Many interesting points came out during our conversation, and I decided to go further by writing this piece about the ZERO WASTE movement and dive deep into its origin, developments and some of the misconceptions.READ OUR SUSTAINABLE LIFESTYLE GUIDE
So let’s go back in time and have a look at the origin of this movement. Without annoying you too much on why we got to the point we are today, with landfills filled with trash, non-stop toxic trash-burning incinerators, and the limits of the current linear mindset of take, make, dispose, the Zero Waste movement dates back to the early ‘80.
Urban Ore operation and Dr Daniel Knapp philosophy of Total Recycling resonated not only in Berkley and within the US borders; but also overseas, leading him to tour in early 2000, Australia and New Zealand engaging with municipalities, businesses and citizens to promote it. The key point in this idea was to bring all resources back into commerce or transformed back into raw material. Daniel’s twelve-step sorting approach is now the basis for zero waste planning in many US cities.
We’re in the US, Berkeley CA, where Dr Daniel Knapp, together with his wife, the environmental writer Mary Lou Van Deventer, gives birth to the Urban Ore initiative. The latter emerged as a scavenger organization, picking through trash and selling usable items to the public and promoting the idea that most of the things ending up in landfill could have been given a second life.
The next step in the zero waste history was, in 2003, the formation of the Zero Waste International Alliance, born under the initiative of Richard Anthony. In 2002 he found himself on the scientific committee for a series of Resource Conferences and realized that their only focus was about incineration technologies and there was no mention about recycling. Then, he went on to set up a team of Zero Waste advocates, Dr Knapp included, that toured a series of conferences and events around Europe. They met with activists, industry experts around the continent and eventually ended up organizing the Zero Waste dialogue hosted by Prof. Robin Murray, of the London School of Economics and author of the books Zero Waste and Creating Wealth From Waste, what are considered to be the first steps towards the foundation of ZIWA.
ZIWA will later define zero waste as: The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.
Although, as we have seen, the Zero Waste movement started as an effort to change industry practices and policies about the way waste stream were treated, it then took a interesting twist. In 2006, Bea Johnson was the first person to bring, and document it on social media, the Zero Waste philosophy within the walls of her house. The image of her holding one year of trash in a glass Jar has become iconic in the zero waste movement (yes she was the first one to fit one year of trash in a glass jar) and an ambition for many zero-waster.
Her rise as Social Media influencer (with about 250k followers on IG), her book Zero Waste Home and several appearances on TV and Ted Talks have surely paved the way to the rise of what could be considered the Social version of the zero waste movement. She has inspired hundreds of thousands of people to implement waste-free living, shop at package-free shops, conceptualize new reusable products, and start their own organizations.
As the expression points out, the goal is to zero on waste generation. How can zero waste management be achieved, however, depends of many factors such as time availability, personal interests and skills, lifestyle, accessibility to certain services and much more.
Within the practitioners you will find those following the Do It Yourselves philosophy, where you actually self produce at home certain products like cosmetics or homecare detergents. When lucky enough to have access to bulk shop or to the old style farmer markets, others choose to go for package free products or for repurposing/reusing products.
With the waste generated every year as individuals, 173 kg per capita only for packaging, there are virtually no limits to get creative and start being more conscious about our consumption habits. In fact, there aren’t best practices and you can find tons of profiles on social media showing alternatives on how to go about it (just go and have a look at the #zerowaste).
However, while the term zero-waste may direct our thoughts towards the idea of consuming a product while avoiding to generate waste, the mantra of the zero-waster highlights a much broader approach to the problem.
The mantra is represented by what are known as the Five R’s.
As we can clearly deduce, the first way to reduce our waste generation is by actually working on our consumption habits.
Put it down in easier words, that means questioning every decision you take, especially when it comes to purchasing a product. If you look around in this very moment, for example, you would be likely to see things you could have refused, reduced or reused and other things that will hardly be recycled (even if you do recycle at home). In particular, the zero waste movement has a strong rejection towards plastic. Being hardly recyclable, made of fossil fuels and contaminating everything it gets in contact with, it is considered the worst of the evils (and they’re kinda right on that).
Getting to the trash in the jar level ain’t no joke. However, with little effort, each of us could easily find a simple step to start with and see how it goes. Whether by buying must have zero waste products such as solid soaps and cosmetics or by shopping at bulk shops we have, today, easy solution that can make this first step much easier and help us overcome our mind biases (we talked about it in our mindset and sustainability blog post).
As one of the several faces that environmentalism has taken in the past couple of decades, thanks to a larger access to information, Zero Waste is inevitably connected to many other aspects of the broader concept of sustainable living.
Minimalism, for example, is the maximization of rules one and two of the zero waste lifestyle and it’s about freeing yourself from the addiction to own physical goods. Clear up of what is not essential. It is not rare, indeed, that zero-waster would define themselves minimalist (Bea Johnson defines herself as such).
Also, you will increasingly find zero waste home-care products and cosmetics that are also vegan, toxic free, biobased and made with renewable resources, and zero-waste practitioners being vegan/vegetarian or environmental activists. That is because, if your drive towards a zero waste lifestyle comes from the awareness that our planet won’t sustain for that long the pressure that the industrial and societal systems are putting on it, you are likely to go beyond the social tag of being zero-waster and actually point towards a broader sustainable lifestyle.
In general, what I really like about the zero-waste movement, is that people actually decide to take control over their lives and somehow overturn the widespread idea that individuals have no power to change how the system works and that we only depend on corporation will. Of course, as individuals we won’t be able to save the planet trying to go zero waste, as we won’t going vegan or using bikes instead of cars. But I am sure it will put a much stronger societal pressure on governments and corporates.
Moreover, this idea of empowerment also creates a more rewarding journey as you go along and discover new ways of becoming more sustainable and every little step you make gives you that feeling good joy that will push you towards the next challenge.GO ZERO WASTE!