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Zero waste isn’t zero – and here’s why

Zero waste isn't zero and here's why - Polly Barks

Are you a self-sustaining homesteader with absolutely no ties to the outside work? Great, this post is not for you.

For everyone else, this may be helpful.

So often I hear people become upset because they can’t find unpackaged options or they unwittingly bring home trash despite their best efforts. I’m here to tell you A) it’s OK and B) it’s not you – it’s the system. We live and operate in a linear economy whereas zero waste advocates for a circular economy.

To expect individual perfection when a perfect system doesn’t exist is silly; zero waste is a catchy term for an eco-movement, not a statement of reality.

Ready to learn more? Let’s continue.

Where did the term “zero waste” come from?

Zero waste was not initially a term meant for the individual which is why so much confusion about the practice tends to arise. We’ll talk more about what zero waste means as a co-opted term later, but suffice to say it’s impossible for the individual to go truly zero.

So when – despite your best efforts – trash goes into the bin, it’s more a function of a systemic problem than any personal failing. That’s why zero waste is a poor choice of term for individual action; but it is a nice catch-all for a movement.

The term zero waste started as an industrial concept in which products were designed with an end-of-life without waste. Instead of throwing it away or – best case scenario – recycling it, a product would be made either technologically or biologically useful again. An individual cannot go zero waste without companies working within this model.

Zero waste is the onus of industry, not the individual.

The goal of zero waste on the industrial level is to move industry away from a linear cradle-to-grave concept and make their products cradle-to-cradle, ie. “cradle-to-cradle materials circulate in closed-loop cycles, providing nutrients for nature or industry” (source). That’s zero waste in an industrial sense and the start of a circular economy.

Are we in a circular economy?

Not at all, aside from a few very intentional businesses or communities.

We’re all operating in what’s called a linear economy, where products are meant to have an end-of-life so you’re forced to re-buy them. We take raw materials out of the earth (not replacing them), manufacture products from them, and use them once before they’re discarded into the landfill.

The clear problem with the linear economy is that it’s unsustainable. Prices rise as materials become more scarce, environmental damage from resource extraction creates issues for people and the planet, and our landfills fill up with no chance of ever clearing out.

A linear economy is a clear threat to society as it prices out many for the sake of long-term destruction. Luckily, there’s another school of though that presents a more sustainable alternative: the circular economy.

OK, so what’s a circular economy?

Boiled down, a circular economy is an economy which moves away from finite resources and removes waste and pollution from society as a whole. It’s basically the antithesis to the current “use, abuse, and trash” linear system we currently live in.

The three main principles of a circular economy are:

  1. eradicating waste and pollution by planning
  2. continual reuse of products and materials
  3. regenerating natural systems.

All of these items work together to ensure nothing is going to waste on an individual, business, or society level. For a confusing diagram with a lot of arrows, this Ellen MacArthur Foundation chart could be helpful for the visual.

Speaking of, I love their point about how much more attainable a circular economy is today, despite rampant consumption all over the world: “With current advances, digital technology has the power to support the transition to a circular economy by radically increasing virtualisation, de-materialisation, transparency, and feedback-driven intelligence.”

Recommended reading if you’d like to know more about the concept of a circular economy:

  • The Story of Stuff: not strictly about the circular economy, but a good look into what’s wrong with our current system.
  • Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things: this is a good one if you’re looking for something a little less intense than a textbook. Written more informally, it’s an interesting introduction into the concept even if the ideas something become a little tangential and unrealistic.
  • A New Dynamic: Effective Business in a Circular Economy: denser, but still a good read if only for the fact that it has essays by different authors so there’s like to be something interesting for everyone.
Zero Waste Isn't Zero - Here's Why - PollyBarks.com

So the individual zero waste movement – what is it?

It’s sure as hell not zero, that’s for sure. Because for as many “big” zero wasters that show you a Mason jar of trash that they’ve had for five years, there’s a huge amount of trash behind the scenes. The bulk places we shop fill up bulk from packages (often plastic) and any idealized, white-walled zero waste shop has some sort of shipping packaging lurking in the background.

What zero waste on an individual level is is a way to become aware of the concept of existing without waste and pollution, as unattainable as that is currently.

Critics may say that being zero waste on an individual level doesn’t do much of anything, I argue that it’s an important step in taking agency of the items you possess and creating a miniature version of a circular economy within your life to the extent it’s possible.

While an individual zero waste mission is great and a strong first step, it’s all rather meaningless unless we also actively fight against the constraints of the linear economy. Once you feel comfortable with zero waste on an individual level and have removed yourself from the linear economy in meaningful ways, then you can begin the bigger fight.

How can I support a circular economy as an individual?

I said above that an individual zero waste journey is not enough, but it can be daunting to figure out how to take you eco-quest to the next level. Be Zero has a great resource page for something called the “Circular Mindset”. It explains the three concepts of a circular mindset are simplicity, community, and ownership.

Practical ways to incorporate all three into your life on an individual and community level:


  • Reduce your dependence on things. We all have individual needs or wants that will frame this differently for all of us, but being mindful of buying unnecessary items is a great first step.
  • Use what you need, find homes for what you don’t. If you have items (of value) sitting around your house unused, consider passing them on to others who would actively use them. Remove distractions and help items have value.


For more on community, see my full post on creating a zero waste community.

  • Start a community garden. Whether you start it in your own yard or stealthily co-opt a vacant piece of land, community gardens are proven to improve communities far beyond just providing some local veggies. Property values go up, it’s a recognized crime prevention strategies, and it exposes people to produce they may otherwise have never known (source). I really enjoyed this book as an introduction into urban gardening.
  • Start a lending library in your town. Instead of buying expensive specialty items that may be used only once or twice, why not provide a resource for people to check out items on an as-needed basis. This document library has a ton of information for getting started.
  • Offer swapping events. Rather than exchanging money and participating in the mainstream economy, host a swapping events for goods (and even services!) to make items more accessible to everyone and your community more connected! See Zero Waste Chef’s post on a recent swapping event for real life inspiration.


  • Create a relationship with your possessions. It’s like friends – if you collect a ton of them, you lose the value of each relationship. By creating a relationship with the limited amount of possessions you have, the items will be more valuable and thus less likely to become waste.
  • Choose items that aren’t finite. When purchasing items, consider what their end of life will be. Essentially, try to buy what can be reused indefinitely or composted to benefit the natural systems supporting us.

Beyond your own actions, I also think it’s important to support companies who are making concerted efforts to move towards a circular mindset when we do need to purchase something.

For example, clothing company Eileen Fisher offers a take-back program which gives consumers store credit. They also have a new circular take-back program which repairs and resells its items, donating funds raised by the program to charitable organizations. (Check out a directory of more esoteric but still circular companies!)

Additionally, putting pressure on your local government to make changes is a critical part of the process. If you have connections within the government, this may be a valuable report to pass on. Showing up to city council meetings with concrete ideas and getting on citizen boards within the government are also great ways to implement change and make your voice heard.

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