The term ‘zero waste’ entered the popular zeitgeist a few years ago, joining other terms like ‘sustainable’ and ‘eco-friendly’ in everyday conversations surrounding environmentalism. In its most basic meaning, ‘zero waste’ describes a product or practice that avoids producing any kind of refuse or waste. This idea can be (and has been) applied in a variety of circumstances, but because our focus at Pela is on finding zero-waste solutions for the planet, we’ll stick to the environmental definition.
Zero waste is all about preventing waste before it happens by creating and using things with intention. In many cases, zero waste is accomplished by creating things that can be returned to the system that originally made them, thereby creating a closed-loop that creates no excess waste and requires no outside resources. Composting, for example, takes food scraps that were grown in the dirt and turns them to nutrient-rich compost. This compost can then be added to that same dirt to help grow more food.
A less traditional example of a zero waste system can be found right here at Pela headquarters. Our phone cases are made from Flaxstic, our propriety compostable plastic blend, and can fully degrade in both residential and commercial composting environments. While our phone cases are designed for easy eco-friendly disposal by the consumer, not all of our customers have convenient access to a compost pile. To accommodate our compost-less customers, we created the Pela 360 program. With Pela 360 customers are able to send back their used phone cases to either be sustainably disposed of by us or ground down and used to create new phone cases.
Basically, zero waste is all about planning ahead to avoid creating trash. Sounds pretty straight forward, right? Well, it sort of is. While the term ‘zero waste’ may have only been widely used for a few years, zero waste used to be everyone’s reality. It used to be common practice to save everything and to use our resources to the fullest, but over the last 70 years or so, we seem to have lost sight of this way of living.
Now, trends like fast fashion and constant technological advancement have shortened the expected lifespan of most products, so consumers no longer expect the things they buy to be high quality or last a lifetime. While buying new things in itself isn’t a problem, it’s what happens to the old items that pose a serious threat to the environment.
The Life Cycle of a Product
Before we dive deep into how you can try being zero waste in your own life, let’s clear up a few common misconceptions. Firstly, ‘zero waste’ is sort of a misnomer, in that all things require resources to be created, and all things must end up somewhere at some point. Zero waste doesn’t mean that something doesn’t require any resources or can’t be littered or improperly disposed of, it means intentionally making choices to avoid the excess production of waste. Zero waste isn’t about producing zero trash or taking up zero resources, it’s about using only the resources we need so that we are not creating unnecessary trash.
Second, you don’t need to be perfect or dive in headfirst to living zero waste, it’s okay to start slow. If you are new to zero waste, you are going to want to take your time to educate yourself and learn everything you can about making the change to suit your lifestyle. No one is expecting everyone to become perfectly 100% zero waste, but if we all start slow and learn to make zero waste a lifestyle, we could make some serious and impactful environmental change.
For both individuals and corporations, the key to going zero waste is considering the life cycle of a product. When a company decides to manufacture a product, they have the opportunity to select its materials and ultimately how it will have to be disposed of. Single-use items, fast fashion, and items designed to be replaced as soon as they go out of style are essential made for landfills, but manufacturing doesn’t have to be this way.
The Importance of ‘End of Life’
A product’s ‘end of life’ refers to the period after the product has been used fully, and consequently, is also the most important part of a products life cycle to examine should you wish to live zero waste.
A small, seemingly insignificant item like a plastic straw takes moments to produce and is only used for a few hours at most before being thrown away. Because plastic straws can’t be recycled, they are doomed either for the landfill or to be littered. Either way, plastic straws can last for decades or even centuries after you are finished using them. During the centuries your plastic straw spends in a landfill, it slowly begins to break down into microplastics while leaching its composite chemicals into the surrounding soil.
On the other hand, a stainless steel straw can be reused time and time again, lasting users for years if properly cared for. Since stainless steel is easy and safe to clean, resistant to tarnishing or rusting, and naturally resistant to the buildup of bacteria, a single set of stainless steel straws could last you a lifetime. When a stainless steel straw does break, bend, or lose its usefulness it can easily be recycled and reused in some other stainless steel product resulting in zero landfill waste.
Companies That Are Going Zero Waste
Unfortunately, in some cases, being wasteful is also profitable. There are plenty of companies that thrive off of the speedy cycling of trends, relying on their customers to purchase multiple versions or units of their products as styles and technologies change. The easiest example of this can be found in the fashion industry.
Fast-fashion is the sort of thing you find in stores at the mall, items made to suit the specific styles or trends of the week but not necessarily made to be worn for years. Customers don’t expect longevity from these items, and aren’t let down by the brand should they rip or tear within a few months of use since they plan to purchase new items in line with changing trends anyway.
Customers demanding new products work hand-in-hand with companies manufacturing low-quality items destined for landfills. As long as there is demand for these items, companies interested in profit above all else will continue to manufacture them. Thankfully, not all companies are alike, and many are run by people just like us that have a genuine love for the environment and a desire to provide their customers with superior products.
Subaru, the Japanese car manufacturer, is well known for their environmental efforts and favourability among environmental advocates. While Subaru is aligned with a number of organizations working to preserve the health and wellbeing of the planet, Subaru also works to make their operations as green as possible. In terms of their zero waste practices, Subaru has been practicing zero-landfill manufacturing for years, and is even touted as having created the first zero-landfill automotive assembly plant in North America.
One of the ways Subaru has reduced its landfill-waste has been by creating parts that are meant to be recyclable. Car parts, packaging, and materials used during manufacturing are always repurposed or reused once they have fulfilled their original purpose, and this method has worked so well that Subaru’s North American plant hasn’t sent waste to a landfill in more than a decade. Subaru even adds zero waste touches to everyday life within the plant, setting up programs to reuse/compost staff food scraps.
A few years ago, Google began a new initiative focused on reducing waste produced by their data centres. The idea was to begin to divert data centre waste away from landfills and to more sustainable disposal/reusable methods. As of right now, Google has managed to convert around 6 out of every 14 data centres to zero waste, and is continuing its efforts to expand the initiative.
Like Subaru, Google takes environmentalism personally, and also includes in-company initiatives to reduce waste, push composting, and avoid overconsumption on the part of Google and its employees. As a result, Google recycled almost 90% of its non-data center waste, and is expected to improve that percentage in the coming years.
Since pretty much everything we do here at Pela is centred around creating a greener, cleaner, waste-free future, we had to mention ourselves in this portion of the article! At Pela, we are constantly looking for ways to improve our products, improve our own behaviour, and spread awareness surrounding the problem of plastic pollution. In our zero waste initiative, we have taken on plastic phone cases specifically, wanting to reduce the incredible amount of plastic waste dumped into oceans and landfills every year.
Thanks to our work and our amazing customers, we have managed to not only divert tons of plastic waste from landfills, but we have stopped more than 336,438 pounds of plastic from ever being produced.
Changing How You Buy
While efforts by corporations to create eco-friendly alternatives to plastic and other wasteful products are necessary to insight change, no true change can occur if consumers aren’t willing to buy these products. Unfortunately, there has been a massive cultural shift away from being selective and slow about buying products, likely due to the instant availability of pretty much any item you could want.
While the Internet has opened up incredible opportunities for individuals around the world to connect and gain access to vital information and resources, it has also meant that some of us have become incredibly accustomed to instant gratification. The ability to order and receive any item in just a few days from anywhere has made people less thoughtful of where their products are coming from, whether they truly need them, and whether they are even worth buying.
If you find yourself constantly buying things you don’t need, filling drawers with items you want to throw out but don’t want to send to the landfill, or find yourself replacing staple items you use consistently, you may be suffering from overconsumption. The best way to combat this and to shift your thinking in order to live a zero-waste-lifestyle, you are going to have to make some changes to the way you buy.
The 30 Day Rule
A super-easy way to begin changing how you think about the things you purchase is to set a ‘30 day rule’ in your household. The ‘30 day rule’ requires you to think about a purchase and examine your own need for 30 days before actually buying the item. This rule obviously doesn’t apply to things like food or transportation, but if you have had your eye on that new set of speakers, we recommend taking a few weeks to really consider the purchase.
If, after 30 days of considering a non-essential item you are able to conclude that you really do need it, go ahead and make that purchase! Sometimes, you might discover that you were about to make an impulse buy. Other times, you might find that you really want that thing after all, which will make the purchase all the more satisfying in the long run.
Shifting Focus to Quality
While it isn’t reasonable to expect everything you own to last a lifetime, it is entirely reasonable to focus on quality when you spend your hard-earned money. Focusing on the quality of a product can help you to get the most for what you spend, but it can also help you to reduce your personal and household waste.
Before you make a purchase, take a moment to consider how long an item will
last you, whether that lifespan is acceptable for the type of product, and what will happen to the item once it has been fully used. Choosing to purchase items that are made to last can help you save some money, and will stop you from tossing items in the trash left and right. While quality and longevity go hand-in-hand, having an item for a long time isn’t the only reason to assess quality before making a purchase.
Lower-quality materials also happen to often be those that are worst for the environment, meaning that the items that are most commonly thrown away are also those that pose the most threat to our planet. Choosing higher quality materials means choosing materials that won’t poison the planet after they have been used, so even if that item is designed to last only a few weeks or months its disposal won’t harm the environment.
Unfortunately, as consumers have begun to take notice of environmental efforts, some companies have taken it as an opportunity to build their profits. ‘Greenwashing’ is a dishonest marketing tactic used by corporations to convince their customers that the products they are selling are more eco-friendly than they really are. Basically, greenwashing is the ‘catfishing’ of the marketing world.
The most common instances of greenwashing can be found in subtle word
choices made by marketing teams. Using terms like “compostable” and “biodegradable” interchangeably is one of the most common methods, since many consumers already believe that these two terms are nearly synonymous. In truth, the distinction between a compostable and biodegradable material is pretty significant, and mislabeling one as the other is classic greenwashing.
But, if companies are lying about how eco-friendly their products are, how are you supposed to figure out if their advertisements are greenwashed or not?
Well, the best way to do this is by looking at what information is available. A company that prides itself on being eco-friendly or creating products that are meant to degrade in a specific way should have evidence to prove that their products actually work. Companies that are vague or secretive about the details of their products may be using dishonest tactics to sell more products, and consumers should be wary of trusting their claims.
Additionally, it is important to learn the exact definitions of terms like “biodegradable” and “compostable” yourself so that you can be on the lookout for signs that a company may be over exaggerating the eco-friendliness of their products.
Changing How You Think
Living zero waste requires more from you than just changing your buying habits, it also requires you to change the way you think. Don’t worry, this part of zero waste living isn’t nearly as difficult as it might sound, but it does require a little bit of mental effort and personal development. Overcoming the urge to buy things and over consume is difficult, and unlearning how we have been taught to rely on short-lived and disposable items is no small feat.
For many of us, disposables and single-use items were the realities of our childhood, and we were never in positions that required us to be more mindful of how much we use and how much we throw away. Now, as the importance of reducing consumption and consumer waste for the sake of the planet becomes clearer, we will need to unlearn the buying and using habits most of us have had since birth.
Determining whether you ‘need’ something can be tricky, especially since there are just so many things available to us at all times. Before you go down the rabbit hole of trying to decide whether you really ‘need’ most of the modern amenities you are afforded, take a step back and be gentle with yourself. Assessing your
own need isn’t about learning to live with the bare minimum, it’s about learning to be a little more critical of your own impulse purchases.
Before you purchase the newest generation of iPhone, for example, first consider whether or not your old iPhone is still working. If your phone is in perfectly good condition and does the things you need it to do, why buy a new phone? Even if you are able to acquire the new phone for a low price, why send your old phone prematurely to the landfill? Instead of buying a new phone that you don’t need, accessorize that thing with a new Pela Case and keep on moving.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
The “recycle” portion of “reduce, reuse, recycle” has thankfully been widely adopted by individuals and institutions, but unfortunately we tend to forget the first two commandments, so to speak. Reducing our consumption and reusing those things that can be reused are key components of living a waste-free life, since the ultimate goal is to avoid producing new materials to preserve our precious resources. Reducing your consumption can be as easy as avoiding buying too much at the grocery store or as intricate as installing solar panels to reduce your reliance on electricity.
Learning to Be Prepared
Believe it or not, a whole lot of waste can be avoided by simple preparations. For example, bringing your own reusable cloth bags to the grocery store automatically eliminates the need for plastic bags, which in turn reduces your personal consumption and waste. Similarly, you could bring your own glass containers for leftovers at a restaurant, or bring your own reusable stainless steel straw next time you go to your local coffee shop. All it takes is a little additional preparation, but once you get into the swing of it, living zero waste will feel like second nature.
Going Zero Waste at Home
If you’ve made it this far, you are probably hoping for some simple tips to get you started living zero waste at home. Lucky for you, we are full of ideas to reduce your household waste, and even offer a few products to help you do just that.
Composting is one of the easiest ways you can reduce your household waste, and one of the easiest ways to begin to become more intimately familiar with the concept of zero waste. Composting turns organic scraps into usable nutrients that
can be applied to your garden, or even donated to a local community garden or farm. Compost helps to make soil used for growing crops like fruits, vegetables, and grains, and can also be used in floral and decorative gardening.
Composting at home is super easy, and you don’t even need to have a yard to get the job done. Anyone can compost whether they have acres of land or just a small space under the sink. With a home composting system in place, you can reduce the amount of waste your household sends to the landfill, and you might just fall in love with gardening in the process!
Avoiding Single-Use Items
Another super simple way to reduce your household waste and begin to work towards living zero waste is to avoid single-use items at all costs. When you really think about it, single-use items really have very little use other than in situations in which you are underprepared, which we have already addressed above. Here are some items you should begin to avoid altogether and eco-friendly alternatives you can use to replace them:
Along with single-use items, working to eliminate as much plastic from your life as possible is also enormously beneficial for the environment and a great way to avoid items that can’t be environmentally disposed of. Most plastic items are recyclable, but that doesn’t mean that they get recycled, helping to maintain a constant demand for new plastic products. Because of this, the best way to avoid the problem is to simply avoid plastic and to select more eco-friendly alternatives instead.
When you purchase a plastic phone case, for example, you will eventually be
faced with a decision regarding what to do with it when it is no longer useful. Rather than facing that ethical conundrum, cut out the plastic from the equation and make your life a whole lot easier. Rather than purchasing yet another plastic phone case, buy a compostable Flaxstic phone case that won’t turn to microplastics and last hundreds of years after you are done using it.