What is zero waste?

The average American throws away four and a half pounds of garbage every day. We put that garbage at the curb to be taken “away”, to landfills that are rapidly overflowing. Garbage litters our cities, rolls around our national parks, and floats in the ocean, forming huge gyres that are set to outweigh all the remaining fish in the not-so-distant future.

Garbage is a problem.

To address this problem, some people have adopted a lifestyle known as zero waste. While practitioners typically don’t achieve a total elimination of garbage from their lives, some have famously produced only a single mason jar worth of trash over the course of several years.

There are some obvious ways that we can all reduce our garbage. We can give up single-use items such as plastic silverware, disposable straws, and styrofoam cups. We can stop buying things that come wrapped in excessive packaging. We can wear clothes until they are threadbare rather than merely out of fashion. We can borrow items from friends instead of buying our own. We can take care to divert our waste to our compost pile or our recycling bin, rather than sending things to the dump.

But where should we start? One way to answer this question is by conducting a garbage audit.

Strictly speaking, a garbage audit is a scientific study that involves laying out the entire contents of your trash can, and weighing and categorizing everything you find. For most of us, though, a more informal “garbage survey” is enough to answer the question: What am I throwing away a lot of? Once we have that piece of information, we can think up ways to dispose of less of that thing.

We may find that we produce a lot of food waste, or that we throw out lots of everyday items that could be replaced with reusable alternatives. Or, we may notice that we drag a lot of grass clippings and raked-up leaves to the street. The solution to that type of waste is simple: Leave the leaves where they fall, to insulate plants over the winter, add nutrients to the soil, provide places for pollinators to hibernate, and suppress the germination of weeds in the spring. And let the grass grow, to absorb carbon, provide structural support for flowering plants, and ripple beautifully in summer breezes.

When we begin to recognize yard “waste” as valuable resources, it’s easy to reduce our trash.

What is zero waste?

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