Mason jars, stainless steel straws, and reusable shopping bags. Most of us have heard of these items as tools to help us reduce waste in our daily lives. In fact, the Center for EcoTechnology has written a few blogs about this concept of zero waste before, highlighting ways to incorporate waste free actions into our routines and special events. These ideas are practical and helpful but in this blog, we want to take a step back and look at why they might not be possible or accessible to all demographics.

What is zero waste?

Most cohesively, zero waste is a movement to reduce the amount that individuals and communities consume and consequently throw away. A zero waste lifestyle promotes a circular economy, one that is sustainable and functional for long-term use. It encourages more complex thinking about the resources we use and utilizes concepts like reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting as potential solutions.

zero waste

What are the challenges of zero waste?

At face value, the zero waste lifestyle seems like an easy fix to our waste problem. It seems tangible and action-oriented, plus mason jars are super cute! However, once you take a closer look, it turns out there are a number of barriers to achieving it. Not only does zero waste conflict with our current economic system of produce – use – dispose, but the promoted lifestyle can be inaccessible to a large proportion of our population.

Barrier Why It’s an Issue Potential Solutions Example
Cost Acquiring the necessary resources to adopt a zero waste lifestyle can be expensive, up to hundreds of dollars! Zero waste does not require buying new products to participate. You can start by repurposing items you already have and/or refuse unnecessary items such as a plastic bag. Politely decline “freebies” at events, ask for your drink without a straw, and bring your personal Tupperware when you go out to eat, for leftovers.
Time Adopting a zero waste lifestyle is time consuming and requires a lot of attention. DIYs can be fun but who has the time and energy to think through the logistics and resources in order to successfully achieve a DIY project? Consider making a simple switch with your frequently used items to a lower waste alternative. Reusable water bottles, coffee cups, bags, cloth napkins, straws, etc.
Economic System Capitalistic culture in the United States encourages mass consumption which results in large scale unnecessary waste. Very few people live in areas that have strong reuse values, evident in secondhand stores, or repair cafes. Friends and family often have skills they can bring to the table, and are proud to do so! Join Facebook groups that share tips on how to reduce waste with practical alternatives. Host a clothing swap with your friends; take classes on skills like sewing/basic electronic repair (ex: Skillshare, iFixIt, YouTube tutorials)
Location The retail and agricultural infrastructure in our country is not consistent in a way where everyone has the ability to shop in places that offer zero waste items. This includes retail, big box stores as well as food accessibility. Zero waste is not a standardized method. Think about the resources your community DOES have and start there. You might live in a very rural area and therefore have to order things online and deal with the packaging. Zero waste for your community may focus more on reuse and composting.

The zero waste movement can be daunting and overwhelming. However, by reading this blog you have already taken the first step to actively think about the waste that you produce! Living zero waste is a spectrum and a progression, so don’t feel like you have to participate in a certain way. With these tips, we hope that a zero waste lifestyle feels more practical, achievable, and a whole lot easier!

By Olivia Horwitz and Morgan Laner, EcoFellows ’18-’19