Zero Waste of Time: when recycling is not enough

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Zero waste is more than Mason jars.

By JULIETTE FRADIN — A few months ago, I, along with my husband and two young kids, embarked on a journey towards zero waste. It all started when I discovered that less than 10 percent of our plastic waste is actually recycled. The rest goes to landfills or is incinerated. I was totally shocked to discover that the efforts I put into buying consciously, sorting and recycling was all for so little. But I decided to dig deeper into the subject and had an epiphany moment when I discovered a zero waste lifestyle.

Zero waste is a movement to reduce the resources you consume and the trash you produce. It is about reducing what you need, reusing as much as you can, sending little to be recycled and composting your food waste. We currently live in a linear economy where products need to be bought again and again because of planned obsolescence, or trashed daily because of single-use design. It is a “take, make, dispose” approach. In contrast, zero waste promotes a circular economy that encourages you to minimize waste and make the most of resources.

The U.S. generates more waste than any other nation in the world, about 30 percent of the planet’s total waste is produced by 4 percent of the world’s population. Half of U.S. garbage consists of nondurable goods (deodorant, shampoo, light bulbs and other consumables), containers and packaging. We live in a disposable society where we don’t always value our belongings as much as we should, and we consume too many resources. In 2010, U.S. landfills had the highest quantity of methane emissions in the world, significantly impacting climate change. Zero waste helps consumers move away from single-use products in favor of long-lasting, reusable ones. Adopting zero waste practices can help us slow down, improve our health, focus on experiences rather than stuff, and even save money.  

My goal with this column is to spread the word about zero waste living and inspire you to take action. Through conscientious consuming, you can definitely improve your life while helping the planet. Here are some common misconceptions about the zero waste movement:

ZERO waste is just unattainable!

OK, this one is actually true. Nobody will ever be totally zero waste. Even if you produce the very Instagrammable one Mason jar of trash per year, this doesn’t take into account the manufacturing or agricultural waste that occurs before you even put an item in your cart (or cloth bag). Your goal should be to reduce the amount of trash you create, recognizing that every little effort counts. It is not about being perfect — it’s about making one change at a time, at your own pace, in a way that fits your household’s needs.

Nothing I do makes a difference anyway …

You might think that using a cloth napkin won’t make a dent in climate change, but do not underestimate your actions as an individual. We all have choices, and every person makes a difference. Every time you buy something, you encourage or support a practice or a company, for better or worse. You can choose “for better” by shopping sustainably and locally. The way you live can encourage and inspire others, creating a powerful ripple effect and strengthening your community.

Recycling is good enough.

Recycling is NOT the solution, but rather part of the problem. It is hard to recycle properly, it consumes a lot of energy, and a lot of what ends up in recycling plants can’t be processed because it’s contaminated. Contamination occurs when recyclables contain residual food waste, oil or grease, or when items that can’t be recycled (like plastic bags or frozen food boxes) enter the system. (China, which used to process recycling for the U.S., no longer accepts our stuff because of this problem.) There are easy ways you can reduce your waste and plastic consumption so that you don’t even have to worry about recycling: compost, bring your own water bottle, use your own produce bags, clean with vinegar, and so on. The solution to the waste and plastic problem is not to recycle more but to consume less.

Kids and a zero waste lifestyle are not compatible.

It is true that kids often mean lots of clutter and unwanted stuff, but you can still lead by example. Educate yourself and your family, and take easy, small first steps like switching to bamboo toothbrushes. Let your kids help at the bulk food aisle, tag along at the farmers market and bake snacks with you, and teach them to say no to freebies. Kids are often genuinely happy and feel empowered when they have the knowledge and tools to help protect the planet. Also, Hyattsville has an active parents’ community on- and offline; you can request to join the Hyattsville Nurturing Parents email group at

. And the upcoming HY-Swap on April 6 will be a great place to score secondhand clothes and toys for kids.

So welcome to “Zero Waste of Time.” I hope it can provide inspiration and empower you to start your own zero waste journey. Let’s get better together.



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