The basics of zero waste living

In today’s throwaway society, we are constantly bombarded with ways to be more environmentally sustainable. Recycle more, shop second hand, reuse – the list goes on. Sometimes it seems impossible to avoid landfill waste, I mean what do you do when your non recyclable moisturiser tube runs out? Just not buy another one and have dry cracked skin? This option doesn’t seem very appealing, but what if there was a way to do away with waste all together – and have your moisturiser? It may seem crazy and even unattainable, but that is what the rapidly growing Zero Waste movement aims to do.

How great would it be if you could literally produce no waste? This thought usually gets a lot of responses that are along the lines of oh if I could, and I totally would, but I’m just too busy to make time making my own deodorant or that I would love to, but I live somewhere where there is no access to package free groceries. Few realise that there are options everywhere and that you just have to know where to shop – or that making your own deodorant takes about 5 minutes. It can seem a bit overwhelming and it’s as if the more you think about ways you can cut down on your landfill waste, the more obstacles you encounter. “Coffee. Well, cool, I can buy a Keep Cup and bring that with me on my way to work.” “Water. Just buy a reusable bottle.” “Plastic bags at the supermarket. Easy, I have that cool canvas one I got from the farmers market that one time.” After this, things get more complicated. “All my groceries come wrapped in plastic”… “Cleaning sprays are in those plastic spray bottles”… “and what about periods?!” Luckily, the veterans of the movement have an answer to literally everything – there isn’t a stone unturned when it comes to being Zero Waste.

The origin of modern day Zero Waste can be traced back single handedly to Bea Johnson, a French mother of two, living in California. She lives by following her rules laid out in the ‘five R’s’ – refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot – and in that order. Bea Johnson and her website, The Zero Waste Home, was the first to publicise the lifestyle and she has published a book by the same name, which is filled with tips and tricks on how to live as sustainably as possible. She has inspired nearly everyone striving to live this way, including others in the Zero Waste big league such as Lauren Singer of Trash is for Tossers and Australia’s own and Perth based Lindsay Miles of Trending My Own Path. These modern day heroes in the Zero Waste circuit are true trailblazers of the future, each questioning the norm of today’s throwaway world and helping to share and educate others on the Zero Waste movement.

So here they are, in the simplest way possible, Bea Johnson’s ‘five R’s’ that highlight the key aspects of what it means to be zero waste:


This is the most key aspect of being zero waste and highlights the importance of refusal first. Saying no to napkins, straws and plastic water dispenser cups stops the line of unnecessary waste before it has even made it to you, the consumer, and therefore helps stop the demand for the product in question. To make this easier for yourself you can bring things with you to festivals, restaurants, when travelling etc so you’re never caught out. Reusable metal straws, stainless steel cups and cloth napkins are all part of the zero waste artillery and will help you change the world, one cocktail at a time.


Secondly is reduce, calling on the need to downsize your belongings and seriously taking stock of what is relevant and useful in your life, both in the objects you own and the amount of things you buy. How often do you buy something on a whim, only for it to be forgotten about or thrown out a year later? Reducing what you have means being more thoughtful in what is truly needed for you to live a happy life.


Reuse. Empty jars, dishcloths, water bottles, so many things can have their life extended by finding another purpose for them, or simply buying things that will last for years rather than being destined for landfill. Glass jars for storage, towels for cleaning etc are pretty obvious, but what about products like menstrual cups that can be reused for over ten years rather than buying disposable tampons or sanitary pads every month? These are lesser known about and are revolutionising periods, I mean why get angry about paying tax on ‘luxury’ sanitary products, when you can just sidestep the industry and the problem entirely and make the one time purchase of a menstrual cup?


Recycle is second to last on this list, which may be a surprise to those who always thought and were taught that recycling is the be all and end all of being environmentally friendly, but when you take into account the energy that goes into recycling and the fact that most recyclable materials can only be recycled a small number of times, before ultimately being sent to landfill, it makes sense to aim to reduce the amount you are sending to the recycle bank. The fibres of paper and plastic shorten each time they are recycled and it is estimated that plastic can be recycled 7-9 times, while paper is only at 4-6 times. Glass, steel and aluminium, however lose no quality during recycling and can be recycled endlessly. So the Zero Waste mentality of refusal first helps both to minimise what goes to recycling as well as to landfill.


Rot, sending anything else to the compost bin. Compost is entirely different than just putting your food scraps in the landfill bin, where it’s often seen as something easy to discard because organic waste just breaks down and makes no difference to landfill sites, right? Wrong. Food waste sent to landfill can produce methane, which is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2, as well as a liquid called leachate (which is basically bin juice) that can contaminate water supplies. These are produced in landfill as the waste undergoes anaerobic decomposition, which means that because the waste is buried, it does not receive oxygen and so methane is produced. On top of that, discarding food waste is a waste of valuable energy. Composting produces biofertiliser, which returns important nutrients to the soil. It is essentially recycling organic matter in a controlled environment rather than halting the natural energy cycle.

Living by these five simple guidelines is what the whole Zero Waste community aims to do, and they are helping make change one step at a time, by inspiring others to live more sustainably in an interesting and accessible way. It’s also important to remember that Zero Waste is not an ultimatum. If you can’t do everything, do what you can. There is no sense in not doing anything because you can’t do everything. Do something – anything.