Zero waste and sustainability are big, complex ideas. Sometimes that means – as they get shared around the internet – they get boiled down to oversimplifications and we end up losing those important nuances.
So in this post are some of the most common facts and stats I use when discussing zero waste with people on my Instagram page, on Facebook groups, or even in real life when I’m trying to explain that zero waste is more than being able to stuff years of trash in a mason jar.
And that’s why they’re really 13 shareable reasons. I want you to use these quick zero waste soundbites to help spread a more thoughtful version of sustainability that isn’t just fixated on stainless steel straws.
Copy the text. Share the infographics.
And if you find it interesting, I have a whole book called More Than a Plastic Bag!
Zero waste is more than a plastic bag because…
What's in this post
- Zero waste is not buying cute new reusables
- 46% of the Great Garbage Patch by weight is discarded fishing gear
- A meat diet creates 6.6 lbs more CO2 emissions per day than a vegan diet
- Your organic cotton t-shirt took 600 gallons of water to make
- If you’re white, you benefit from environmental racism
- Bulk shopping comes with a lot of trash
- Over 25 million people in the US live in a food desert
- Don’t hate the online shopping game.
- If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of CO2
- Organic cotton totes and unintended consequences
- Glass isn’t the holy grail of zero waste
- Your car emissions are worse for the planet than plastic packaging
- Compostable products won’t break down in the landfill
Zero waste is not buying cute new reusables
Plastic is not the enemy. Our relationship with plastic is the enemy. And a view that zero waste = no plastic is an overly simplified way of looking at a very complex issue. Using the plastic bags you have stuffed under your sink over and over is zero waste.
Buying a $15 stainless steel water bottle when you have two functional travel mugs in your cabinet already is not zero waste. So what do you do with your plastic items when you go zero waste? Nothing. Use them until they can’t be used anymore.
Do more: Honor the resources needed to create the items you already own and use them until they aren’t functional. Then, take a good hard look at what zero waste swaps you’d actually use.
46% of the Great Garbage Patch by weight is discarded fishing gear
We’re fixated on straw bans, but there are more efficient ways to tackle the massive issue of waste in our oceans. These abandoned “ghost nets” stay in the oceans for hundreds of years, killing sea animals by trapping them in the mesh.
Experts estimate they make up 10% or more of total plastic waste in our oceans (read more here). Reducing straw usage is definitely a noble cause, but not the only – or most effective – way to tackle plastic pollution in our oceans.
A meat diet creates 6.6 lbs more CO2 emissions per day than a vegan diet
To think about it in another way, if you cut out animal products from your diet for one day, it’s the CO2 equivalent of driving 3 miles in your car. (See the study here or read more about an eco-friendly diet.)
While worrying about plastic bags around produce is an important step in the zero waste lifestyle, a packaged piece of produce likely has a far smaller carbon or water footprint than getting your meat in a reusable container.
Do more: Avoid eating red meat whenever possible. Take part in Meatless Monday.
Your organic cotton t-shirt took 600 gallons of water to make
A conventional high-yield cotton tee would use about 300 gallons. (For perspective, it’s estimated that the average US citizen drinks 58 gallons of water yearly.) The fashion industry – and how you support it, no matter how ethical or sustainable the brand is – has a significant impact on the environment.
The most effective solution? Buy second hand whenever possible and be much more thoughtful about what we buy and the energy/resources behind it.
Do more: Lead a free swap with friends, family, or even your whole community. Learn to embrace not browsing and try a shopping ban.
If you’re white, you benefit from environmental racism
A 2019 study found white Americans are exposed to 17% less pollution than they create, while Black Americans experience 56% more pollution than they generate. Hispanics – 63%. Additionally, “Blacks are exposed to 1.5 times more of the pollutant than whites, while Hispanics were exposed to about 1.2 times the amount of non-Hispanic whites. People in poverty had 1.3 times the exposure of those not in poverty.”
Environmental racism is real and affects how different people are able to engage with traditional forms of environmentalism.
Do more: Read anything by Robert D. Bullard. Reject factory farm food which are disproportionately lo cated next to BIPOC communities.
Bulk shopping comes with a lot of trash
Bulk shopping is an important part of the zero waste experience. It allows us to see a very visible reduction in our personal waste, which can feel very empowering. It also lets the average consumer takes a stand against inefficient packaging and begin to opt out of a system they want no part of.
The obvious problem with this is many people have only limited – or no – bulk options nearby. The other problem is more difficult to see: namely that trash that continues to exist, even if we don’t throw it into our own trashcans. It’s important to remember that just because we’re not putting packaging into our trash can or recycling bin, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in someone else’s (ie. the store’s) bin.
Do more: Ask to see the behind-the-scenes waste wherever you get your bulk items, just to be more informed. Buy bulk for yourself – you’re likely making the same amount of trash the shops make behind the scenes.
Over 25 million people in the US live in a food desert
No trash cans and a mason jar of trash is the ultimate zero waste status symbol, but it’s almost impossible for anyone. Even more so when you live in a food desert, ie. 33% of the population must reside more than a mile from a grocery store (10 miles in rural areas). You can see the US food desert map here.
The only accessible food in food deserts is usually from dollar stores or pharmacies. No fresh food. Definitely no bulk. No chance at “zero” waste. Never forget that our current systems are unfair and don’t lend themselves to a zero waste life.
Do more: Live in a food desert? Start a sharing garden or a Little Free Pantry to help create fresh produce accessibility in your neighborhood! Volunteer at local food pantries that help those in need access healthy food.
Don’t hate the online shopping game.
Chances are, if you live in a suburban or rural area where you have to travel considerable distances to shop, online shopping makes sense. A Carnegie Mellon study found that “although packaging accounts for 22% of the carbon dioxide emissions of an item purchased online, customer transportation accounts for 65% of emissions when buying the equivalent item at a retail store.”
Essentially, while you’ve been fretting over the single bit of bubble wrap in your cardboard box, what you should have been worrying about is the car you hopped into to get to the store.
Do more: Shop along fixed routes (ie. work, school) and don’t take unnecessary trips. Opt to shop online with large orders if you’re unable to support a local business.
If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of CO2
While we often worry about the packaging around food, we often don’t stop to think about the food we end up wasting after it’s out of the packaging. In the US, landfills account for 34% of all methane emissions in the US – and methane is a GHG over 20x more potent than CO2. Read more about the huge issues with food waste through Drawdown.
Looking globally, if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of CO2 just behind the US and China.
Organic cotton totes and unintended consequences
The “easy answers” to zero waste are often more complex than we think. To have the same cumulative environmental impact (water, energy use, etc.) as a standard plastic bag, you’d have to use a paper bag 43 times, a conventional cotton tote 7,100 times, and an organic cotton tote 20,000! (source)
Sharing this information is not a call to throw your hands up and tear through plastic bags (they still have an awful, long-lasting effect on the planet) – it’s a call to think more critically about the resources we use and, more widely, the policy we enact.
Do more: DO NOT buy new totes. You probably have many floating around your home, even if they’re not super cute. If you need more, ask friends or family or head to a thrift store.
Glass isn’t the holy grail of zero waste
Glass isn’t the perfect answer to plastic – it takes a lot of energy to process and it’s heavy, which means its transport emissions are high as compared to other, lighter products. Plus, with US cities shutting down recycling programs left and right (and many programs now using glass as landfill cover or putting into asphalt), the chance your glass is actually getting recycled is low.
If used only once before recycling, plastic is theoretically most efficient. Hold onto your glass for as long as possible.
Do more: avoid purchasing in glass whenever possible. If you do get glass, plan to reuse it – don’t buy new containers for your pantry items. Find out more about the different types of food packaging and what’s eco-friendly.
Your car emissions are worse for the planet than plastic packaging
Did you know? A 500ml plastic bottle of water has an approximate carbon footprint of 82.8oz of CO2 (source). Using one gallon of gas creates around 20lbs of CO2, per the EPA. Driving around town to get an Instagram-perfect bulk shop from different stores not only wastes time, but resources. Zero waste is so much more than just the trash you see right in front of you.
Do more: Shop at the grocery store closest to you and walk, bike, or take public transport whenever possible.
Compostable products won’t break down in the landfill
Avoiding plastic bags is great! Buying compostable bags to replace them… probably isn’t. Using compostable products without actually composting them is problematic and can actually do great harm to our environment. In the landfill, these products won’t break down because of a lack of oxygen.
In your at-home compost bin, it won’t get hot enough for them to break down quicker than a year or five – unless those products are specifically marked as “home compostable”.
Do more: Instead of buying compostable bags, go without or re-use bags from purchased packaging. Replace old habits with nothing, not another purchase.
Now it’s your turn: go forth and educate the world! Share these images and help the world learn that zero waste is more than a plastic bag!
And if you have another “Zero waste is more than a plastic bag because…” idea, share it on social and be sure to tag me.