Zero Waste - The What, Who, How, When and Why

“Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.”- Zero Waste International Alliance

Now isn’t that just a mouthful?!

So what is Zero-Waste?

In simplest terms, on an individual level it means minimising waste that ends up in landfill.

The ‘0’ of zero lends itself to another helpful image - that of a circular economy. Zero-waste wants to redesign the economy into one where resources get reused indefinitely, just like nature intended, thereby conserving resources and eliminating the generation of waste. Circular, as opposed to our current linear economy where resources get used to produce goods that are ultimately designed for a finite life.

Is the zero in zero-waste attainable? Nope, of course not! Consider it an unattainable ideal, not the goal you have to reach.  As Anne-Marie Bonneau puts it:

“Although we may disagree on the language, I think we can all agree that we want the same thing—to generate as little waste as possible”.


"We don't need a handful of people doing zero-waste perfectly, we need millions of people doing it imperfectly" - Zero-Waste Chef

You!! That’s who!

You don’t have to be a self-sustaining hippie living off the grid, growing your own food, baking your own bread, making your own soap and mascara to make a step towards zero-waste. Simply be who you are, where you’re at, and make a simple change.

The great thing about zero being unattainable is that we are all imperfect zero-wasters on a journey to waste less - so please don’t feel overwhelmed or paralysed by eco-guilt, collectively we gain a lot more if each one of us does a tiny little bit.


Welcome to the hierarchy of the 5 R’s of sustainability.

1. Refuse - Say ‘No’!

Consumption is the backbone of our economy. Living in Joburg, I am constantly lured by clever marketing and social pressure towards my inherent desire to have more stuff. I’ve said if before and I will say it again: this is where zero-wasting starts.  We need to make a mind shift away from believing the ‘American Dream’ and stop buying shit that we don’t need!
From a waste reduction angle, to ‘refuse’ means to say no to single-use plastics e.g. bottles, shopping bags and straws.

2. Reduce - Declutter, minimalize

We simplify our spending habits by refusing what we don’t need and by reducing what we do need. Consider also trying to reduce the usage of valuable resources e.g. car usage, printing on paper and reduce personal waste by making zero-waste swops e.g. bamboo toothbrushes.

3. Reuse - “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”

Using what you currently have, and reusing it over and over again, helps alleviate resource depletion. Increase the useful lifetime of your goods by repairing or repurposing e.g. turn old clothing into cleaning rags.
Reusable items are a great alternative to disposables e.g. shopping bags, coffee cups and cloth nappies.

4. Recycle

This is often the first task people tackle on their journey to sending less waste to landfill. Paper, glass and most metals can be recycled indefinitely (and are a preferred packaging choice above plastic, which gets downcycled).

5. Rot - Compost

Roughly a third of our household waste is comprised of food scraps and garden waste - so what better way to combat that than to compost it and return it to the soil whence it came. Landfill is not the correct environment for the breakdown of organic material, leading to an anaerobic process that produces methane gas.


"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now" - Chinese proverb

How about now? It’s a new year, so how about incorporating some zero-waste practices into your new year’s resolutions? Eco-consciousness is (finally!) surging, with the added benefit that making simple waste-free choices has become much easier to do - think shopping ‘nude’, reusable coffee cups, recycling, plus a wealth of information available online to guide you along the journey.


With all the media attention on climate change, the answer would seem pretty obvious - we need to do it for the love of our environment. Truth is, we can’t continue using finite resources at the pace we currently are. Our landfills are almost at full capacity. Our waterways and oceans aren’t looking pretty - it’s estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. Sure, you’re not going to save the world one reusable straw at a time, but collectively we can build a community that embraces positive change.

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