What is zero waste and why is it important?
The EPA defines Zero Waste as more than just a problem of disposal but a need to reduce harm encompassing the entire life cycle of a product. In the past 50 years, humans have consumed more resources than in all previous history. This take-make-dispose system is not sustainable and needs to change on every level of the production process: manufacturing, distribution, purchasing, and disposal.
As consumers, we are at the center of this materials economy. We can make an impact on every part of the system by buying consciously, speaking up for what matters, and disposing of responsibly. But we can't fix it alone and we can't fix it overnight. The most important thing to understand about the concept of zero waste is that it is a process. Zero waste is not an all-or-nothing game. 100% no waste is a great goal but the journey to get there is just as important. Zero waste is building awareness and implementing actions one step at a time.
EPA Waste Management Hierarchy
There are many strategies to reduce waste. The EPA has categorized and prioritized these strategies by most effective to least effective. Starting with the most effective:
Reducing waste means taking less and therefore disposing of less. There are many ways to reduce but we can start by learning how to not need something because we came prepared or by asking ourselves if we can go without.
Reusing items slows the process of taking and disposing. We can reuse materials that were meant to be disposed of, giving them a second life, or we can choose materials that were meant to be reused and make sure we take good care of them so they can be used many more times.
Recycling the materials of items keeps valuable materials in the materials economy and lets us skip that environmentally disastrous extraction process of raw materials. It is good for the economy and the planet.
There are many streams of "waste" that can be recycled into a new resource
- Food waste
- Yard waste
- Food soiled paper (paper towels, napkins, unlined wrappers, etc.)
Packaging & Materials Waste
- Plastic (sturdy and clean packaging or bottles not flimsy or soft)
- Plastic bags*
*These require special recycling centers and can't be put in your curbside recycling bin.
- Water that is used in washing dishes, taking a shower doing laundry, etc. can be used in your garden as greywater!
The world's population is growing. Economies are growing. Countries all over the world are striving towards the American level of consumption. We cannot continue our rate of extraction on a planet with finite resources and without systems in place to efficiently reuse and recycle the resources we already have taken, our most effective path towards zero waste is to reduce.
There are a many tips and tricks of creative ways to reuse things, but the most important of all is learning to retrain your eyes to see an object's value and potential further uses before tossing. We can reuse items that were meant to be only used once, like the jars, or we can seek out items that were meant to be reused many times. And for these items we can extend their life, slowing the take and dispose chain even further, by repairing or donating.
75% of America's waste is recyclable, but right now we only recycle around 35%. That's $9 billion worth of material that we are throwing away per year. While recycling is an important step toward creating a circular economy is still far from a perfect system. Consumers have to recycle properly, the technology to recycle each material has to exist, and there needs to be a market for that material.
In the United States, 35% of all food is wasted. Food that is never eaten in the United States accounts for approximately 18% of agricultural resources and represents 24% of the content in the landfill. The resources, energy, and labor that go into the production, processing, transportation, storage, and disposal of this food are also being wasted when it gets thrown away.
In the landfill, this organic material generates methane, which is at least a 25 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.
'Food Waste' is defined as all food that was intended for human consumption that was removed from the human food chain for one reason or another. Though this food waste happens at many levels along the production line (farms, manufacturing, distribution, homes) 43% of the waste happens at the household level in the United States. This is a problem we can all find a solution to!
Solutions for food waste prevention
It's important to understand why food waste happens in order to find solutions. The following solutions are categorized by the main causes of food waste. The first step is understanding why you waste. Some people are over-buyers and others are leftover neglecters. Start by examining your own waste stream so you know what areas to target. And most importantly, be realistic! Not everyone has time to do extensive prepping and that's ok. Finding solutions that work for you is a process, we hope we can help.
This is one of the quickest ways to prevent food waste while also saving money. Research has shown that most of us do not check our fridge and pantries before heading off to the grocery store. This results in duplicate items being purchased and generates food waste.
After the grocery store or the farmers market, knowing how to store your food properly is an important next step to make sure nothing goes to waste. Click the link to better understand how to store food to make it last and techiniques to ensure you eat it before it goes bad.
Even if we've planned to the tee and followed all the best techniques, sometimes things don't go exactly how we want. But unappetizing food doesn't always mean bad food! There are many fun projects to give your food a second life. And it's also important to know when to call it quits and compost the food instead.
Click below for information on date labels, cosmetic imperfections, ingredient repurposing, and food safety.
When circumstances do result in food we are not going to eat, we at least want to keep it from going to the landfill. The EPA hierarchy of food recovery helps guide priorities for managing excess food. The actions at the top of the Food Recovery Hierarchy have much greater environmental benefits than do those toward the bottom, and often financial and social benefits as well. Source reduction is placed at the highest level, being the most preferred option in the hierarchy.
If you can't reduce, can you compost it?