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Your guide to the zero waste movement - and how you can get started

Aiming for "zero waste" means dramatically reducing the amount of stuff you throw away. Here's all the tips you need to get started.

Image of mason jars filled with pantry items

Refilling pantry items instead of buying new ones in plastic is one way to start your zero waste journey. (Image: Pixabay)

Unless you’re already a disciple of the zero waste movement, you’re likely throwing away far more stuff than you realise.

In the UK, individuals throw away thousands of items every year, amounting to an average weight of 409kg annually – about the same weight as four adult pandas. 

Most of this waste ends up in landfill or the sea, polluting our natural environment and wreaking havoc on vital ecosystems – but it doesn’t have to be this way. 

This is where the “zero waste” movement comes in. With its followers calling themselves “zero wasters”, the goal is fairly self-explanatory: to avoid producing waste wherever possible. 

With growing public awareness of the climate and environmental crises, zero waste lifestyles have become increasingly popular in recent years, with support groups, blogs and even zero waste shops popping up across the globe.

Reducing your waste is a great way to lessen your impact on the planet, but getting started can feel overwhelming. 

That’s why we’ve put together this guide on zero waste living – what it is, why it’s important and key tips for getting started. 

What is meant by “zero waste”?

Zero waste is a fairly self-explanatory concept, referring to efforts to reduce waste output to nothing or nearly nothing, whether in a business or in one’s own day-to-day activities.

The term has been around for some time, but the practice of “zero wasters” adopting this philosophy in their own lives only emerged recently. 

The idea of individuals striving to reduce their waste gained popularity after a woman named Bea Johnson in California began blogging about her efforts to reduce her waste output in 2009.

Johnson’s efforts encouraged a number of others to do the same, and the movement grew exponentially from there. 

While there is some disagreement over how zero waste lifestyles should work in practice, most people agree that reducing your waste to absolutely nothing isn’t always realistic – it’s simply a target to aim at.

In other words, zero wasters are simply attempting to reduce their waste as much as possible. For most people, it simply isn’t feasible to produce no rubbish whatsoever. 

Why is zero waste important?

We all waste a huge amount of items everyday, from plastic packaging to electronics, furniture and food. 

When these items are put in the bin or dumped elsewhere, they often end up disrupting or polluting the natural environment and the animals that depend on it.

Certain kinds of packaging, for instance, can break down and be swallowed by wildlife, while plastic items can seep toxic chemicals into the environment. 

We often throw items instead of repairing or re-using them. Usually this means we purchase a replacement, and if this replacement is made from plastic, it will generate carbon emissions during the manufacturing and transportation process. 

Reducing waste, therefore, avoids creating unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions and avoids polluting the environment. 

The biggest polluters are big businesses. Individuals don’t create all this plastic packaging themselves, after all, so keeping pressure on governments and industries to cut down on the waste they produce is crucial to reducing it overall. But that doesn’t mean we can’t play our part as well.

Joining the ranks of zero wasters isn’t just a great way to reduce your impact on the environment either – it can end up saving you money in the long run. 

What are the 5 principles of zero waste?

Some of the pro zero wasters have managed to reduce their rubbish to a miniscule amount – filling just a jam jar for a whole year. 

While you may want to aspire to this, it’s important to remember that any reduction in waste is an achievement, and it may take some time before you work out how to dramatically cut what you throw away. 

To get started, there are five key “R”s you should think about whenever you’re thinking of buying something or throwing something away. These are:

  1. Refusing to buy anything that you don’t absolutely need – try to think about this every time you’re about to buy an item
  2. Reducing the amount of things you own to make it easier to manage what you have
  3. Reusing everything you can, either by repurposing old items into new ones or opting for reusable items over disposable ones 
  4. Recycling anything that you absolutely can’t reuse
  5. Rotting (or composting) items where possible – this works best for food waste

Keeping track of what you do have to throw away can also help you identify areas where you can cut waste even further. 

Some people do this by collecting their rubbish in jars or bin bags, but you could also simply jot down what you’re throwing away and review it on a regular basis. 

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Is going zero waste expensive?

In recent years, a number of businesses have started to market products to zero wasters which claim to be essential for reducing waste. 

This includes reusable sanitary products, coffee cups, straws and a whole host of other items. 

Some of these products can be really helpful in reducing the amount of waste you produce, but it’s key to remember that zero waste is also about trying to reduce the amount you buy in the first place.

As such, you should think carefully about whether purchasing these items will actually help you reduce your waste output.

If you get through lots of disposable coffee cups, for instance, then buying a reusable mug could be a great investment. If you’re not a regular coffee or tea drinker, this might be a waste of time. 

Another key thing to consider when buying zero waste products or really any kind of product is quality. 

Opting for higher-quality items where possible will mean they last longer, and are less likely to end up in landfill. 

Living zero waste doesn’t have to be expensive – if you’re on a budget, forget about expensive eco products and just try to remember the five “R”s.

By buying less and reusing more, you’re likely to find yourself saving extra pennies every month.

Where can I find resources to help?

Luckily, there are hundreds of different sites and groups you can join to help you in your journey to reducing your waste. 

Online, you’ll find a host of different zero waste blogs all offering hints and tips on reducing your waste, while on Facebook a number of local and national groups are full of people with great advice.
Lots of money-saving tips are also zero waste friendly. The money saving expert blog, for example, has a list of more than 40 money-saving tips that could also help you avoid waste.

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