If you type the term “Zero Waste” into your internet search bar, you’ll likely pull up hundreds of articles, blogs, websites and definitions explaining what the phrase means. In its boiled down form, zero waste is just what it implies – no waste is produced. However, from there, the answers you'll find through perusing the internet swing anywhere from diverting materials from landfill by utilizing other systems (like recycling and composting), to simply not producing any recycling, compost or trash because you've found ways to not need these systems. Some sources see it as an act, while others view it as a lifestyle choice or mentality.
That leaves quite a bit of interpretation, and frankly, a fair amount of confusion. So I've taken different opinions and thoughts on the matter and synthesized them to create my own personal working definition: Zero waste is about practicing lifestyle choices that create less landfill.
In order to fully understand why waste has such a growing negative connotation in our society, let’s break down why landfills (where waste ends up) are increasingly problematic.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, landfills are facilities designed for the sole purposes of:
1.) containing solid waste, and
2.) preventing contamination of the surrounding environment.
By definition, you can infer from these statements that most landfill-bound waste is potentially dangerous for the environment. Municipal landfills (those established for communities, not exclusively industries or commercial use) can contain materials from heavy metals and pharmaceuticals to even radioactive materials. These hazardous materials thus contaminate the other landfill waste, such as papers, cardboard, plastics and more (as referenced by the Conservation Law Foundation). The end result is an enormous facility filled to the brim with noxious solid waste and toxic gases; certainly not safe for humans or most other life. To make matters worse, landfills aren’t fully leak-proof. Eventually, landfills will leak these contaminants to the surrounding environment through the plastics that line landfills, the creation of noxious gases such as methane, and through ash produced through burning waste as a means to manage the sheer volume. This leads to toxic air pollution, poor water quality, increased cancer rates in nearby residents, and more.
So what ends up in these noxious landfills? In 2017, nearly 26 million tons of plastic, including bags, sacks, wraps, packaging, single-use water bottles and more, were dumped into landfills. Based on research compiled by the American Chemical Council, 35.4 million tons of plastics were produced in the United States in 2017, which means only about 9 million tons of all plastics produced during the entire year were recycled or put back into our system. Other sizeable materials added to landfills every year include food (21.9% of total landfill use in 2017), paper and paperboard (13.1%), and textiles/clothing (8%). These figures show just how massive our waste-producing systems are, and indicates the need to establish widespread system change, as more landfills reach maximum capacity each year.
As a community, we can choose to decrease the personal usage of dangerous landfills through purchasing contaminant-free products, recycling and composting when it is available and accessible to us, and – you guessed it – opting to decrease waste altogether by refusing packaging and non-necessary items at the source. By taking advantage of systems that are already in place in your community, such as recycling and compost, you can greatly reduce the waste you use in your household on a weekly basis, therefore lowering your overall environmental footprint. We also encourage you to hold your favorite companies to similar standards. At Summit Sustainable Goods, we leave products unpackaged when possible, and all of the necessary packaging we use can be recycled, composted or reused. This limits the need for landfills, and helps others choose high quality, local products that, by nature, are zero waste.
So let’s return to our working definition: Zero waste is about practicing lifestyle choices that create less landfill. At Summit Sustainable Goods, it's not, and never will be, about perfection. By choosing to practice a zero waste lifestyle, you can work to eliminate one plastic bag full of trash a month, or live with simply a mason jar's worth of landfill gathered over the course of an entire year. And here's the critical take-away: both are valid. If you fit into the former category, you probably identify with most sustainably-focused Americans. If you fit into the latter category, use your incredible story to educate others and teach your community how to follow your lead! Notice that in my definition, I use the words "practicing", and "less", not "always accomplishing" and "zero". We are human, and it is often messy to be human, and that's okay. Zero waste should be about building up community and encouraging others, rather than tearing down those who aren't perfect or still have a somewhat sizeable landfill footprint.
At Summit Sustainable Goods, I often talk about “discovering your summit”, or choosing a sustainable goal to drive you forward. I'm not concerned whether your summit is the one-fewer-trash-bag-every-month goal or the one-mason-jar-every-year goal, I'm just glad you're here for the journey.
Let's push towards zero waste, discover our summits together, and do more to make less.