What is “zero waste” and why not just recycle?

Why does waste matter?

We live on a plastic planet. Plastic is not biodegradable and can therefore never go away.  It winds up in the oceans and marine life is dying because of plastic pollution. 10% of the world’s oil is used to make and transport disposable plastic (according to Edward Humes’ Garbology). A product that has such a short lifespan as a disposable plastic should not be made out of a material that can last forever.

While plastic is the most polluting one, other sources of waste are damaging to the environment as well. Even though we can recycle paper, we have to cut down a forest in order to create it in the first place. Extracting new materials as well as dealing with waste has a big carbon footprint.

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Zero waste is, therefore, a reaction to plastic pollution and resource depletion.

What is zero waste?

Zero waste is a strategy to improve resource productivity by avoiding waste that would end up in a landfill. However, zero waste also cuts down on recycling as much as possible. Instead of focusing on recycling it tries to avoid making trash altogether (watch Bea Johnson’s talk on why zero waste is not recycling more but less here).

That can involve buying food and products without packaging, avoiding one-way products and buying second hand. When in doubt, follow the order of Refuse (what you do not need), Reduce (what you do need), Reuse (what you have), Recycle and Rot (what is left). Zero waste often goes hand in hand with following a plant-based diet, minimalism, toxic free cosmetics and cleaners, supporting local sustainable businesses and much more.

Recycling is better than landfill or incineration but it still has economic and environmental impacts. Waste is simply inefficient. Although recycling is necessary, it is insufficient to achieve sustainability.

Some problems with recycling:

  • The recycling process uses a lot of energy and is often not worth it.
  • In many cases, the materials are down-cycled, because the new material has lost purity in comparison with the old product. Afterwards, the down-cycled products tend to end up in the landfill anyway.
  • Recycling can also be a dirty process. The process of down-cycling plastic is toxic.
  • Products are advertised as “recyclable” even if they do not end up getting recycled, which can lead to a boost in demand because consumers expect that the products will be recycled.

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What to recycle:

  • Paper, aluminium and glass are the easiest to recycle. We can melt aluminium and glass almost indefinitely without any loss in quality. It is possible to recycle paper up to six times (the fibres are getting shorter and the quality deteriorates).
  • Composting is a great way to drastically lower the amount of your waste.
  • Sometimes more important than recycling itself is buying recycled material and thus creating a market for it. If you purchase products that have recycled content, you’re closing the recycling loop and making sure the cycle continues.

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