The zero-waste movement has been gathering attention in the past few years, as more and more people become aware of the urgent need to address the huge amount of waste we send to landfill each year.
Although the zero-waste movement is most often associated with individual efforts to reduce the packaging and other disposable products coming into our homes, brands and businesses are increasingly getting involved too. As is so often the case, consumer choice drives sustainable change on an organisational level.
From a niche lifestyle to a global movement, the growing number of people aiming for a low- or zero-waste lifestyle has even big brands scrambling to reduce their packaging and offer recycling options.
In this article, we’ll look at how the zero-waste movement came about, the problems it aims to address, and how effective it ultimately is in reaching its aims.
What does zero waste mean?
As the name suggests, people living a zero-waste lifestyle aim to send as little to landfill as possible. They also aim to reduce the amount they send to recycling.
Typically, zero-waste enthusiasts will look to cut right down on the amount of waste coming into their homes in the first place. When it comes to the three Rs – reduce, reuse, and recycle – the hierarchy is always to put reduce first. So that is what zero-wasters try to do.
The focus is often on avoiding excess packaging, but zero-waste advocates also look to switch out disposable or short-life items for longer lived alternatives.
A common example is choosing to use menstrual cups, reusable pads, or period pants, instead of tampons or disposable pads. Another is using washable cloth pads to remove makeup, instead of cotton wool.
Where they can’t avoid packaging or disposable items altogether, zero-wasters will try to find options that can be reused, composted, or recycled. In the bathroom, that might mean replacing a plastic toothbrush with a bamboo one or using a shampoo bar in place of liquid shampoo in a plastic bottle.
On an organisational scale, the zero-waste movement calls for companies to redesign their products and methods of production to reduce the amount of waste being created in the first place.
The emphasis is on creating closed-loop cradle-to-cradle systems that use minimal virgin resources. Products should be designed for longevity and returned at the end of their lifecycle to be remade into something new.
And, of course, the movement also wants brands to innovate to avoid sending waste to incineration or landfill.
Where did the idea of zero-waste come from?
Despite the focus on reducing waste overall, the zero-waste movement has historically been tied to the recycling movement, since they basically share the same aim of sending as little as possible to landfill.
Indeed, the first use of the term ‘zero-waste’ seems to have come from an American named Dr. David Knapp, in the 1980s. Knapp came up with a concept that he called ‘total recycling’ in which waste is diverted from landfill to be reused by the community.
Knapp and his wife founded Urban Ore, a salvage market based in Berkeley, California, to demonstrate how this concept might work in practice. Urban Ore is still in operation today.
Knapp continued to share his vision, which was adopted by environmentalists around the world. In 1995, campaigner Lynn Landes started the Zero Waste America website, while environmentalist Bill Sheehan launched the GrassRoots Recycling Network.
A year later, Canberra, the capital city of Australia, announced a waste management strategy ‘No Waste by 2010’. It was the first government to set such an ambitious target. But waste reduction is now an aim of many national and local governments around the world.
In 2002, a group of zero-waste experts were invited to run a workshop at a major conference on resource and waste management in Switzerland. The conference was followed by a forum at Sussex University in Brighton, UK and ultimately led to the founding of the Zero Waste International Alliance.
While the idea of zero-waste was finding a home with environmentalists and policy makers, the person most often credited with bringing the idea to the homes of environmentally conscious individuals is Bea Johnson. She took the principles of zero-waste and began to apply them in her own home, sharing her progress on her blog, Zero Waste Home.
Johnson inspired many others to follow her waste-reducing lifestyle. Blogs and social media helped to spread the word. The mason jar challenge, started by Trash is for Tosser’s founder Lauren Singer, motivated people around the world to reduce the waste they send to landfill to less than a mason jar each year.
Since then, more and more people have adopted a zero-waste lifestyle. Even those who choose not to go so far have become more aware of their waste. And, as you might expect, brands and businesses began to respond. Zero-waste shops started to appear, and alternatives to supermarket shopping, such as veg box schemes, grew in popularity.
According to the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the UK recycled only around 45% of its household waste in 2018. And the amount of waste sent to landfill actually increased by 1.8 million tonnes between 2018 and 2019.
When it comes to plastics, Europe recycles around 30% of its plastic waste, according to the British Plastic Federation. America does even worse, sending just 9% of plastic waste to recycling.
That is a lot of waste ending up being either incinerated or dumped in landfill.
Once in landfill, most waste does eventually begin to break down. But this isn’t especially good news either. The decay of waste in landfill releases methane and carbon dioxide, both greenhouse gases.
It also leaches toxic substances into the soil. When not properly managed, these toxic chemicals can pollute local water ways, contaminating the environment and killing aquatic life.
Plastic waste breaks down into microplastics, which wash into rivers and end up in our oceans. These microplastics have been found in the stomachs of marine life and birds, who mistake them for food.
In the meantime, burning waste in an incinerator releases toxic gases into the atmosphere.
So, keeping waste out of landfill and away from incinerators is a good first step. But the zero-waste movement doesn’t just want to see more waste going to recycling. It wants less waste produced in the first place.
Creating any new product requires energy and resources, both in manufacturing the product and in transporting it. While advances in clean energy are encouraging, much of that energy still comes from fossil fuels, with all the associated environmental issues that this implies.
Recycling can use less energy than creating something wholly new. And it reuses existing resources rather than requiring new ones. But it does still use energy, and products still need to be transported.
Many materials, including several types of plastic, can only be recycled a few times, or have to be combined with virgin materials to make them viable.
And our current recycling systems simply can’t keep up with the volume of waste we produce each year.
So, while recycling is significantly better than landfill or incineration, reducing the amount of waste we create in the first place is definitely the more sustainable option. And this is the core message of the zero-waste movement.
Zero-waste and the circular economy
The terms ‘zero-waste’ and ‘circular economy’ are often used interchangeably. And they do indeed go hand in hand. The core concept of a circular economy is that products should be used and re-used, never ending up being discarded.
If you want to be specific, you could think of zero-waste as a milestone on the way to a circular economy. Zero-waste does still allow things to go to recycling, while a circular economy aims to keep them in the supply chain indefinitely.
To reach a circular economy, we need a radical rethink in the way that products are manufactured, consumed, and used. It requires innovative designs that aim to make items indefinitely repairable and reusable.
While many are working on making this a reality, to reach a circular economy requires buy-in from businesses, governments, and individuals to make it work.
On the other hand, zero-waste is (in theory at least), largely possible now.
Impact of the zero-waste movement
You only have to look down the aisle of a typical grocery store to see how the zero-waste movement is driving mainstream change. While most people are not yet ready for the time and thought that goes into a truly zero-waste lifestyle, the movement has held a light up to the significant problems of waste and packaging.
More and more of us are choosing items that have less or no packaging. In response, zero-waste shops are becoming more common. Plastic reduction has become a priority for many brands.
And there are a growing number of companies running recycling schemes that allow customers to send packaging back to them.
The zero-waste movement has also reinvigorated an interest in repairing and reusing items. Swap shops, repair workshops, and lending libraries have appeared to help likeminded individuals secure a longer life for their items.
Networks like Freecycle and Freegle offer people an alternative to getting rid of things when they no longer want them. Almost anything can find a new home via these communities, which let people pass their items onto someone else for free.
Beyond this, sites such as eBay, Depop, and Facebook Marketplace provide a thriving market for second-hand items of all descriptions.
On the policy side, waste reduction has become a staple aim of governments around the world. In the UK, councils are taxed with diverting as much waste as they can from landfill. The EU has set targets for its member countries and its Waste Framework Directive lays out a strategy for waste management that puts prevention as the top priority.
Criticisms of the zero-waste movement
While the aims of the zero-waste movement are certainly laudable, some people have questioned how much of a difference it really makes in practice.
Focus on individuals
One major criticism is the focus on individual action. In the UK, household waste makes up just 12% of the overall waste, with the rest coming from commercial operations, construction, and industry.
But when people talk about zero-waste, they are typically talking about individuals and households, rather than large companies. Critics say that this distracts from the real generators of the majority of waste. By keeping people focused on their own households, it lets large organisations off the hook.
Arguably, this is less a problem with the zero-waste movement itself, and more a problem with how it is perceived and understood. While individual action has always been a part of the zero-waste movement, the Zero Waste International Alliance make it clear that they see businesses and policy makers as a core part of the process.
This is also where focusing on circular economic thinking comes into play. The changes needed to make a circular economy a reality can only happen with the support and innovation from businesses and governments. The focus therefore shifts from individual action, to corporate responsibility.
Barriers to entry
The barrier to entry is another problem with the zero-waste movement as things currently stand. Quite simply, it often takes more time to shop for a zero-waste lifestyle than it does to shop conventionally. For many, that is time that is simply unavailable – between work and caring responsibilities, plenty of us are stuck choosing the most convenient option.
Time isn’t the only barrier however. Zero-waste products are usually more expensive, at least when we are looking at beauty and lifestyle items and understandably, that puts these items out of reach for many people.
And access is an issue too. Although more zero-waste brands are appearing online, online shopping arguably creates more packaging waste than shopping in person, even if that packaging is cardboard rather than plastic. Zero-waste shops tend to open in more affluent areas, and they are still few and far between.
Again, these are issues that are hard for individuals to solve on their own. It takes action on the part of big retailers and brands to make zero-waste shopping more convenient, affordable, and accessible.
Arguably, the zero-waste movement itself is gradually driving that change. As those who can live a zero-waste lifestyle continue to raise awareness, retailers and manufacturers will respond to the demand for less packaging and more options for recycling. This in turn should make it easier for others to access low- or zero-waste products.
As zero-waste gains traction as an attractive lifestyle choice, some environmentally questionable products have appeared.
The spirit of zero-waste is to cut down on overall consumption and reuse as much of what you already have as possible. But some brands who align themselves with the zero-waste movement offer unnecessary brand-new items, packaged as part of a more sustainable lifestyle.
For example, a true zero-waste lifestyle would involve washing and reusing glass jars to use as containers. But many companies sell brand new glass jars as an eco-friendly alternative to plastic containers.
And if you already have plastic containers in your home, the aesthetics of a zero-waste lifestyle might make it seem as though you should be replacing them with something else. When in fact, the items you already own are always the most sustainable option.
It can be difficult for consumers to know what they really need to live a zero-waste lifestyle and what is simply being sold to them by companies keen to capitalise on eco-friendly shopping trends. As individuals, all we can do is try to research items thoroughly before buying and avoid new products that we don’t really need.
Focus on a single issue
The final criticism of the zero-waste movement is that it over-simplifies things by focusing too strongly on plastics. While plastic is a genuine issue for the environment, it isn’t always clear that the environmental impact of plastic-free alternatives is any less.
To weigh up the true environmental impact of any single item requires a complex understanding of the raw materials, supply chains, manufacturing methods, use, lifespan, and how it is eventually discarded.
Since even environmental scientists struggle to accurately compare different products, it is understandably, almost impossible for the rest of us to even attempt it.
Still, the central ethos of the zero-waste movement is ultimately to divert items from landfill, not necessarily to avoid all plastics. It has become conflated with going plastic-free in recent years, but it’s important to remember that the two are not the same thing.
So the zero-waste movement is not without its criticisms. But it has also raised awareness of the importance of reducing waste and has driven genuine change in the habits of both buyers and manufacturers alike.
As individuals, all we can do is our best. That might include aiming for a zero-waste lifestyle where possible, if that is accessible and within the reach of your budget – time and financial. Or it might mean lobbying the brands you love to encourage them to take positive action and steps toward reducing waste.
Either way, sending less to landfill is an aim that is hard to argue with and if we can all do our bit, we’re definitely on the path towards a better future with less waste.