We have to start thinking more about the garbage we produce – where it comes from, where it goes, and why it’s even there in the first place. If you live in North America, then you will likely generate 102 tons of garbage over the course of your life. Most of that gets buried in landfills, which are full of toxic goo; much less of it breaks down and biodegrades than we’d like to think, especially in this era of plastic saturation; and relatively little gets recycled -- a mere 34 percent in the United States. A whole lot of plastic misses the landfill and ends up in the oceans, which researchers have described as “plastic chowder.”
There is no excuse for producing that amount of garbage while living on Earth. Other nations are doing far better at reducing their garbage output and can be a good example to us. Look at Europe, where the average amount of garbage produced per person annually is a half-ton. In Sweden, it’s slightly less at 461 kilograms.
Now compare that to the United States, which sends 69 percent of its garbage to landfills. (This number varies greatly depending on the region. For example, New England landfills 39 percent of its garbage, while the Midwest, West, and South range between 78-88 percent. The national average is 69 percent.)
While it’s easy to point fingers in all directions, it’s imperative that we, as consumers, take responsibility for our own actions. Nobody creates that 102 tons of garbage for us; rather, we make consumer choices that add up to that atrocious amount over the years. It’s up to everyday consumers like ourselves to demand the necessary changes that will bring that number down to something more appropriate.
We can do that by embracing a zero-waste lifestyle.
Zero Waste is about effecting environmental change on a household level. It’s tangible, manageable, and realistic for individuals to tackle on a daily basis. It promotes improved quality of life by reducing one’s possessions, freeing up time spent caring for those possessions, and saving money.
Ten years ago, it was hard to find organic, fair trade, cruelty-free, vegan, and non-toxic products in stores, but now consumer demand has brought them into the mainstream. There’s no reason why the same can’t be done for zero-waste products – ones that use closed-loop manufacturing and refillable, reusable, non-plastic containers. Zero Waste is the new ethical frontier for consumers, and if people want it badly enough, companies will respond.
There is one big challenge in making this happen. At the root of reducing one’s waste output is the idea of not buying, of refusing products that don’t meet Zero Waste packaging standards, and many people aren’t going to want to hear that. (“What?! No iPhone 6 upgrade?”)
So what can you do as a consumer to adopt Zero Waste?
Memorize the 7 R's for Zero Waste: “Refuse, Reduce, Return, Repair, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.”
Support stores that have adopted Zero Waste practices, or at least are willing to work with them. These are usually smaller, privately owned businesses that show more flexibility.
Commit to banishing disposables. Carry a stash of reusable items at all times – a mug for coffee (or a screw-top glass jar that prevents coffee from spilling), cloth shopping bags, glass jars or metal food containers, handkerchiefs, a washcloth, cutlery for meals on the go or on an airplane, a water bottle.
Buy based on packaging, always choosing the reusable, recyclable option over the disposable one. Be willing to buy fewer and higher quality items that will last longer. This particularly applies to clothes, since the average American throws away 70 pounds of clothing each year.
Do regular waste audits at home to figure out what actually goes in. Work backward from there, slowly eliminating the sources of trash. Take advantage of a backyard composter to deal with all organic scraps.
Come up with alternatives. Ditch paper towels in favour of rags. Tell restaurants you’re bringing reusable containers whenever you order take-out. Use cloth diapers for your kids and grandkids. Use reusable flannel sanitary pads for yourself. Buy a bacterial culture and make your own yogurt in a glass jar. Buy unpackaged bar soap. Stop using shampoo. (I haven’t used shampoo since Christmas and wash my hair with baking soda and apple cider vinegar, which eliminates a lot of plastic bottles.) Buy toilet paper in bulk from an office supply store that sells paper-wrapped rolls. Make deodorant from scratch. Order compostable toothbrushes online. Replace plastic wrap with reusable Abeego wraps.
There are countless alternative solutions out there that will become obvious once you start looking, and you'll be rewarded by seeing your personal garbage output shrink considerably.