According to The World Bank, the world generates 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste every year. At least 33% of that waste isn’t managed in an environmentally safe manner. 34% of that waste comes from high-income countries, though they only make up 16% of the world’s population. What can be done about this issue? More people are exploring “zero waste.” According to the Zero Waste International Alliance, zero waste is “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.” Here are 15 reasons why zero waste matters:
#1. Zero waste has individual and global benefits
Its impact on individuals and the world as a whole is the first reason why zero waste is important. When individuals and families commit to zero waste practices, their lives change for the better in a variety of ways. On a global scale, zero waste helps preserve the environment and human life and health. This is important to remember because on an individual level, going zero waste can seem intimidating. It can feel like a drop in a waste-filled ocean. However, small actions add up and big drivers of waste like corporations are realizing how important zero waste is to people. Things can change.
#2. There are many zero waste strategies
Zero waste is a system of many strategies all working toward a sustainable world. Composting and recycling are two of the best-known and most popular tools, but repairing and “upcycling” items are also good ways to reduce waste and turn something old into something new. The materials and processes used in the creation of products are essential, as well. Lots of waste occurs before consumers even touch a product. If the first part of a product’s lifecycle is zero waste and results in something compostable or easily recycled, other zero waste strategies become much easier and more effective.
#3. Landfills are harmful
Not sending waste to landfills is a major goal of the zero waste movement. Why? Landfills have significant environmental and social impacts. As organic waste decomposes in landfills, methane gas is released. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas and a major driver of climate change. Landfills release other greenhouse gases, as well, and can leak the liquid leachate, which damages ecosystems and contaminates water sources. At a social level, these emissions and leaks hurt anyone living nearby. Minority and low-income groups are more likely to live near landfills.
#4. Waste harms the ocean
Waste, especially plastic, is very harmful to the ocean. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, billions of pounds of plastic get dumped in the world’s oceans every year. Species are significantly affected by this waste. Fish, sea turtles, and seabirds eat plastic and become ill or die. Marine mammals eat plastic, as well, and get tangled in the debris. The bodies of sea creatures are often found stuffed with plastic. The death of so many animals affects the ecosystem and damages biodiversity, which is essential to a healthy environment.
#5. Waste harms the world’s forests
Waste has a handful of negative effects on forests. Inorganic waste doesn’t decompose easily, so when there’s a lot of it, plant roots have trouble penetrating the soil. Waste also makes it harder for the soil to absorb much-needed minerals, which damages soil fertility and plant growth. Forest health matters because forests serve so many purposes. They produce food, oxygen, and shelter for countless species, including humans. The forest industry also produces over $186 billion in global trade and supports the livelihoods of around one billion people in extreme poverty.
#6. Zero waste reduces greenhouse gas emissions
It takes a lot of energy to create new products. When products are thrown away as waste, new ones have to take their place, which perpetuates a cycle of greenhouse gas emissions. With zero waste, however, old products made from materials like paper, glass, metal, and plastic are recycled and turned into something new. According to the American Geosciences Institute, recycling usually requires less processing and uses less energy. Consider aluminum. Processing this material from aluminum ore takes a lot of heat and electricity. None of this processing is needed for recycled aluminum, so energy savings are about 94%!
#7. Composting fight climate change, too
Composting is another zero waste strategy with positive results. Composting enriches soil, helps it retain moisture, and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. Healthy soil is important because soil contains more carbon than the atmosphere and all plants. There are 2,500 billion tons of carbon in soil. According to research from the Marin County Carbon Project, applying less than a half-inch of compost to just 5% of California’s rangelands would keep 28 million tons of carbon out of the atmosphere.
#8. Long term, zero waste is a cost-effective strategy
Cost is one of the questions about zero waste. Buying products that last longer or can be recycled can be costlier than buying something disposable. On a broader scale, however, recycling and composting can be financially worth it for governments when done well. According to the Zero Waste International Alliance, Zero Waste programs are some of the most cost-effective methods local governments can take on to reduce climate change and promote sustainability.
#9. Many zero waste strategies can be implemented immediately
Strategies like composting and recycling are not new ideas. Effective systems have been developed and are ready to be implemented very quickly. The key is to ensure information on proper recycling and composting is free and easily accessible. Organizations and systems responsible for handling the materials also need to be held accountable to proper standards.
#10. Recycling is just one part of the zero-waste movement
Recycling is a popular zero waste strategy, but it’s deeply flawed, especially when it comes to plastic. When recycling became popular, the heads of the plastic industry (like Exxon, Chevron, and DuPont) took note. They encouraged people to keep buying plastic, but said it would be recycled. According to an investigation by NPR and PBS Frontline, companies spent tens of millions of dollars on ads promising consumers their plastic would be recycled. This was a lie. Most of the plastic ended up buried, burned, or in the ocean. This is why recycling isn’t the only zero-waste strategy. It’s about the entire lifecycle of products and moving away from materials (like plastic) that are hard to recycle or reuse.
#11. Zero waste projects strengthen communities
Like any movement, zero waste depends on people coming together for a common purpose. Committing to zero waste builds community and encourages people to collaborate on projects like recycling, trash pick-up, repairing products, sharing resources, and petitioning authorities to establish and improve zero-waste strategies. Grassroots approaches to sustainability can be highly effective and transformative for local communities and the world at large.
#12. Going zero waste can save you money
Buying reusable items, compost bins, and other zero-waste products can seem expensive. You have to pay more for a reusable item (like a stainless steel coffee cup or bamboo-based scrubbing brush) than for a disposable equivalent. Even though you may save more in the long-term by getting something reusable, you have to pay more upfront, which isn’t always an option. If it is, however, you can make the money back fairly quickly especially when it comes to frequently-used items. You can also save money by shopping at zero-waste places like thrift stores, secondhand book shops, and online markets where people sell used goods.
#13. Zero waste deals with the issue of food waste
We’ve talked a lot about plastic waste, but food waste is another concern. According to the EPA, about 81% of wasted food (that’s just over 20 tons) in the United States turned up in landfills or combustion facilities. Like all waste, food waste contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. By embracing a zero-waste mindset, people can waste less food, waste less money on food they don’t end up eating, and work to ensure food gets to people who need it.
#14. More companies are committing to zero waste
It’s crucial for companies – especially large ones – to get on board with zero waste. Many have made commitments. Proctor and Gamble launched its Zero Manufacturing Waste to Landfill program in 2008. Their goal is to offer 100% recyclable or reusable packaging by 2030. Mars, Inc. also set a goal for 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable plastic packaging by 2025. Countless other companies are producing high-quality, reusable products like metal lunch boxes, stainless steel coffee cups and straws, packaging-free beauty products, and more.
#15. Zero waste strategies drive innovation
In the journey to zero waste, there are many innovations geared toward better product design, better processing, better recycling programs, and more. On a 2021 blog by Kayla Vaserhelyi writing for the University of Colorado Boulder’s Environmental Center, four unique innovations were highlighted, including algae-based plastics. As a replacement for petroleum-based plastics, algae have enough biomass to generate large amounts of bioplastic. Notpla, which was founded in 2014, makes packaging from seaweed and plants, including their Heinz ketchup sachet, which is 100% natural, biodegradable, and vegan. It’s thrown away like a fruit peel and disappears in 4-6 weeks. The need for less waste will continue to inspire innovations.