Zero Waste 101

By Nina Perkins

Global Waste

Before I go into detail about zero waste, let’s start with some facts about waste.  

According to a report done by the World Bank in 2018, “the world generates 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually.  Worldwide, waste generated per person per day averages 0.74 kilogram but ranges widely, from 0.11 to 4.54 kilograms.  Though they only account for 16 percent of the world’s population, high-income countries generate about 34 percent, or 683 million tonnes, of the world’s waste.  Global waste is expected to grow to 3.40 billion tonnes by 2050, drastically outpacing population growth by more than double by 2050.” 1

Unfortunately, per capita the United States generates the most waste in the world.  According to the U.S. EPA, “the total generation of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2018 was 292.4 million tons or 4.9 pounds per person per day.”2  And since the start of the global Covid-19 pandemic, the world-wide use of disposable masks have become a new addition to our global waste stream. 

 So, if you didn’t know, now you know.  Waste has become a huge problem on our planet for several reasons, here a just a few of those reasons.  1. The more people on the planet, the more waste we generate.  2. The “convenience” of single use items.   And 3.  Unrecyclable items.

We live in a throwaway society and it’s effecting all beings on this planet especially the planet herself.  Most people have no idea where trash goes after they’ve “thrown” it away; most assume a landfill, incinerator, a recycling facility, or shipped away to other countries which only moves the waste from our view, but it transfers the waste somewhere else shifting the burden to others.  Waste also ends up on our streets, in our waterways, and even in our food.

As stewards of this planet, we need to do much better.  Zero waste is a solution that many people and cities like San Francisco, CA are striving to achieve.  But zero waste is hard in the world we live in today.   But zero waste and near zero waste is achievable with some lifestyle changes.   

The meaning of Zero Waste

“Zero Waste: The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.”3

One of the biggest obstacles for zero waste goals are the industry barriers, like packaging.  Not all packaging is created equal.  Most plastic, paper and foil packaging consist of multiple layers of various materials.  Anything made with multiple layers of different materials are not recyclable or compostable.  A good example of products that are packaged in multilayered materials are snack bags, candy wrappers, pet food and treat bags, and all soft plastic, paper, and foil bags.  The best way to get manufactures to change their packaging to recyclable material is to ask them to make a change.

Getting Started

If you really want to reduce your waste, you’re going to have to be a conscious consumer.  And not just regarding stuff you purchase, but also stuff people give you.  If you don’t need it or want it, don’t take it.  Before you start, analyze yourself; look at your lifestyle, shopping habits, and existing household contents.  How do you want to approach your waste reduction?  I suggest taking baby steps, start small and get to know the 5 R’s:  Refuse, Reduce, Reuse/Refill, Rot, and Recycle.  See the inverted pyramid graphic below.

Chart, funnel chart

Description automatically generatedUnderstanding the 5 R’s

  • Refuse – items you don’t need or want, and items consisting of single use plastics and individually wrapped items like some fruit I’ve seen in the market.
  • Reduce – buy less stuff, be mindful of your needs, consider the quality of products instead of quantity of products.
  • Reuse/Refill – find ways to reuse stuff, find a new way to use an empty container.
  • Rot – compost your food scraps, hair, chemical free yard waste, non-bleached paper coffee filters, etc.
  • Recycle – check with your local waste hauler to see what recyclable items they’ll pick up curb side.  Also, check your area for hazardous waste and textile drop off sites. is a great site for recycling information.

Top 5 Loaded Tips for going Zero Waste:  

  1. Stop using, buying, and accepting single use items (plastic bags, straws, to-go containers, paper products, feminine hygiene products, etc.) and start using reusable items (grocery bags, produce bags, food & drink to-go containers, handkerchiefs and downgraded cloth cleaning towels/rags, batteries, coffee filters, etc.).
  2. Sign up for paperless delivery for your bills and other mailed items. 
  3. Buy in bulk to reduce packaging. 
  4. Save empty containers and use them for another purpose (DIY & GIY projects, canning and preserving food from your garden or farmers market).
  5. Make your own personal care and household products.

Implementing the 5 R’s

Some of the tips will be easy to implement, others not so easy.  Do what’s best for you and adjust when you’re ready.  My personal favorite R to implement is Reuse/Refill.  For me it does more than just reduce and eliminate waste, it gives me the opportunity to be creative, save money and reduce possible health issues.  I combine Reuse/Refill with gardening, DIY and GIY projects.  BTW, GIY stands for Green It Yourself.  I got that from Lisa Bronner.  Making my own homemade products for food purposes, personal care and household cleaning is very fulfilling and makes great use of the empty containers that I have.


  1. Kaza, Silpa; Yao, Lisa C.; Bhada-Tata, Perinaz; Van Woerden, Frank.  2018. What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050.  Urban Development;. Washington, DC: World Bank.  © World Bank. License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.

You can also download the presentation that I will be sharing with Karen Powers in the April Restorative Challenge below:

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Published by Karen Powers Wan

Writer, Restorative Lifestyle Coach, Sustainability Project Manager, and Meditation Instructor.

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