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How a Zero-Waste Mindset Can Help You Live a More Sustainable Life Right Now

“Zero waste” is a philosophy that is currently emerging into the mainstream within sustainable living circles.

The movement encourages people to assess the type of waste they create every day, and to try to produce less waste by first refusing, then reducing, reusing, recycling, and, finally, rotting through compost.

It’s a much more holistic approach to footprint reduction than the well-known call to “reduce, reuse, and recycle.”

What is “zero waste?”

“Zero waste” means focusing on the waste we produce in order to reduce our personal level of output to as near zero as possible.

It challenges us to think about how we can produce less waste and encourage systems that focus on minimizing their impact on the environment instead of simply choosing the cheapest option.

In addition to asking us to make a personal effort to reduce our direct impact by using fewer disposable and single-use products, zero waste also encourages us to look at the waste currently being produced in our system, and to vote with our dollars by refusing to purchase from companies that aren’t environmentally conscious.

Are you really supposed to create no waste?

It is essentially impossible in our current system to live in a way that actually creates zero waste.

Living in a linear economy means that everything we use and consume is ultimately designed to end up in a landfill. This cultural mindset makes having an absolute-zero impact practically impossible.

But, by working toward zero waste as individuals, we can help alleviate this societal issue and attempt to shift our collective preference toward a more sustainable, circular economy.

How should I start?

One of our favorite challenges for those looking to begin living a zero-waste lifestyle is to collect all of your waste for an entire month in order to get an idea of your output at the start.

Hold on to your recyclables, your trash, your food scraps -- everything -- and, at the end of the month, document how much waste you have accumulated (in pounds, number of bags, gallons, truckloads, whatever).

Multiply that figure by twelve and you’ll be able to visualize how much waste you are sending to the landfill every year (and you’ll have a rough idea of how much each person in your community is sending there, as well).

By having an actual visual representation of your waste, you can see which types of waste you produce the most of. And that’s a great place to start when trying to determine the best ways to reduce your overall impact.

Some easy zero-waste swaps start with simple habits.

First, bring your own everything!

Going to get coffee? Bring a reusable mug! Going shopping? Grab a reusable bag! Eating out? You guessed it -- bring your own to-go containers!

This doesn’t mean you should go out and purchase all of these things right now. In fact, you probably already have some reusable options in your home. Consider taking an old sauce jar as a mug, and you can bring any old bag with you to the grocery store.

“Zero waste” not only encourages us to create less waste by bringing our own products and purchasing objects without packaging, but also by putting a stop to waste production before it begins. The consumerist lifestyle that is marketed to our society at every turn encourages us to continuously buy more and buy new -- this is not sustainable and only adds to our cumulative waste!

Second, start at home!

Again, don’t go out and buy all these new sustainable, trendy options. Instead, use up what you have and, when it’s time to buy, buy from a company that practices environmental stewardship.

Swap that plastic toothbrush for a bamboo one. Trade your disposable razor for a straight, metal razor. Stop buying shampoo bottles and look into shampoo bars, or fill your old bottles from bulk. In Tucson, the Food Conspiracy Co-op offers this option or you can do it online through many different sources such as the Loop Store, Plaine Products, or Package Free Shop.

There are many small swaps you can make that will help your lifestyle become more sustainable. Go through your house and see what’s made of disposable plastic. Does it need to be plastic, or is there a more sustainable option you can consider when you’re ready to replace it? The Little Green Change is a great local Arizona option to start your transition into less waste.

Finally, look at where you shop!

One of the biggest waste-producers in our society is the clothing industry.

The U.S. produces about 16 million tons of textile waste per year, and most of this is produced by so-called “fast fashion” designers and manufacturers. Such companies often show no concern for the environment or the quality of life of the workers who produce their garments. Further, they actually use and encourage waste production as a basic profit-driving mechanism.

Shop secondhand and support companies that focus on environmental stewardship. Large corporations like Amazon, Walmart, Starbucks, and Target create the most waste in our society. Reduce your impact by shopping local and avoiding stores that generate waste for the sake of profit. Looking for local options, check out this directory for local Arizona businesses.

Why is this important?

You may have heard this statistic, but it bears repeating: if we continue producing waste at current levels, by 2050 there will be more plastic mass in the ocean than fish mass.

Much of the plastic waste we produce washes out from landfills and into water systems before winding its way downstream and into the ocean. Over time, these plastics break down into tiny particles called microplastics, which are then consumed by marine life.

Hundreds of species of are affected by plastic pollution and many die as a result of eating or becoming entangled in the hazardous and unnatural material. Not only is plastic killing off marine life in droves -- which, in turn, impacts surrounding ecosystems -- but it’s also contaminating the bodies of the people who eat those ocean fish.

Beyond its impact on our oceans, the way we produce, transport, consume, and dispose of our products and food accounts for 42% of the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Engaging in zero-waste practices is a fast-acting, effective way to pull down carbon levels and drive further innovation in sustainable technologies.

Unfortunately, our system is structured in such a way that it encourages companies to use a lot of flashy, plastic packaging, which forces the sustainable-minded consumer to go out of their way to purchase without plastic. It is possible to do so, but this can also cause zero waste to be seen as a movement of privilege.

Recognizing our privilege and leveraging it to make zero-waste options more accessible to all is a critical step in helping this movement to flourish. With that in mind, resist the urge to shame or lecture anyone who can’t or doesn’t shop zero waste. Instead, strive to lead by example -- to encourage and celebrate.

When it comes down to it, this movement is about choosing to follow a sustainable and plastic-free lifestyle by purchasing, consuming, and creating sustainable products that affect the least possible negative impact on the environment.

Do what you can however you can, and do so knowing that our current linear economy makes it difficult. Also know that, by trying, you are already making a difference.

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