What does Zero Waste ACTUALLY mean?

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I don't know about you, but I certainly find all the 'eco' terms very confusing.....
Eco.... Biodegradable.... Compostable.... and the seeming Nirvana of..... Zero Waste!


Even the Eco-ist of the Eco-Living world still show us these little jars of receipts and chocolate bar wrappers. We create waste. Fact. We can reduce our waste, and we can reduce it dramatically, but can we actually go Zero Waste?

And what does Zero Waste actually mean?

Zero Waste in the Past

If we think of ourselves as animals, we consume foods, process them in our bodies and then discard compostable waste (poo and wee - cue: giggle giggles from my kids) that breaks down into organic matter, can then be re-used by other living organisms, namely plants.

However, as Humans, we also use ‘stuff’ as part of our daily living, whether that be that we wear, or ‘tools’ (in the very broadest sense) that we use.

In the past, both clothing and tools would have been made from natural materials – namely plants, animal parts and rocks or minerals. All of these would have been re-used again and again, and when they came to the end of their useful lives, they too would have gradually biodegraded.

Use of resources in the Modern World

This is not the case in the modern world. We buy manufactured products, not make things out of the natural resources around us. Some of those things are indeed made from natural material - wooden chopping boards, bamboo kitchenware, stone worktops etc.

However, many are not. They will not safely break down into reusable elements that other living organisms can use, and may take decades or centuries to break down at all.

There are many sites and info-graphics offering up different timelines for different items. But to be honest, the exact time-scales don’t really matter. Most modern, and often plastic, products last multiple lifetimes, outliving us many times over.

What does Zero Waste ACTUALLY mean?

So what does Zero Waste actually mean in today’s world?

The definition I like best is one by Kathryn Kellogg from her blog ‘Going Zero Waste’:

The simple answer: We aim to send nothing to a landfill. We reduce what we need, reuse as much as we can, send little to be recycled, and compost what we cannot.  The less simple answer: It's really about redefining the system. We currently live in a linear economy where we take resources from the earth and then dump them in a giant hole in the ground. The goal of zero waste is to move to a circular economy where we write trash out of existence. The circular economy mimics nature in that there is no trash in nature. Instead of discarding resources, we create a system where all resources can be resumed fully back into the system.
As Kathryn acknowledges, for the most part, we do not live in the natural world, where one organism’s waste becomes fuel for another. But that said, we can change our current economy to mimic the natural world.
Realistically then, Zero Waste in our modern world means that we should aim for products that are either:
  1. Biodegradable, ideally compostable.
    1. Biodegradable means that a substance will break down into organic matter in the right conditions, without harming the environment[1], there is no time-limit placed on this – it can be anything up to 1,000 years! Plus if the biodegradable object ends up in landfill in the wrong conditions, it may never break down – think glass bottles.
    2. Compostable means that something is biodegradable (as above), but can also break down quickly in a home compost bin, taking 3 – 6 months.
  2. Fully and indefinitely reusable, and ideally recyclable when the product comes to the end of its life – so that the component parts can be reused again in new products, mimicking the natural world.
The way I'm starting to think about it is:
  • Single Use = Compostable
    • If I'm buying something that's disposable aka single-use, I need to aim for compostable - e.g. Bamboo Cotton Buds, instead of plastic
  • Buy-Once, Forever-Use = Recyclable
    • If it's multi-use, I need to aim for it to be forever/indefinite-use. It needs to be buy-once, use-forever. And ideally, because no 'tool' (as defined above) lasts forever, without breaking, the materials it's made from need to be recyclable.

And I think, I hope, that with these two clear messages in my head, I'm able to cut through some of the confusion and help me make decisions about what I use and what I buy, without feeling (too) overwhelmed.

I hope this was useful for you too. Do let me know if you have any other definitions that help you or anything you have that helps you navigate this very confusing Eco World.

As ever, with love from our family to yours,

Elena x


Elena Cimelli | The Contented Company | Eco & Zero Waste

p.s. Thanks for reading! As with every small business, I do depend on you for likes and shares to keep The Contented Company popping up in people's feeds. Please head back to my latest Instagram or Facebook posts and comment, like, share or tag anyone you think might enjoy reading / following.
[1] Biodegradable vs. Compostable - What’s the Difference & Why Does It Matter? https://smallshop.co.uk/blog/2019/2/8/biodegradable-vs-compostable

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