The Zero Waste Life (And Its Role In Combatting Climate Change)

By Lindsay Miles

Ah, the ‘zero waste life’. You might have a few preconceived ideas about what it entails. You possibly think it’s about refusing plastic straws, carrying a shiny set of stainless steel reusables wherever you go, or having a pantry full of gleaming glass jars of ingredients purchased from a bulk store that would make Pinterest proud. 

And that could be part of a zero waste life. But there’s actually a lot more to it. And by reducing the movement down to ‘props’ we not only do it a disservice, but we limit the conversation to the things that we buy. (The shiny reusables. The groceries.) As soon as we talk about buying stuff, we lose sight of what living zero waste is really about. 

Which is what, exactly?

That’s what we’re talking about today. What living zero waste really means, and why it’s an important lifestyle for these climate-conscious times.

First, let’s talk about what the ‘zero waste life’ is, and what it is not. For starters, the ‘zero’ part is an ideal, but nobody gets to zero, because it’s impossible. For that reason, ‘zero waste’ is more of a philosophy or an aspiration – something we can strive towards, knowing that we will never fully get there. (Side note – because the term ‘zero waste’ can seem so extreme, there’s been a move away from even using this phrase in recent years; instead conversations lean towards more realistic terms like ‘less waste’ or ‘low waste’.)

Perhaps not as catchy, but more accessible.

Whatever you call it, the goal is to try to send nothing to landfill, and recycle as little as possible (because we didn’t use the materials in the first place). And that’s hard! Our society is based on a linear ‘take-make-waste’ economy where we don’t have good systems set up to reuse and reduce. 

So we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got available to us.

What that might look like, is buying less stuff, prioritising second-hand over new, avoiding unnecessary packaging, sharing what we can, repairing things when they break, and generally being conscious of how we use resources.

Zero waste is often associated with reducing plastic. And if we’re embracing a low carbon future, reducing plastic is important. Currently 99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels, and some of the biggest plastic producers are fossil fuel companies (including ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco and PetroChina). It’s been suggested that this switch to ramping up plastic production is a deliberate move designed to keep the fossil fuel industry alive as the world turns more attention to renewables.

It’s estimated that plastic production will quadruple between now and 2050. Emissions from plastics production and incineration could amount to 56 gigatons of carbon over the next 30 years, according to the Centre for International Environmental Law (that’s more than 10% of the entire remaining carbon budget.)

The plastics crisis is a climate crisis. 

Living a zero waste lifestyle means using less plastic. We often think about this as the packaging our groceries, toiletries and cleaning products come in – and where there are options we can buy unpackaged, in non-plastic alternatives or even avoiding the more excessively packaged items. But plastic is on so much of what we buy. From textiles to homewares, from electronics to home appliances, from toys to vehicles.

We can switch to plastic-free alternatives where they exist… and we can buy a lot less. We can resist upgrades, make do with what we have or longer, and choose second-hand or refurbished where the options are available and we truly need something.

In many ways, reducing our waste means reducing our shopping habits.  

Next, let’s consider food waste. Globally, one third of all the food produced for human consumption never gets eaten. That’s not just a waste of food; that’s a waste of all of the resources that were used in the growing, harvesting, processing and transporting of this food – including nutrients, carbon, water, land, energy, labour and time. That’s a waste of the rainforests chopped down, land cleared, habitats destroyed, communities threatened and waterways polluted all to grow food of which one third will end up in the bin. 

The footprint of food waste is huge. 

In terms of carbon emissions, in 2013 the United Nations declared that if food waste was a country, it would be the third biggest emitting country in the world, behind China and the USA.

Food waste is a bigger problem than our individual banana peels and forgotten leftovers, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t part of the solution. And there’s a real incentive for us, because the food we waste was purchased using our money and our time, so why wouldn’t we want to avoid throwing it away?

The food waste we create at home broadly sits in two categories – the food we didn’t manage to eat before it went bad, and the food that was never edible in the first place (pips, cores, rinds, peels etc).

Dealing with the first is mostly about tweaking our habits. We need to figure out why we throw it away. (Do we buy too much? Do we have higher expectations of our motivation to cook at home versus ordering takeaway? Do we chuck all the fruit and veg into the fridge together and hope for the best, rather than storing it in order to maximise its shelf life?)

From there we can make adjustments – buy less, ask the internet how to store things better, find recipes that help us use up those vegetables that are starting to look a bit sad.

With the food we can’t eat, we have to make sure it won’t end up in landfill. Ideally, by composting. Whether we have a council food waste collection service, a compost bin in our backyard, a worm farm on the balcony, or we rely on the local community garden to deposit our scraps, keeping food waste out of landfill eliminates the methane emissions that would otherwise occur. 

Which brings us to one of the most important aspects of the zero waste lifestyle – sharing. Whether that’s sharing compost bins, as mentioned, sharing other ‘stuff’, or sharing knowledge, the more we collaborate with one another the lower our footprint will be, and the stronger and more resilient our communities will be. 

It might look like lending things to family, friends and neighbours, or gifting stuff we no longer use so the person who does need it isn’t buying brand new. Sharing is about buying less, keeping resources in circulation for as long as possible and maximising their use, and strengthening our networks and communities. Rather than becoming ‘consumers’ of things, which uses them up, we are simply ‘users’ of things – and when we don’t need something we pass it on to others. Stuff circles between users, and isn’t wasted. 

Individual action isn’t enough to combat climate change, but we won’t be able to combat it without everyone doing what they can. And living low waste is a meaningful and accessible way that we can take action, starting now – after all, everybody has a bin. 

By Lindsay Miles

Lindsay Miles is an educator, speaker, author and passionate zero waste/plastic-free living advocate helping others live more meaningful lives with less waste and less stuff. She has been sharing ideas, tips, tricks and strategies on her website Treading My Own Path since 2013.

Her first book, Less Stuff, was published in 2019 and her second, The Less Waste No Fuss Kitchen was published in June 2020.