Most of us probably don’t give much thought to the waste we generate every day. We buy loads of stuff, from groceries to cosmetics to the latest gadgets. We eagerly await our deliveries, only to rip through the packaging, and then the bubble wrap, and then even more packaging within seconds. But none of that matters. As long as we have our diary or eye shadow palette or the latest (exorbitantly priced) iPhone, the plastic carnage at our feet is quickly forgotten.
As the world continues to suffer from our consumer-driven ways, we must pause and rethink our lifestyles. We must find a more sustainable way of life—one where we can produce zero waste.
How much waste are we talking about?
Our planet holds over 7.8 billion human beings and all 7.8 billion of us collectively generate over 2 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste each year, with each person generating an average of 0.74 kg every day. In case you’re wondering what that looks like, picture all this waste being put into trucks one after another in a line. Now picture that line going around the world 24 times. That’s how much we’re talking about!
However, there are many disparities in the who, how, and what of our waste. For starters, developed countries such as the USA and Canada, which represent 16% of the global human population, account for 34% (or 683 million tonnes) of the total waste produced in the world. Similarly, in developing countries, 48% of waste is collected from urban areas, whereas only 26% is collected from rural areas.
What type of waste are we talking about?
Overall, there are four different types of waste produced – municipal solid waste, agricultural waste, industrial waste and hazardous waste.
Among these, the most widely produced waste is municipal solid waste, generated across households, shops, offices, hotels and other institutions. At the household level, the most common solid wastes generated are in the form of food, paper, plastic, cardboard, glass and wood. Different economic sectors also produce waste (besides those mentioned above) in the form of housekeeping waste, food packaging, ashes, hazardous chemicals, concrete, industrial sludge, and pesticides.
The profile of this waste isn’t identical across the globe either. High-income countries usually produce less food waste (~32%), but produce a lot of dry waste, such as paper, cardboard, glass and metal (~51%), most of which is recyclable. Developing or low-income countries, on the other hand, produce about 53% food waste and only 20% of waste that can be recycled.
Where is all this waste going and why should we be concerned?
Unfortunately, most countries, particularly low-income ones, lack proper waste disposal and treatment facilities. As a result, most of the waste is dumped into landfills or on open grounds. Globally, 37% of the waste produced is dumped into landfills, while 31% is dumped openly. In developing countries, an alarming 93% of waste is disposed of on open grounds.
Similarly, a lot of waste is also being dumped into our oceans. From plastic bags to Q-tips and rubber slippers to fake teeth dentures, one can find an endless range of plastic items circulating in marine waters.
Over the years, several scientists have reported alarming figures of the amount of garbage being dumped into the oceans. For instance, a study in 2014 reported that over 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic weighing around 269,000 tons were present across our planet’s oceans. Another study reported that each year 78 million tons of plastic packaging was being produced, of which 32% was disposed into our oceans—a figure that roughly translates to one garbage truck being emptied every minute into the ocean. Astonishing, right?
If you thought our problems ended here, unfortunately, they don’t. In fact, they only get worse.
One of the biggest concerns with the uncontrolled dumping of waste into our environment is that it increases carbon emissions in the air, and we all know how harmful these emissions can be, don’t we? For instance, in 2016, global solid waste treatment and disposal accounted for nearly 1.6 billion metric tons or 5% of the planet’s carbon emissions, 47% of which came from food wastage.
Similarly, waste dumped into the ocean has the potential to destroy entire habitats. This pollution can reduce light and oxygen levels and pose a physical threat to marine life if they ingest the plastic or get entangled in it.
Waste that is inappropriately managed also poses a severe health hazard and can spread disease if not treated properly. For instance, a study from Nigeria found that local communities frequently suffered from skin infections, abdominal pain, and typhoid due to improper waste management systems.
Considering all this, is zero waste—a widely touted solution to our waste problem—even possible?
What is zero waste?
Zero waste is defined as “the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health,” — the Zero Waste International Alliance.
In simpler terms, zero waste aims to send nothing to our landfills. In reality, however, we all know that this is close to impossible. We do not have full control of how products are made, how they are shipped, the conditions in which they are made, where ingredients are sourced, and so on. Zero waste therefore aims at reaching as close to zero as possible.
What are some key principles behind the Zero Waste movement?
For starters, the basic philosophy of the zero-waste movement is that if we refuse to buy products with excessive packaging, then their demand invariably reduces, which forces manufacturers to rethink their packaging approach. Refusing to purchase (and sell) products that are made or packaged in single-use plastic directly stops plastics and toxins from entering our environment.
Second, consciously reducing what we use also lessens the amount of waste being generated. For instance, replacing eight different cleaning liquids, one each for cleaning floors, windows, kitchen tops, etc., with a single universal cleaner can directly eliminate seven bottles.
Third, reuse and recycle everything you can, whenever you can, and wherever you can. This can be as simple as mending a hole in a sweater over throwing it away, or handing down clothes, toys, and books to younger siblings. You can even swap daily-use products, such as shampoos that come in disposable tubes for shampoos bars that come without any packaging. On the other hand, there are some items that one cannot recycle beyond a certain point. These are ones you want to avoid from the start.
Last, compost the rest—everything from paper and food waste to wooden utensils and clothing.
How can you adopt this lifestyle and commit to creating less waste?
Watching influencers on social media talk about their zero-waste lifestyles is inspiring, but let’s be real… this is not an overnight lifestyle change. Not only is it an enormous change, but also one you may quickly reverse if you haven’t thought it through and planned properly.
So, here’s what you can do instead. Begin by doing a little planning. Observe and make a list of all the items you use every day, from appliances, skincare products, and food (and its packaging) to electronics, utensils, and food storage. Make sure your list is elaborate and detailed and one that covers different segments of your household and life.
Next, make a list of the alternatives for each item. For instance, a great alternative to buying plastic wrapped vegetables from the supermarket is to buy produce directly at your local farmer’s market. By doing so, you will not only be reducing your plastic usage, but will also support your local community! Similarly, you can carry your own containers into shops that allow you to buy in bulk. Making a list can help you slowly transition towards a zero-waste lifestyle, one item at a time.
Third, start small. Start by making small changes in your lifestyle, ones that won’t take much effort, but will keep you motivated to make bigger changes in the coming months. A change as small as swamping your plastic toothbrush for a bamboo one, swapping disposable plastic utensils with wooden or steel versions, using a reusable steel straw, switching to loose tea leaves from individual tea bags, or using wooden Q-tips and hairbrushes. I promise, you will feel a lot more motivated to make bigger changes after making these little ones first!
Fourth, pick up a few new skills, such as stitching or carpentry. This will help you mend your own clothes when they tear, or maybe even help you fix your broken chair. By doing so, you will reduce the urge to throw away old clothes and furniture, which means you won’t need to buy new ones!
Last, don’t beat yourself up if things aren’t going as planned. Making big changes in your life takes time and not everyone can do it effectively. Be kind to yourself and always remember why you have chosen this path towards a more sustainable and healthy life. Finally, never forget that any change, no matter how small, starts with one determined person—you!