zero waste

Zero Waste: Living without Waste

8 minutes to read
Savina Karneva

Globalization has had an effect on the mobility of people, goods, commodities, languages, cultures. Its (technological) infrastructures have given the world the superdiverse face we see today. This era of superdiversity has caused the rise of a variety of movements, each characterized by their own ideology. In this article, I will look more closely at the Zero Waste movement. What is it? How did it start? How was it popularized? I will explore the Zero Waste movement's effect on different parts of the world and whether this movement can become a way of life for everyone.

A Zero Waste history

Zero Waste is a set of principles that aim to prevent waste production and encourage the reuse of materials. In other words, it is “the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health” (Zero Waste International Alliance). The main goal is for zero trash to be sent to landfills, incinerators or the ocean. The concept of Zero Waste originated in 1995 with Daniel Knap, who tried to spread his idea of minimum waste by reusing, recycling and composting everything in Australia.

He called his idea “Total Recycling”, and the key concept was to divide the “solid waste stream” into twelve sets and eventually build facilities that would be able to transform waste resources and return them to consumers. The Australian Capital Territory’s (ACT) government adopted the idea under the name “No Waste” and started promoting it. The term as we know it today was adopted in December 2000 at the first Zero Waste conference in Kaitaia, New Zealand. Since then organizations like The Zero Waste International Alliance, Greenpeace USA, and The Global Anti Incineration Alliance in the US, Europe, and Asia were formed under the green flag of Zero Waste.

Zero waste is "The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health”

The power of the net

According to Castells, (1996) “Interactive computer networks are growing exponentially, creating new forms and channels of communication, shaping life and being shaped by life at the same time.” The Internet as not just a tool but a central technological device that is reshaping society. The power of the net played a central role in the Zero Waste movement's peak of publicity between 1998 and 2002, transforming it from theory to real action. In 2009, French-American writer Bea Johnson started the Zero Waste Home blog, which focused on living zero waste with her family of four. By 2010 it was so popular that it was featured in the New York Times, inspiring many to take up zero-waste themselves. The Zero Waste movement no longer just an idea but a globalized “lifestyle”. 

The zero-waste lifestyle has grown significantly in recent years, leading to the formation of a translocal and polycentric micro-community in the online-offline nexus (Blommaert & Varis, 2015). This micro-community is largely internet-based, with bloggers and other resources presenting features of the lifestyle, consumption ethos, and commodity orientations, as well as offering “how-tos” for aspiring Zero Waste members. The Internet therefore functions as a learning environment for those looking to adopt the lifestyle's various principles and norms. However, there is an “offline” aspect to the movement, in which the Internet has become an infrastructure for separate and specific forms of knowledge circulation not by the experiences of face-to-face interaction, but by enabling a broader polycentric community formation (Blommaert, 2018). 

Is recycling bad?

In recent years, people have begun to notice environmental changes due to the over-exploitation of natural resources, pollution, and heavy chemicals from manufacturing production and other sources. The causes behind global warming are many, but its results are devastating. These environmental changes have motivated many governments around the world to make changes before it is too late. Many countries enacted environmental policies in favor of recycling. Today Germany leads recycling efforts by recycling 65% of solid municipal waste, followed by South Korea with 59% and Slovenia and Austria with 58% (Pariona, 2018). This is proof that environmental warnings are being taken seriously.

However, the Zero Waste movement approaches recycling from a different perspective. According to Kathryn Kellogg, founder of, recycling is not a perfect solution because people are consuming way too much, and therefore it is too much to process. It should not be our first choice but rather our last resort. One of the main principles of Zero Waste is not sending any trash to landfills because most of it is not recycled. In the U.S., 65% of paper is recycled and only 9% of plastic. The average American will use the equivalent of seven trees a year, or around 2,000,000,000 trees per year for the whole population. It costs 50-80% less to recycled a paper than produce a new one. Unfortunately, much of the remaining 91% of plastic in America that is not recycled finds its way to the ocean. 

So, is recycling actually bad for the planet? From the perspective of the average person, it is definitely a step forward. Recycling helps to reduce the consumption of new resources and is considered a crucial factor in cutting manufacturing emissions. Zero Waste lifestyle followers take it several steps further: “Reject what you don’t need. Reduce what you have. Reuse what you can. Recycle or compost what you can’t.” (Kellogg, 2021). They see recycling as ineffective because a high percentage of trash is not recycled at all. They do not believe people should stop recycling altogether, but rather want people to depend on it less, because it still creates a considerable amount of pollution. 

"Reject what you don’t need. Reduce what you have. Reuse what you can. Recycle or compost what you can’t."

Zero Waste around the world

Importantly, the world is not a homogeneous environment but a number of large systems that develop through dynamics of exchange, interaction, and contact (Wallerstein, 2004). World-systems are driven by inequality of global division of labor and profit in three types of societies or zones - peripheries, semi-peripheries, and centers. Centers and peripheries are fractal and scale-sensitive (centers and peripheries in cities, neighborhoods, and centers within peripheries), dynamic (one country can be a center for a period of time but then turn into periphery), and specific (different centers for different products).

Even though the Zero Waste movement has been the subject of many discussions in more central zones, it is notable that this idea found its way to the peripheries. For most of us living in mass-production societies, where nothing is ever enough, zero waste can seem radical or even impossible. However in Kamikatsu, Japan, Zero Waste ideology is part of everyday life. In 1990, the city had no recycling facilities and all trash was burned. This produced carbon dioxide, which became dangerous for the environment around the village.

In 2003 Kamikatsu decided to create ‘The Zero Waste Declaration,’ with the motto “there is no such thing as throwing something in the trash, everything has to get recycled” (Great Big Story, 2017). The key to their success is their classification system, which has 45 different categories of recyclables. For the people of Kamikatsu, zero waste has been absolutely normal for over 16 years.

Another example of a Zero Waste town in a marginal area is Alappuzha, India, which made drastic improvements in organic waste management. The town is situated between Vembanad lake and the sea. The city was hailed as the “Venice of the East” due to its system of canals, but in 1990 a lack of recycling and waste management had filled the canals and streets with garbage. Architectural heritage was lost and the city suffered. A waste processing campaign was started, and every household installed a compost pipe. Other trash products like plastic are now periodically collected and sent to contractors for recycling. This new approach began to work and the streets and canals were slowly cleaned. Much of the town was converted into a park, drawing tourists and restoring Alappuzha to its former glory.

These towns have adopted zero waste principles in order to become more sustainable and eco-friendly. Though their approaches differed, they both saw a need for action. These communities serve as clear examples that reducing waste is not impossible and that protecting the environment is our duty as citizens.


Zero Waste planet?

We can claim with absolute certainty that throughout the years human beings have caused serious damage to the environment by polluting the air, destroying natural resources, and causing extinctions. Zero Waste has emerged as one solution to our actions. However, is it really possible for the whole planet to become a no-waste place?

Despite the fact that the movement has become very popular among societies situated in many places, there is not a definite answer to that question. From Zero Waste members' persepctive, it is absolutely possible and necessary. But for normal people it can be a very challenging idea. It would require changes in their habits, perceptions, and mindset. One thing we know for sure, thought, is that this is not an overnight change. It takes time and effort from individual people as well as their governments. However, it is still important to educate ourselves about protecting the environment and remember that even small steps matter.

Zero Waste offers a great number of principles and ideas on how to start living a more sustainable life. For me personally, it did not take too much time to realize how my habits were detrimental to the environment. After encountering this movement, I started questioning my everyday habits, including grocery shopping and leisure activities. I realized that every time I went out for a drink, I asked for a straw. Every time I went grocery shopping, I bought a plastic bag. It was only after being introduced to Zero Waste that I began making small steps towards positive changes. After three years it has become a habit - I started using reusable bags that are not plastic, buying from thrift shops and trying to reuse products as much as I can. The more radical form of Zero Waste is very hard to adopt, but many small changes to everyday life can contribute to saving the planet for the future generations.


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