What is this Zero Waste thing that people are talking about?
Zero Waste is a movement for a society without… waste. Yes, it is possible! The concept consists in the reduction, maximum use and better routing of recyclable and organic waste produced by us.
In practice, in a Zero Waste community, organic materials are transformed into fertilizer, while the recyclable ones are reinserted into the production chain. In other words, waste in general must be reused to the maximum so that there is a reduction or (in the ideal scenario) an end of landfills and dumps.
Broadly, the Zero Waste concept proposes a more sustainable lifestyle, in which conscious consumption is the rule, in which only the really needed items are purchased, in which there is a concern to choose ecologically responsible companies that do not sell their products in disproportionate packaging.
According to the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA), the concept represents “an ethical, economic, educational, efficient and visionary objective to guide people in changing their lifestyle and practices that encourage sustainability, where all materials are designed to allow its recovery and post-consumption use”.
The concept involves practices at different levels, including:
- Industries: at producing and designing products.
- Trade: at commercializing these products.
- Consumer: at the end of the system, buying, using, and disposing of correctly.
- Government: at harmonizing the responsibilities and inspecting.
Everyone must reflect on conscious decisions regarding the utility and destination of waste.
The Zero Waste movement, founded in 2013 by Bea Johnson, a French woman who lives in the USA, is guided by the 5 Rs, prioritized in this order:
- Refuse: Say no to what you do not need.
- Reduce: Focusing on necessary purchases, letting go of things that are no longer of use and donating.
- Reuse: Switching disposable items for reusable and permanent alternatives.
- Recycle: If there is no more use and you really need to discard something, make it in the right way.
- Rot: Compost your own household waste or take part in a composting program for organic waste.
The 5 Rs of life without waste were presented by the activist in a book that would become the Zero Waste bible, called “Zero Waste Home”. In the book, Bea tells how she transformed her life and that of her family for the better by reducing her waste to a measly litter a year. She tells how she deals in different aspects of real life, such as daily food, birthday gifts, holidays, housing, travel, and more.
Why join the Zero Waste movement?
Our society explores raw materials to produce goods, which are discarded. Excessive exploitation of natural resources – that is most finite –, uncontrolled consumption and waste disposal, that do not receive new uses and accumulate exponentially, are making our planet call for help!
It is essential that industry, commerce, consumers, and governments do their part. Producing and distributing responsibly, consuming consciously, making compost, separating recyclable materials from the organic ones, and ensuring that they have the correct destination are attitudes that we must adopt in favour of a sustainable society with less waste.
Plastic in the oceans
It is estimated that an impressive 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the oceans and seas each year. These numbers are expected to increase fourfold by 2050. By this time, the oceans may have more plastic than fish (by weight), and devastating effects on the marine ecosystem.
The plastic exists for over a century and one of its main characteristics is its durability. Now, it is believed that there are more than 150 million tons of plastics in the oceans.
Despite being 90% dependent on fossil fuels, plastic production uses 4 to 6% of all oil and gas used in Europe. Additives incorporated into plastics, such as pigments, flame retardants, antioxidants or antistatic agents also harm the environment.
The European continent is the second-largest producer of plastic in the world, behind China. 40% of European plastics are used for packaging, generating 16.7 million tons of waste. Part of this waste is sent for recycling, another part goes to landfills, and the rest is burned for energy.
Although data shows improvement in the treatment of waste, the use of landfills remains the first or second option for many European countries. In Italy, France and Spain, 50% of the waste goes to landfills.
Currently, recycled plastics correspond to only 6% of the demand for plastics in Europe.
Plastics represent most of the waste (60-95%) found in the oceans and seas around the world and the main type of waste found on beaches and marine sediments. Of this total, 80% comes from land sources and 20% from marine sources (such as fishing, aquaculture, and maritime transport).
Since most plastics are not biodegradable, all plastics present in the environment will remain there for hundreds or thousands of years.
Used on average for four years – but often only once – plastics remain in the environment for periods ranging from five years for a cigarette filter, 20 years for a bag, 50 years for a plastic cup and up to 600 years for a fishing line.
The global economic cost due to the tons of plastic that end up in the world’s oceans each year is estimated at approximately US $ 13 billion a year in environmental damage to marine ecosystems. This includes financial losses incurred by fishing and tourism, as well as time spent cleaning beaches.
Risks to wildlife
Over 90% of the damage caused to marine fauna by human waste is because of plastics. There are about 700 marine species threatened by this waste, 17% of which are classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as “threatened” or “critically endangered”.
Endangered species suffer from entrapment, ingestion, and contamination by plastic waste. Overall, 344 species were found trapped in plastics and it is estimated that half of all sea turtles have ingested some type of plastic.
Trash in Ireland
Ireland produced more than 1 million tons of packaging waste in 2018 for the second year in a row. That is a lot!
Although the country meets current EU requirements for waste recycling, recycling 64% of the material, there has been a general drop in packaging recycling rates in recent years, which was 74% in 2012.
Given this trend and knowing that the EU is expected to increase recycling rates considerably from 2025 onwards, the new target may prove to be a challenge for Ireland.
The EU’s recycling and waste recovery targets are defined considering the amount of packaging waste generated. This means that it is possible to meet recycling and recovery goals without ever reducing the amount of waste generated!
If we continue to dispose of a lot of waste, even if much of that is recycled, where does the rest go? A big portion ends up in our oceans.
Although the world is far from being Zero Waste, reducing waste production is possible and ESSENTIAL!
Reducing waste involves a change in mentality. Although it is not an easy task, with not much sacrifice everyone can collaborate.
Small gestures such as always having your own glass and cutlery in hand to avoid the use of disposable ones, buying only what you need, shopping in bulk stores, and sorting the garbage correctly make the difference.
See more tips to get started in the Zero Waste movement: First steps to reduce waste.
Our commitment to a healthier lifestyle is an important step in saving our planet.