A Guide to Zero Waste Living

Wastage is a huge problem in the 21st century and it comes in many forms from food, to packaging to energy. Explore the concept of zero waste and learn how you too can reduce your environmental impact.

Zero Waste

Zero-waste is adopted by many businesses and individuals as a pathway to a more sustainable and minimalistic lifestyle. It is a philosophy that encourages the redesign of a resources’ life cycle so all products are reused. The aim is achieving a closed loop from production to consumption to waste and back to production as opposed to the current linear route ending in disposal to landfill. This is also commonly referred to as the ‘cradle-to-cradle’ approach because the waste from one end of the process becomes the materials for the next. This may sound fairly simple however in reality with a society focused on consumerism, it is often not the case.

Humans generate at least 3.5 million tonnes of plastic and other solid waste a day, this value is ten-times higher than it was a century ago. And of the 8.3 billion tons of plastic ever produced, 6.3 million tons has become plastic waste seeping into our oceans.  The saddest part is most of the waste would be so easily avoidable such as plastic straws, bags and food containers that exist in a time when there are so many reusable alternatives on offer.

Why is zero-waste beneficial?

✔Good for your health: landfill emits toxic gasses like ammonia and sulphide that can lead to  lung cancer. Waste can also contaminate groundwater and drinking water resources.

✔Encourages community projects that focus on reuse and help distribute goods such as leftover food to shelters.

✔Saves marine species from death and injury due to plastics and microplastics.

✔Reduces greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change.

✔ Zero-waste lifestyle is free from processed foods which are often high in fat and chemicals. Therefore avoiding them and consuming natural alternatives will make for a healthy sustainable diet.

Why is recycling not enough?

The Waste Hierarchy

Recycling is seen by many as the saviour to our waste issue, the thought being if you recycle a plastic bottle then it will soon become an entirely new one however this is rarely the case. If you look at the waste hierarchy, recycling is the middle ground, yes it is  far preferable to landfill, however it still has a significant impact on the environment. Recycling consumes vast amounts of energy and money and in most cases downgrades materials so they inevitably end up in landfill and cannot be recovered for energy. For example paper can only be recycled 5-7 times before the fibres holding it together end up too weak to bind. If we recycled 100% of water bottles, the tap water would still use fewer resources, produce fewer greenhouse gases and greatly reduce toxic emissions.

Furthermore many companies use recycling as an easy way to claim a zero-waste business model. For example if you google zero-waste business almost all the results are claims of ‘zero-waste to landfill’ and companies with this approach include Unilever and Toyota.  This phrasing is highly misleading and makes it too easy for companies or cities to set a diversion target and focus on recycling and recovery rather than waste minimisation. Instead of cutting down on plastics and packaging they recycle most of their resources which while it is a step forward, is not as beneficial as minimising in the first place.

Not only are companies and cities fuelling a recycling regime; they are not even doing the work themselves and instead exporting waste to Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and other Asian countries only furthering the unsustainable greenhouse gas emissions. In 2016 China, the biggest receiver of world’s waste, processed 7.3 million tonnes of the world’s paper, plastic and metal but as of 2018 the nation has banned ‘foreign garbage’ in an effort to clean up and meet their own environmental targets. Environmentalists and organisations such as Greenpeace hope businesses in the US and Europe will see this as a wake up call that they can no longer ship away their waste in an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude.

Tips for Zero Waste Life?

Going zero-waste is not an overnight transition, it can take a long time to break familiar habits and with busy 21st century lifestyles it does require some forward planning. Here are some tips for beginning your zero-waste life…

Make a ‘no new clothes’ pledge

Before you buy a new top consider the environmental cost of manufacturing, exporting and packaging and ask yourself if your need for it justifies the toll on the planet. Furthermore if you do need new clothes reduce the production costs and buy second hand.

Avoid single-use plastic

This can include many things such as water bottles, straws and shopping bags. Instead invest in your own reusable water bottle and cotton bag that can be used many times before they become waste.

There are many alternatives to single use plastic products.


Make use of your food waste and help your garden thrive by creating a compost at home. Not only does it reduce waste but it helps connect with nature and brings people outdoors.

Give to local shelters

If you do have any food waste instead of letting it go to landfill, take a trip to your local food shelter and donate your food and clothing goods to help others and the planet simultaneously.

Avoid Take-out Food

Take out food almost always comes in paper or plastic containers that cannot be recycled many times before incineration. If you have to use recyclable products focus on glass and metal which have far better rates.

Shop at local markets

Not only does this reduce exports and support the local community, but usually on markets food is unpackaged and therefore waste is reduced.

Opt for local produce whenever you can.

Update your cosmetic routine

Invest in reusable cotton buds and recycled unbleached toilet paper to reduce your carbon footprint. Furthermore bamboo toothbrushes can be used to curb the plastic crisis.

At Green-Books.org it is our mission to educate Indonesian children on the natural systems that make life on earth possible and inspire them to live sustainably. Wastage is a massive problem in Indonesia where poor infrastructure means most of the waste either goes straight to landfill or worst, to our oceans. By inspiring the next generation to understand the environmental impact of waste through our Zero Waste School Program we hope they will seek to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle in the future. Help us achieve our goal by sharing online and  making a donation here.


Author: Holly McElroy