Talk of the environment may be all around us today, but many of us are still not quite hearing, appreciating or perhaps understanding the messages being delivered.
While it is true that there are groups of people out there who want to profit from or exploit some certain vulnerable sector, such as protecting the environment, many more are spreading real, urgent and credible messages where this issue is concerned.
This may come as a surprise to some, but part of the paradigm of optimal health does involve the state of the environment. I mean think about it, you can eat or exercise as healthy as you want, but everyday you are exposed to millions of toxins in the air, water, food and products around you.
So it is for this reason today, that I want to talk to you about an approach to waste management that will not only benefit the health of the environment greatly, but your health as well.
This approach is called “zero waste” and the name speaks for itself, as to how we can improve our health, while building a sustainable future.
What Is Zero Waste?
Even though, as I already said this name hides no secret meanings, for those of you who have never heard of this approach, allow me to explain it in more detail.
The concept of zero waste was introduced in the 1970′s, but wasn’t really put into action until the late 1990′s. Once the new millennium hit, this idea was readily taught in most school environmental programs and today is considered a real and necessary initiative for a sustainable future.
So what is it? In its simplicity, one can see “zero waste” as not having or making any waste. Basically everything used goes back into being reused, and thus there is a continuous cycle of use and production that does not generate any or minimal waste, and decreases the burden on natural resources.
Before we go any further however, allow me to address two things here:
First, zero waste is not the same as recycling. Recycling cannot deal with every material, as well as recycling isn’t the optimal solution for reducing waste either.
Second, I know a lot of people who may have never have heard of this idea before, may be thinking right about now, as to how unrealistic this is. Well let me assure you it is very real, once you understand the practical applications, so I invite you to read on. It really only takes a little bit of education and a conscious approach to life.
How Does Zero Waste Work?
First and foremost zero waste is inspired by the idea of how the natural cycles of matter work in nature. Nature has been perfectly conducting orchestrated cycles of nutrients and other matter components, pretty much since the beginning of time.
Something is used, it goes back into the Earth, is re-processed and available for use again. This is for example how our oxygen is made from the carbon dioxide that we exhale out each day.
It is only after humans became industrialized that we not only threw off many of nature’s sustainable cycles, but also incorporated a way of life that for the most part held no regard for the sustainable renewal of resources. We moved from living life on this planet based on self-regenerating cycles, into a linear and thus unsustainable way of life.
Well, we have seen the damage of those actions, and in fact we are living through that damage as we speak. We know our Earth is in a fragile state today and we simply cannot continue at the pace we were going if we want to ensure that this planet is still livable for the generations to come. That is why groups of people from around the world, who are continuously increasing, are adapting the zero waste approach.
The zero waste approach that I am going to talk to you about is one for personal household use. This is the one that you and I can easily incorporate into our lives, if we should so choose.
The zero waste approach does exist for the business and industrial sector and the Zero Waste Alliance deals with education on that topic, should you be interested.
Living life based on the zero waste approach includes the following:
- reduction of materials used
- increase of materials reused
- recycling of all possible inorganic materials
- composting of all possible organic/biodegradable materials
- disposal of all toxic products at hazardous waste facilities
- the return of minimal waste, if any, to landfills
So now let us move on and see how this works on a practical level.
Putting the Zero Waste Approach Into Practice
I am going to begin by telling you my personal story. I live in a typical suburb community. Our city has something called a “blue bin” for recycling and a “green bin” for compostable products. These both get picked up on a weekly basis by city workers. “Black bags”, the typical “garbage bags, get picked up every two weeks. On top of that yard waste, such as old plants and grass clippings are picked up on pretty much a monthly basis.
Every week, I put out our “blue bin” that barely has anything in it and the “green bin” with, on average 1 grocery sized bag of compostable material (food items). Once a month, if that, I put out 1 grocery sized bag of garbage. There is never a black bag in front of our house. This amount is for 2 adults.
Now naturally the more people in a household, the more volume there is going to be, I will not argue with that. However, no matter how many people, and what ages in your household, the zero approach can still work for everyone. The following three sections explain the basics of the how.
At The Store
For starters, it all begins in the stores, with what you buy. You can be completely unconscious when shopping, giving no attention to the items you need and the packaging choices you have, i.e. the type and amount of waste that will be generated, or you can choose to be conscious of how this item impacts the bigger picture.
For example, let’s talk food. Why do I have so little waste? For no other reason than the fact that I do not eat processed or take-out food. That means no pizza boxes, no cans, no bottles, no frozen food trays, etc.
Now look at the potential here for all of us. We have the chance to increase our health through superior nutrition, and at the same time increase the health of our planet, by diminishing the amount of waste we produce. Plus, and here is another winning point to make this a win-win-win situation, you save tons of money! We all know that processed and take-out food is much more expensive than healthy, home-cooked meals, so in living this way, everyone can benefit.
By eating a natural, wholesome and plant-based diet (this will work for animal product eaters too though), I have barely any waste, and what I do have all goes either into the blue bin or green bin and hence is seen as zero waste.
Now what about other stuff? Well we know that we live in a society obsessed with stuff, so this is also a good time for a reflection on what drives you to buying so much. Most of what the average person buys is not needed and sometimes even compulsive, unconscious shopping. For more information on this subject you can check out my article entitled “Our Obsession With More“.
In the Home
How we live in terms of how we treat our “stuff” and what we choose to do with it, plays a big role in how much waste we are going to generate.
Remember, the idea is reuse, not one time use. Clothing from older kids can be used for younger ones or passed onto other people. It can be bought to begin with second hand, as most of us know how quickly kids go through their stuff.
So many cleaning supplies today are nothing but landfill fillers. Think of the whole Swiffer idea, think of the Mr.Clean magic eraser. I am not necessarily picking on these items, but these are all items that generate so much unnecessary waste. Old clothes can be made into amazing cloths for cleaning and guess what? The good old mop and vacuum are still sold at stores and work wonders for years, like they always used to.
And how about personal care products? If you have read some more content on this site, you know I stand wholly by the minimalist approach to personal care products and at that only ones that are truly “natural”. Yet I have been to many homes, where bottles of shampoos, makeup, gels, sprays, lotions and more line drawers and cabinets. First off, they are unhealthy for us, secondly they go bad, and thirdly this type of lifestyle makes us waste a lot of our money and the Earth’s resources.
Finally and most importantly, set up your house to succeed. If you know you have lazy teens at home that cannot be bothered to put their bottles away in the garage for recycling, have a recycling container perhaps under the kitchen sink. With the right intention, education, cooperation and a will, all homes can be cheaply and easily set up to succeed at the zero waste strategy.
At The Curb
Finally, in this last phase we arrive at getting ready to throw out our “trash”. And the truth here is that no matter how lavishly some people live, if they tried consciously, many of them could still attain a zero waste lifestyle.
We all know plastic can be recycled. Yes, some municipalities are not yet taking plastic bags, but it only takes a minute to call your local city hall, etc., and suggest the need for it. Remember, it is citizens like us that drive the changes, so be the change you want to see in the world!
Cardboard, paper, newspaper = recycled. (But don’t forget try to minimize having it in the first place)
Glass, metal cans (which you want to avoid anyway for health reasons) = recycled.
Food scraps, old cut flowers, tissues, napkins, etc. = compostable/biodegradable. (And no they cannot properly return to the Earth in a black plastic bag that does not break down in the environment.)
Batteries, light bulbs, paint cans, garage sprays, etc. = taking to a hazardous waste disposal facility. No one is saying make a trip there each week. Simply have a box in the garage somewhere for these items and perhaps arrange a semi-annual drop off, like spring and summer. Every city has something along those lines.
Old medicine, diabetic needles = take them back to the pharmacy where they dispose of them properly.
Diapers, sanitary napkins = here is where we can get a little stuck, unless you make a conscious choice for your baby to use washable cloth diapers (like in the olden days) or there are actually flushable/biodegradable diapers now available. Likewise, there are options for women, like the mooncup or flushable sanitary pads.
So unless you are doing some major home renovation, there really is nothing that will go in a black bag for you to put out at the curb, if you choose to be conscious about where you put the items that you consider “trash”.
It starts with a little effort, and grows into a beautiful way of life that creates for us and our children a sustainable future and a cleaner, healthier planet.
With the right education and effort you can make this work in your home on every level, no matter if you have kids, teens, a proper city waste program, etc.