Have you seen stories in the news about people who produce almost no trash? This is achieved by only purchasing things with little to no packaging, doing without items that are wasteful, and being dedicated to recycling and composting. Although that is admirable, it does seem pretty unrealistic for most people. Food packaging, paper napkins, diapers, junk mail, empty medicine bottles and other plastics that aren’t recyclable, broken pens and other office supplies...all this and more seem nearly impossible to avoid while functioning in our current world.

The simplest definition of zero waste is producing little or no trash. A more complete definition was created by the Zero Waste International Alliance:

“Zero Waste: 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 County of Hawaii also has a great description of zero waste:

“’Zero Waste’ is a way of life that promotes the goal of reducing the amount of material we throw away and instead reincorporating by-products of one system for use for another system. There is no such thing as "waste" in Nature. In nature, the by-product of one system is feedstock for another system. Only humans have created this thing like "waste." Ancient Hawaiian culture lived this way before the term "Zero Waste" came to be. We can live this way again through small shifts in our daily activities. In this way, we greatly reduce our impact on Hawai'i Island's natural environment, and how much rubbish we generate, protect Hawai'i Island's natural environment, preserve our resources for future generations, and save our community tax dollars."

Zero Waste Diagram

Zero Waste Diagram - Long Description

Source: University of Colorado, Boulder Environmental Center

Zero waste goals are also mindful of environmental and social justice. It is about respecting all communities, so that pollution and waste treatment facilities are not always built in poor and marginalized communities, and items we separate for recycling aren’t piling up and creating toxic pollution in third world countries.

Some trash is inevitable because this is a messy world but we can all do more to make it a little less messy. We can also influence companies to use less packaging by more often selecting products that are minimally wasteful.

Instead of dismissing the zero waste concept because it doesn’t seem realistic, we should see this concept as a goal—and maybe it’s an ideal that most of us will never reach, and that’s ok. If a million people see the dire importance of conserving resources and therefore make small changes to shop and use products and foods more wisely, with the health of the planet and people in mind, how much better off would we be?? That has a lot more impact than a handful of zero waste perfectionists.

So instead of thinking it is impossible to produce zero waste, think instead about producing a little less today. Think about shopping for products that have less packaging than the others. Think about shopping for a few items in the bulk section of the store and then reusing the bag for something else. Think about recycling more and composting your food waste.  Think about repairing instead of replacing. Think about preserving our natural environment with small shifts in your daily activities.

For more information about zero waste and tips on how to produce less trash, please visit these sites: