideal called circular economy. And I say ideal because it is not a reality just yet –apart from some very nice companies and communities that really go out of their ways to make it come true.

In very simple terms, this circular model would go something like this:

circular economy for zero waste

Nothing is left unused. Just as in nature plants use organic matter to grow, for example.

And we only use raw materials or throw away used stuff to the landfill in rare cases.

But sadly we don’t live in a circular economy.

This means that there is trash somewhere. Always. Maybe just in the packaging of the raw materials used to make the most organic, ethical, eco-friendly product. But there is trash. This is called upstream waste – we will come to this topic later.

Pretty simple, right?

We talk more about this idea on this post.

Why isn’t ZW made to be used by individuals?

Because the system we live in is linear and imperfect, so we cannot strive for a circular economy perfection as individuals.

We simply don’t have the infrastructures or the market options– unless we A) are hermits living in a cave and surviving thanks to our rain-watered garden, or B) we’re one of the lucky few that live in super advanced communities with all these facilities.

We cannot put the burden of an imperfect system on people’s shoulders. That’s mean.

zero waste kit on a budget

Then, why do we call the movement zero waste?

I want to think that it’s not in a literal sense, but a fancy way to call the movement to attract the curious.

I still remember the first time I read about it. Of course, I clicked on the article, I wanted to know what that deal was. It’s an eye-catching title.

But tbh, I don’t believe in zero waste as ‘look, I fit all the trash of the last 3 years from my family of 7 and my dog in this mason jar.’

Hmmm…what about no?

As I see it, zero waste is the awareness of the waste problem. It has more to do with intentional living than with (honestly) unrealistic standards.

And this is why making the most of every opportunity we have to divert trash from the landfill is so so valuable – from using a tote bag to donating your old books to your local library instead of throwing them away.

Zero waste or recycling?

If I have to choose just one idea from zero waste as a movement that I want to get across, it’s the importance of REUSING and REDUCING. Do you remember when you learned the 3Rs at school? Recycling always came last for a reason. Mind blowing, I know.

Recycling – or just throwing away – is not the solution: recycling is more complex than we think, and the other option, throwing stuff into landfills is justterrible (toxic gas emissions, decomposition of toxic stuff into the soil,…).

Not to mention that sometimes trash doesn’t even make it into the landfills, so it instead ends up polluting our lands, rivers, and oceans.

So yeah, we should use recycling as a last resort. Before that, try to reduce what you consume and reuse what you have.

Zero waste is not opposed to recycling, but one of the premises of the movement is reducing to the max the amount of trash we would otherwise send to be recycled.

Why isn’t large scale zero waste already a reality?

To put it simply: because of this linear economy thingy.

But let’s get technical for a minute. We need to know the difference between upstream and downstream waste.

  • Upstream waste is the waste created before a product gets to you. So the one created by the sourcing of materials, manufacturing, transportation, packaging,…
  • Downstream waste is the one we create after disposing of the product, where it ends up. So the one that goes to landfills or to be recycled or composted.

So right now, there is always some kind of upstream waste. This one step in the life of a product that is not completely transparent, or that doesn’t reach the zero ideal.

Even the most zero waste brands or shops are going to generate some amount of trash. AND THAT’S OK. Because it’s not their fault. Even doing their best efforts, if the system is not ready to function as a cycle.

So, what do we need to achieve a zero-waste society?

If we adopt a zero-ish waste lifestyle individually, that’s amazing. The system may not be on our side but we do our best. Power to us.

But what we should strive for is reaching this whole ideal on a large scale, as a society. Like, are you telling me that we’ll soon reach the second quarter of the 21st century and still use the production and consumption schemes from the 19th?

So yeah, the solution – includes but – isn’t limited to the people and their personal decisions on whether using solar panels or fossil fuels. We need rules that allow us to have this as a lifestyle, and we need a transparent industry that respects these rules as well.

We need responsible policies that allow the existence and success of a circular industrial model, and we need a clean industry that wants to take accountability for what it produces. Political, economic, and social redesign.

Governments cannot do anything if industries don’t want to change and vice versa.

And none of them are of any use if citizens don’t want that change to happen – and this is why the zero waste movement is awesome, because it means that there’s a large amount of population that want these changes. GOOD FOR US!

what is zero waste

What do you think?