Waste Reduction is Key to Zero Waste

Concept art. Earth planet dirty and polluted. Environmental protection and waste reduction.

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In a time of increasing health hazards related to waste, we need to significantly reduce the amount we produce. And we can only do that through systemic change that benefits all communities. Zero Waste policies, like clean composting systems, Bottle Bills, and Packaging Reduction and Recycling laws, are proven to reduce waste by millions of tons every year. Every person deserves a dignified, healthy community to live in. And advancing systemic Zero Waste solutions moves us closer to that reality.

What it Means to Reduce Waste

I remember when I first heard about influencers who reduced their waste down to nothing more than a mason jar. I felt inspired yet guilty. Inspired because of the possibility to live a low waste life. Guilty because all the waste I generate on average will never be less than a mason jar’s worth of trash. A trip to the grocery store often results in overly packaged foods (most in single-use plastics that will never be recycled). Packages delivered to my home tend to be excessively wrapped and padded in plastic, foam, cardboard, or a mix of single-use materials. I placed all the blame on myself – no thanks to corporations and their toxic message that the waste crisis is somehow our fault.

So, even though I found the mason jar trend inspiring, it never sat right with me. Largely because it echoes the false narrative pushed by corporate polluters – that consumers created the waste crisis and it’s on consumers to fix it. This individualistic approach does not, and will never, address the waste crisis at its root, which is overproduction. But the industries that profit from single-use products and packaging will never stop overproducing goods and products on their own. Why? Because the more we reduce waste up front, the less money these industries make.

But we can’t address the waste crisis and all its effects, like climate change and environmental injustice, unless we start reducing the amount of waste we create in the first place. That means focusing on big-picture, systemic solutions rather than individual actions (including the mason jar trend).

How We Reduce Waste

To truly reduce waste on a large scale, we need accessible systems in place that every person can participate in and benefit from. That means anyone can go into any store in the U.S. and purchase goods in zero, minimal, 100% recyclable, or reusable packaging. It also means that, no matter where you live, you have access to effective Zero Waste programs.

Zero Waste policies and systems are proven to greatly reduce waste, as well as our dependence on polluting landfills and incinerators. Take curbside composting collection programs. Just as many cities and towns provide communities with curbside trash programs, the same can be done for organic materials (like food and yard waste). Organics make up about one third of the waste we bury in landfills and burn in incinerators. Removing these materials from our trash bins will significantly reduce what we send to these toxic facilities. By implementing clean composting programs across the country, we can transform organic waste into good, quality compost that, when spread on farmland or plants, enriches the soil and helps crops grow.

Then there are policies like  Bottle Bills and Packaging Reduction and Recycling Laws. These systems hold companies accountable for the waste they create. They also incentivize companies to create quality packaging and containers that are recyclable, refillable, and reusable. Packaging made from glass and metal, not single-use plastic.

Imagine if every time you purchased a beverage container, it was guaranteed to be recycled right back into a new beverage container. In states like Michigan and Maine, which have strong Bottle Bill programs, more than 80% of beverage containers are truly recycled like this. It means millions of cans and bottles are kept out of polluting landfills and incinerators every year. It also means saving millions of resources – because new containers are not being made from virgin materials. If every state had a Bottle Bill program that recovered 80% or more of the beverage containers sold, our country could reduce millions of tons of waste every year.

Why We Need to Reduce Waste

There is no separating the waste crisis from the worsening impacts of our climate crisis. Especially when it comes to plastic. Extracting fossil fuels for plastic production, producing plastic packaging and products, burying those products in landfills and burning them in incinerators, all damage our climate.

Our waste crisis is also a public health disaster. Studies continue to show the dangers of plastics on our health. In fact, many have found a direct correlation between plastics and cancer, endocrine disruption, neurological effects, and other health issues. Because plastics are nearly impossible to recycle, they often end up in landfills and incinerators – exacerbating the public health crisis even more. Burying plastic leads to toxic chemicals seeping out of packaging and products into the soil and waterways. Burning plastic emits harmful pollutants into the air for nearby communities to breathe in. These waste facilities are disproportionately located in Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color (BIPOC) and low-income communities, further burdening already historically oppressed communities.

The location of these facilities is just one of the many injustices that our waste crisis has on communities of color and low-income communities in the United States, as well as throughout the Global South (regions of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania). These environmental justice communities are also hit first and worst by climate catastrophes and public health epidemics. Reducing our waste on a large scale is crucial to confronting worldwide waste, climate, and public health crises. And to advancing environmental justice around the world.

As we advance Zero Waste solutions and reduce waste on a large scale, we will see the positive impacts of this work. Not only in the U.S., but also around the world. The demand for natural resources will decrease, climate-damaging emissions will drop, and our air, soil, and water will be healthier.

The Time to Prioritize Waste Reduction is Now

Creating a Zero Waste future benefits people and our planet. The time to advance just and equitable Zero Waste solutions is now. More than ever, policy makers, community leaders, and others are advocating for large scale solutions to our waste crisis. Solutions that will not only reduce waste, but also improve public health and confront the climate crisis. And that’s exactly what we are working toward at Just Zero. If we reduce waste today, we can reclaim tomorrow.

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