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Beginners Guide to the Zero Waste Movement (and 4 Zero Waste Newbie Mistakes to Avoid!)

Zero waste started as a set of design principles for creating products, services, and processes that minimize waste that is produced. These principles were adopted as a lifestyle by environmentally minded people who are now carrying zero waste to the mainstream spotlight.

As the zero waste movement has grown, it’s message has been somewhat diluted. As the lifestyle side of the movement has exploded, the onus on companies to reduce their waste is pushed aside. While individual actions are still useful, the importance of regulating industries can not be forgotten.

The core principles of zero waste may be buried beneath layers of individual responsibility and “minimal” aesthetics but they’re still present. Understanding the foundation of zero waste will help you avoid newbie mistakes and will help you determine what the most environmentally-conscious decision is.

In this article we’ll go over:

  • The principles of zero waste design
  • The background of the zero waste lifestyle movement
  • How to start your zero waste lifestyle journey
  • Zero waste beginner mistakes to avoid

Zero Waste Design Principles

You might not be an engineer creating a new product or planning a factory layout, but you are the engineer of your life! By deeply examining the principles at the core of zero waste, you’ll be able to make informed decisions when it comes to engineering your own day-to-day life.

Many of these principles are best applied at the start of the design process for a product, and for this reason it’s impossible in our current system to be perfectly zero waste. Nevertheless, you can still make better decisions.

The principles of zero waste are:

  • Preventing waste from the start
  • Using non-toxic materials
  • Durability and long lifespans
  • Ease of repair
  • Ease of disassembly
  • Using less materials
  • Using recycled materials
  • Closed-loop systems

Preventing waste from the start

Zero waste is focused on more than our household trash. Products we buy have a trail of waste from extraction of virgin materials, the manufacturing of these materials and then their eventual transportation. For companies, this means considering the waste produced at every stage of the product’s life.

There are still ways individuals can prevent waste from the start. Buying second-hand or from companies with sustainable-policies can minimize the waste involved in the pre-consumer phase. Additionally, your life can be organized in ways that will reduce the trash you create.

Use of non-toxic materials

When toxic materials are used in production, they increase the environmental impact of the product before it’s even being used. Further, toxic materials are bad for our health and are difficult, if not impossible, to dispose of safely. They’re also dangerous for the communities that live near the production factories and this is without mentioning the workers that labour in these factories.

Companies should use non-toxic materials. Individuals can be informed about toxic materials to avoid purchasing them, and should support government regulation of toxic materials.

Durable products with longer lifespans

Because of planned and perceived obsolescence, people are consuming more and more products with short lifespans designed for the landfill. By making a conscious effort to buy high quality, durable products and to maintain what we own, we reduce the amount we buy and thus the amount that we get rid of.

Most importantly, the onus is on companies to shift away from encouraging mindless consumption.

Easily repairable objects

Some products, particularly electronics, are so difficult to repair that it’s cheaper to replace them. This is incredibly wasteful, as many of these products will end up in a landfill. While this is largely an issue of design, individuals can compare ease of repair when choosing products to buy.

Ease of disassembly at end of life

Some products are difficult to recycle because they’re made of a variety of different materials that are hard to separate. Even if the individual materials can be recycled, the object must be designed to be easily disassembled.

This is primarily the responsibility of the company, but individuals should look for products that are designed to be disposed of responsibly.

Use of less materials

Minimizing materials may look like reduced packaging on products, smaller objects that still perform their function, or items with multiples uses. When choosing between two products, individuals can compare the packaging, size, and number of (useful) functions.

Use of recycled materials

Products that use recycled materials are often better than ones that are new. But, the processing required for recycling materials can be high, and the percentage of materials in the object which are recycled may be low, so don’t buy something solely because it’s made with recycled materials without considering the other principles.

Closed-loop systems

Currently, we live in a linear system where materials are extracted, processed, manufactured into products, which are sold and ultimately designed to end up in a landfill. The zero waste lifestyle encourages people to keep what they have in use.

Products that are meant to be reclaimed at the end of their lives help prevent waste being sent to landfills. Until the system in which we live is completely overhauled, it’s impossible for individuals to be completely zero waste.

A History of the Zero Waste Movement

The earliest use of the term zero waste was by chemist Paul Palmer in the 1970s. His company, Zero Waste Solutions was started in 1974 to divert laboratory chemicals from going to waste. Through the 80s and 90s, the theory and principles of zero waste continued to be developed for industrial processes.

As awareness of the problems with overconsumption and waste disposal grew during the end of the 20th century, more companies and businesses became interested in applying zero waste principles. Consulting agencies such as Zero Waste Solutions, founded in 2002 by Shavila Singh, sprung up to help other companies transform their business practices.

It wasn’t until 2009, when Bea Johnson decided to apply zero waste design principles to her life, that the zero waste lifestyle took off. She had decided to share her journey with the world through her blog and she was featured in the New York Times by 2010.

In 2013 she published her book, zero waste home. Bea Johnson’s journey inspired other eco-activists, bloggers, to apply zero waste principles to their lifestyles. She also popularized the 5 R’s as an alternative to the 3 R’s.

Lauren Singer from New York city started her blog, Trash is for Tossers, after being inspired by Bea. She started her company, Package Free Shop, to provide products that help people reduce their waste.

Another zero waste blogger, Kathryn Kellogg, originally started her journey after learning about the health effects of exposure to toxins present in many products. She’s since written her book, 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste, to help other people on their journeys!

While the zero waste lifestyle movement has critics, it has influenced package free stores, innovative reusable products, and has brought sustainability to the forefront of consumers’ minds.

How to Start Your Own Zero Waste Journey

Stop buying things!

The first step of starting your zero waste journey is boring, but essential. Don’t rush out and buy all the zero waste swaps the eco-influencers are pushing. In fact, don’t buy anything at all!

Whether you do 30 days, 2 months, or a year of not spending, use this time to reevaluate what you think you know. Most of us have been subconsciously taught bad consumer habits and the first step of your zero waste journey is unlearning these. And on that note…

Read, listen, and learn

There is so much to learn about sustainability and knowledge is an incredibly powerful tool; not only can we make the best decisions available to us, we can also express the importance to others.

I have a list of eco-focused bloggers, YouTubers, and websites that I continually update. It’s a good place to start if you want to educate yourself further with regards to sustainability.

Use what you have

Before you buy package-free shampoo bars or compostable bamboo toothbrushes, use what you already have. Finish the bottle of shampoo and use your plastic toothbrush until you need to replace it. Not only will you save money, you’ll also avoid impulsive buys.

Swap disposables for reusables (or do without!)

Make a list of all the disposable and single-use products you currently use. Then, find alternative reusable products, or see if you can do without. For any reusable products you decide to buy, try to buy them as you need them; this helps ensure you will actually use the reusable version once you have it. Reducing the amount of single use items gradually is key here.

Shop consciously

When your no-spend period is over (and for essentials like groceries), try to consider the environmental impact of what you’re buying. Living in North America means you’ll also have to consider where your food is coming from. Fresh local food is not always an option especially if you live somewhere up north. A large part of this is considering the zero waste principles listed above.

Follow the 6 R’s

They’re a simple guide for many decisions: refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, rot, recycle. That is.. refuse stuff you don’t want or need, reduce your consumption and waste production, reuse (or repurpose) what you have, repair broken items instead of replacing, let food waste rot (ie. compost), and, as a last resort, recycle what you can.

Be patient with yourself

It’s not possible for anyone to be entirely zero waste. But if you’re hard on yourself, you’ll only feel discouraged. Be patient during your zero waste journey, and when you look at other zero wasters, remember that many of them have been on their journey for years.

Zero Waste Beginner Mistakes to Avoid

When first introduced to the world of zero waste swaps and eco friendly products, the nuanced details of zero waste often fly over our heads. Because of this, there are some common mistakes that zero waste beginners often make.

Replacing all your stuff

When you first see zero waste pros on Instagram, it can be really tempting to go out and buy every zero waste swap. Not only is this really expensive, but you likely already have things at home you can use.

Buying reusables you won’t use

Just because there’s a reusable version of something, doesn’t mean you will use it. Many zero waste YouTubers have made videos about the zero waste swaps they regret buying. A simple way to avoid impulsive purchases is to write it down and wait a set amount of time.

Trying to do everything at once

If you try to overhaul your entire lifestyle, you’ll quickly become overwhelmed and burnout. The most sustainable changes are the ones that are personally sustainable. Start small, and start in one place.

Worrying about the zero in zero waste

Some people (especially critics of the movement) get hung up on the zero of zero waste; realistically, because of the system we live in it is impossible for anyone to be completely zero waste. Even common zero waste habits, such as shopping in bulk stores and buying fresh, package free produce, can be inaccessible to some people.

What matters most is trying your best (and trying to influence system change through voting, joining grassroots movements, and attending protests).

Final Thoughts

Zero waste doesn’t have to be expensive and elitist; in fact, it shouldn’t be! It’s infinitely better for everyone to implement a little bit of zero waste into their lives than for a few people to be perfectly zero waste.

What zero waste newbie mistakes did you make? Let me know. Subscribe to learn more about wellness and sustainability.

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