The term zero waste seems pretty straight-forward—zero is zero, right?—but in practice, the zero waste philosophy actually has a lot of room for interpretation. With zero waste grocery stores, communities, books, and even weddings becoming more common, though, it’s important to understand what zero waste means.
The primary goal of zero waste is to send no trash into a landfill. (Among other things—the EPA has a list of how communities around the country define zero waste.) The idea is to reduce usage of everything (including non-compostable items like plastics, reuse anything possible (turning old t-shirts into cleaning rags, for example), utilize alternative methods of zero waste disposal, and recycle anything remaining.
Ideally, though, as little is recycled as possible, because most single-use containers and plastics have been reduced and reused so well. Most of the plastic items that are ostensibly being recycled—91 percent, according to National Geographic—are still finding their ways to landfills, into the oceans, and more, so avoiding using them as much as possible is the best way to reduce what’s sent to landfills. Anything left, such as food scraps or cardboard, can be composted. (Though cutting down on food waste and excess in general is also part of the zero waste movement.)
Some hardcore zero wasters produce so little trash in a year (or several) that it can fit into a mason jar. While impressive, that’s certainly not a realistic goal for many—and it shouldn’t dissuade anyone from striving toward a zero waste lifestyle.
Zero waste is more of a goal than a mandate. Even strict zero wasters produce some trash, but by cutting that amount down as much as possible, they’ve greatly reduced their environmental impact, simplified their lives, and likely saved some money at the same time.
Many people are already practicing several zero waste habits, even if they don’t realize it. Using reusable grocery bags (preferably washable cloth ones) rather than plastic or paper ones is part of zero waste. Shopping at farmer’s markets, where there’s little to no packaging used for produce, is part of zero waste. And avoiding packaged foods such as chips, tubs of ice cream, and more is also zero waste, even if it’s done for nutrition reasons.