What is Zero Waste Lifestyle? What You Need to Know

Right now, we live in a consumer-driven culture that prefers speed, options, and convenience. New gadgets, takeaway meals, and so much online shopping to be had. Only, these are all at the expense of our natural environment.

The numbers are astounding: humans create at least 3.5 million tons of plastic and other solid waste daily. In the US for example, each person generates close to 5 pounds of trash EVERY SINGLE DAY. Just plastic bags create so much useless waste. In fact, Americans use 100 billion plastic bags, while Canadians throw away over 15 billion of them per year.

The good thing is, more and more people are motivated to switch to a sustainable lifestyle. Yes, millions are still programmed to consume mindlessly. But there’s also a growing number of individuals that are engaging in a zero waste lifestyle.

So what is zero waste anyway? Is it really possible?

Well first, we have to define what it is exactly.

What is Zero Waste Lifestyle?

Zero waste lifestyle is any attempt to reduce the amount of trash you create daily. There are different ways on how to go about this, including buying fewer packaged goods, reusing products you already own, and recycling.

The zero waste principle can also go beyond one’s physical trash; it can involve changing your diet with sustainability in mind; reducing your emissions, limiting your media consumption, and so forth.

In essence, it’s a reframing of your mindset and your routine when it comes to consumption.

Photo by alleksana from Pexels

Why is Going Zero Waste Important?

We don’t have to tell you that all the modern conveniences we enjoy have a detrimental effect on our environment.

Reducing Single-Use Plastic

As countries get richer and become more technologically advanced, the trash changes too – more packaging, electronics – way less organic biodegradable material.

And one of the most visible problems is the amount of single-use plastics that end up dumped in nature. According to the Washington Post, plastic waste found in the oceans kills at least one million marine creatures every year. In fact, studies show that if things float on, by 2050 the plastics in the ocean will be outweighing the fish living in it.

And if they’re not killed by plastic entanglement, sea creatures still end up ingesting microplastics. And guess who ends up eating plastic? You, me, and everyone who savors that delicious plate of grilled seafood.

Not only do plastics end up in oceans, its very production is also wasteful. Even though they are so useful and durable, over 90% of plastics are derived from virgin fossils. That means that it requires a large carbon footprint – equaling the total oil consumption used by all airline companies in the world!

So imagine this: you ordered something online, and it came mummified in cling wrap, packed using a plastic bag. You’ll immediately throw these plastics away, because what use would they be?

The carbon footprint put into producing those plastics will be a total waste, and they will join the growing trash problem.

Dealing with Climate Change

So if the world just makes sure there are enough landfills to house the trash it’ll be all right, right? Wrong.

Landfills are also problematic because they release methane. It’s a potent greenhouse gas that is much more potent than CO2. When methane traps heat in the atmosphere, there’s a bigger chance of causing climate change-related events, i.e. more natural disasters.

Keeping materials out of landfills is one of the key ways we can solve climate change.

So why is zero waste crucial? Because it works twofold: impacting both the waste problem and the production stream.

Something as simple as consciously choosing a reusable bag instead of single use plastics would go a long way. You’ll reduce unnecessary carbon consumption. And you’ll prevent another plastic bag from being dumped in the landfill – or worse – ending up in the ocean to kill another sea creature.

Why Recycling Isn’t the Answer

Since we were kids, we were told of the 3 big R’s: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. So why are zero waste lifestyle practitioners now saying that people shouldn’t focus on recycling?

According to journalist Ed Humes, recycling has served as “a balm and penance” for most people. He explains that recycling has given the false sense that we are recycling then all is well in the environment.

But based on what we know so far, producing materials in the first place is what causes so much energy and material consumption. And if these are disposable, single-use products, chances are they won’t be recycled either.

Studies suggest that the US only recycles 9% of plastic waste. That’s 91% ending up in dumps and natural environments!

This is precisely why practitioners like Kathryn Kellog, author of 101 Ways to Go Zero-Waste, believe that recycling should be the last option.

For her, zero waste is about having to recycle less, not more. It’s more important to reduce your consumption, and to avoid single-use plastic as much as possible.

Starting a Zero Waste Lifestyle

So can we actually live zero waste?

Maybe not literally. Like what the experts say, living with zero trash isn’t really possible (unless you live in the middle of nowhere without access to modern consumer products).

Fact is, we exist in societies where convenient, disposable products are the norm. And why should we give all of that up?

Here’s the thing: you may not completely eliminate waste (especially plastic waste) in your lifestyle, but you CAN consciously make choices about what you buy and how you use them.

Not to harp on the environmental impact, but we’re really at that point where we need to consider trading off some convenience for a clean environment.

So where does one start?

Experts of the movement give five R’s this time: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Rot, and Recycle.


This is all about curbing your consumption for new stuff. Do you really need to get that latest smartphone? How many shoes do you own versus how many you will actually use?

Instead of thinking how you can recycle items (which btw doesn’t happen that much) or relying on technologies to make recycling easy and affordable, start with not filling your house – and landfills – with stuff in the first place.

Hume says that it starts with fighting the urge to follow consumerism, “to stop doing what some economic force want us to do,” and instead be mindful of what you buy and what you dispose.

Reduce (plastic consumption)

This relates to the Refuse mindset, in that you make it a habit to buy ONLY things you need.

It’s going to be different for everyone. Some may not buy water bottles but hoard toiletries. Some may not own a lot of clothes but score the latest electronic gadgets.

A big contributor for single-use plastic waste right now is online shopping. So maybe start there.

Wherever you think it’s worth the effort, begin reflecting on how you can gradually improve or eliminate that habit, so you don’t risk overwhelming yourself or your family.

Oh, and don’t rush to buy a zero waste “starter kit” or something marketed as eco-friendly. The goal is to shop less, and it kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?


Basically, this involves using what you already own.

You’re only bound by your imagination as to how you can reuse items at home.

For instance, you can repurpose plastic bottles as containers, use old clothes as rags, opt for shopping thrifted or used goods, and purchase items durable enough for repeated use (e.g. steel tumblers, canvas shopping tote).


Well we’ll all do eventually, but we’re talking about rotting organic waste in a compost.

Why bother? Because up to 80% of household waste is organic. Unfortunately, organic waste doesn’t decompose in landfills because of the multitude of chemicals at play.

If you can start a compost, your garden and indoor plants will thank you for it.

But if you don’t have the space or the nose for it, start with lessening what you consume. Food waste is a real issue in North America. In fact, Canadians waste up to $31 billion worth of food each year – with 47% of it happening at home!


This should be the last resort for typical homeowners like us.

Experts advise to make sure that you’re giving exactly what is asked at the recycling center – nothing less, nothing more. And you’d want to make sure that the recyclables are clean and dry.

It takes effort, energy and money to recycle, and it doesn’t really address the plastic waste problem. But, it’s still a better option than the landfill.

Zero Waste Lifestyle: The Takeaway

So are you already thinking of what changes you can commit to now that you’ve got an idea of what zero waste means?

Zero waste lifestyle WILL look different on everyone. It’s something you should customize to fit your routine.

Don’t feel compelled to overhaul your entire consumption habit. Don’t get lost in the minutiae.

Do what works for you.

As advocates of zero waste would highlight, the environment needs a lot of people doing a little, not a few folks perfecting it.

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