I'm Zero-Waste, Right?

> Old HABIT: “I recycle. So I’m Zero Waste, right?” <

Picture this: An ethically conscious gentleman visits Topman to buy a pair of jeans. After choosing and purchasing a pair of jeans, he rejects the plastic bag offered to him and puts the jeans in his backpack. In an effort to save paper, he requests that the receipt be emailed to him instead of printed only to be thrown away. When he arrives home, he recycles the tag and is happy that he's only chucking the plastic bit that attaches the tag to the jeans. A few months to a year later, after he's worn the jeans a much as he can, he donates them to a thrift store to make room for new jeans in his closet.

Why This Matters

Many of us believe that if we recycle, we are zero waste. However, there is far more behind the simple purchase-use-discard/recycle paradigm. In the example of the gentleman above, there is far more going on than he sees. He was unaware that his purchase had far-reaching implications:

WM Single Stream Reycling Poster1.jpg
  1. Enormous amount of water was used to dye his jeans (1);
  2. Abundance of pesticides were sprayed on the cotton from which his jeans were produced, putting at risk the planters and harvesters employed on the cotton field (2);
  3. Small paper tag he was proud to recycle requires energy to convert into other paper products (3);
  4. Washing and drying his jeans on a regular basis requires an incredible amount of water and electricity (4);
  5. More space is required in the landfill where his jeans likely will end up when no one buys them from the thrift store to which he donated. He has no idea that only 20% of the clothing donated to charities is sold and the rest is sent to textile recyclers, or sent directly to landfill or incinerators (5-6).


Though recycling reduces the total amount of waste sent to landfill, it is the last step after waste prevention, product redesign, and reuse. Not everything can be recycled. Not all recycled products are in demand, and the infrastructure necessary to do the recycling and sorting does not always exist. Even the most well-known recyclable materials, such as glass and aluminum, end up in landfills, because they are contaminated due to consumer ignorance, which clogs up recycling plants’ energies.

However, as I mentioned above, recycling is indeed important, and because many of us are beginners in the “zero waste” movement, we are still purchasers and owners of materials with which we can do nothing but recycle. So, absolutely, let's do so! But let’s be informed recyclers, throwing into that sacred bin only what belongs so we can avoid contamination, leading to additional waste. To learn what can be recycled and how best to do so, see the chart above (7) and click here.

Many of us are also in the habit of believing our purchases affect only our bank accounts. However, we can see through climate change, forced and low-wage labor, and pollution that this is simply untrue. Since the onset of industrial revolution, new and even good production improvements have negatively affected our environment. The outdated, linear approach to waste management is essentially made up of three steps: production, consumption, and disposal.

This approach is no longer sustainable. Our population has doubled in last forty years and continues to grow, meaning there are more individuals dependent on a limited amount of resources. Production, consumption, and disposal accounts for 42% of U.S. greenhouse gases. Our rapidly changing climate threatens global health due to pollution of our water, air, food supply, and more. Natural resources such a petroleum, fresh water, and minerals are shrinking due to the above linear approach, which can lead to conflict as global citizens fight to grab hold of the last of these resources. This is why we must be part of a new, sustainable system.


< New Habit: Be a part of a cycle >

Eco Cycle, an organization dedicated to building more sustainable communities moving toward “zero”, describes zero waste as cyclical in nature (8). The zero waste goal is to prevent wasteful and polluting practices by redesigning the way our systems function and the way our resources are used, from product design to product disposal. By capturing and using discards to make new products instead of using non-recyclable natural resources, such as fossil fuels, we can significantly reduce the amount of pollution in the air, land and water. To be zero waste is to change the entire cycle of the extraction of resources, consumption, and discard management to avoid wasting resources, and to prevent pollution. This new cycle approach looks like this:

Feeling overwhelmed? Have no fear, here are a few tips:

  1. Reject/Reduce: Choose to buy better, more sustainable pieces from companies who care about their workers, supply chain, and environmental footprint. These pieces will last longer, use less resources in their production (such as water), and will have less harmful impact on workers (i.e. pesticides drift from cotton farming, etc.). When you’re finished with your item, it is most likely able to be sold to another consumer at a thrift store, or will hold up enough to have another life-cycle with another individual across the world where your item may end up. Reject items that you think you “need’. Think critically. Think about your food and if you need a plastic bag to buy your bulk apples, or if you could just put them in the cart. Does your fresh cilantro need a bag? Do you need those $5.99 leggings, or do you just need them because they’re $5.99 and suddenly your old leggings seem less than par?

  2. Reuse - reuse plastic bags, take out containers, mason jars, and etc. At my local grocery store, I can buy garbanzo beans in bulk, which saves me money and room in my recycling bin, because I no longer have empty aluminum cans of garbanzo beans piling up and overflowing. However, if I continue to use a new bag each time I buy bulk garbanzo beans, am I really making a difference? Afterall, aluminum can actually be recycled, and plastic bags generally cannot be. Solution: if you must use a plastic bag, save and reuse it. Or even better: skip the plastic bag, take a mason jar, weigh it, and write the tare weight on the bottom. The grocery store can subtract the tare weight and you’ve reduced the demand for plastic (and you’re not stuck figuring out how to store your plastic bags). Plus, you’ll look like a trendy hipster (oxymoron?) with your mother’s old mason jars.

  3. Compost - Find a local composting center where you either can drop off your food scraps, or have them come pick them up! This can get expensive, so if you don’t have the money, consider those around you who have gardens or a compost to which you can contribute.

  4. Recycle - You know the drill by now.

It is important to recognize that the ultimate goal of zero waste is not getting to the zero. Striving toward the zero is the goal, because in reality, being 100% zero waste is just not realistic. There is GRACE in zero waste. In everything, we do our best with what we know and what we have at the time, and trust that there is grace to cover the rest. So, do your best, have grace for yourself and others, and know that that is enough.

Written by Melanie Conover



  1. http://www.levistrauss.com/sustainability/planet/water/
  2. http://goodjourney.store/industrial-farming/
  3. http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2012/ph240/micks2/
  4. https://energy.gov/energysaver/laundry
  5. Council for Textile Recycling
  6. http://www.newsweek.com/2016/09/09/old-clothes-fashion-waste-crisis-494824.html
  7. https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/8e/2a/d1/8e2ad133fc249d0bc46741b4bdf3bcbe.jpg
  8. http://www.ecocycle.org/zerowaste