Am I doing zero waste right ?

This is a question that has been on my mind a lot. More so since I started blogging about it. I don’t know enough about sustainability and the optimized solutions. These simplistic low impact solutions to complex problems that I tout on the blog makes me uneasy. I haven’t asked “What is zero waste” until recently. Fitting a solution without properly defining a problem is just bad science. So what is zero waste ? Is it about sending nothing to our landfills ? ( One can dump waste into the oceans and the atmosphere too ! ) Is it about avoiding plastic ? Is it about switching to bamboo and glass appliances ? Should I adopt the essentialist version of minimalism ? I looked up.

A little history 

“The term zero waste was first used publicly in the name of a company, Zero Waste Systems Inc. (ZWS), which was founded by PhD chemist Paul Palmer in the mid-1970s in Oakland, California. The mission of ZWS was to find new homes for most of the chemicals being excessed by the nascent electronics industry. They soon expanded their services in many other directions.”

The Circular Economy 

“The Circular Mindset is a way to rethink our daily consumer and lifestyle habits to help us reduce our trash and plastic footprint. It’s also a mindset that encourages us to add value back into the things we use, the communities we live in, the food we eat, those who create the materials we consume and the resources used to make them. A circular economy seeks to rebuild capital, whether this is financial, manufactured, human, social or natural. This ensures enhanced flows of goods and services.

Transitioning to a circular economy does not only amount to adjustments aimed at reducing the negative impacts of the linear economy. Rather, it represents a systemic shift that builds long-term resilience, generates business and economic opportunities, and provides environmental and societal benefits.

The model distinguishes between technical and biological cycles. Consumption happens only in biological cycles, where food and biologically-based materials (such as cotton or wood) are designed to feed back into the system through processes like composting and anaerobic digestion. These cycles regenerate living systems, such as soil, which provide renewable resources for the economy. Technical cycles recover and restore products, components, and materials through strategies like reuse, repair, remanufacture or (in the last resort) recycling.”

Is it a consumer movement ?

There is only so much I as a consumer can do other than becoming vigilant about what I bring home. From what I understand, it’s a symbiosis between the manufacturers and consumers. Designing good products and making them accessible is important. Us making a good choice is equally important.

Problem Solving :

The right solution. We fixate on this a lot. Most of the criticism this blog gets is about how my solution is low impact and I should be doing something else.

I don’t know if there is the ONE miraculous solution to tackle this problem considering the complexity of our global economy.

Simplistic solutions like “buy second hand and it’s all good”, “buy less and it will all get fixed” or “buy sustainably made and continue consuming” are almost simpleton solutions. We need long term solutions which try to minimize the short term losses. During the World War 2, “loose the battle but win the war” was adopted after the Allies cracked the German code. They used mathematics to come up with the stratergy. We need AI and data driven solutions now more than ever. We need responsible citizens who will do their part.

And Me : 

Do I sit out this battle and wait for a good solution to miraculously drop ? I don’t think so. Zero waste is not as intimidating as I thought it would be, once I stopped caring about my ego and flaunting my empty trash can. You make a few switches and you can bring down the volume of waste. You stay vigilant, refuse things you don’t need, buy well designed products and manage the budget … it keeps going. The rest, I don’t sweat it. It’s a game of optimization given the time, money, resources and resolve. As a consumer, I made a list of 100 little steps that I think help. I do about half of them and am proud to be a part of this movement. I don’t need everyone around me to do what I do, but it makes me very happy when you do.

Our trash tells a story. A story about what we collectively value. We need to put meaning and value back into resources, materials, people, community and planet.

– Andrea Sanders.

1.Fly less.

Trash is not only the solid waste we send to the landfill. It’s what we release into the air and water. If I take one flight form San Francisco to New York, I would have polluted the air in the 6 hours a quantity that is equivalent to an average Indian citizen’s entire year of emissions. Climate change is no joke.

Flying economy is more eco friendly than business class / first class.

2. Do not go on a cruise.

It’s one of the most polluting ways to get from point A to point B. Choose a more low impact method to travel.

3. Family Planning

I apologize for this and I couldn’t find a way to skirt around this. I don’t mean to associate children with waste but family planning definitely helps in this fight. Have one less child, it has been suggested. Oregon study puts the emissions at ~9,441 tons per child. Even if I recycle properly and do a few eco friendly measures, I would reduce ~17 tons over a lifetime. Everything else we do in terms of lifestyle choices is negligible in comparison. But it has also been found that the birth rate has decreased in developed nations while it has increased in developing nations. Overall average lifespan of humans has increased. There may be a time where retired aging population will outpace the working population. I, obviously don’t know the solution. But I want my tax money to fund research in this direction.

Women having access to birth control and family planning is cited as the 7th most effective way to combat climate change by Drawdown.

Have one less, applies to pets too. Consider adopting a rescue animal instead of shopping for a bred animal. #adoptDontShop

4. Live in a smaller home

Do you know that making concrete is one big carbon emission intense process ?

Less wood used, less land needed == less deforestation.

Less sand, clay, cement used == less destruction of our soil structure.

Less material == less resources mined for earth.

Less sft == less in heating/cooling costs.

Less cleaning to do == less products to be used.

5. Use public transport when you can.

Own one less/no car per household. Buy a smaller car.

6. Bike to work for one day of the week.

If its not a realistic prospect, do not buy a bike and hoard it.

7. Find ways to entertain yourself that doesn’t need new stuff.

It could be listening to music, watching a movie, going for a walk, playing with a dog, cleaning, reading, walking around the city taking photos, cooking, playing a board game, solving puzzles, ….

8. With books, borrow from the library instead of buying.

Buy ebooks and read on your existing devices. Keep digital records.

9. Find joy in nature.

These are the folk who are likely to support efforts to conserve it. All consumer goods comes from the nature at it’s expense. Maybe one day, we will love it for more then it’s looks and beauty. We will love it enough to downsize our lives to conserve it. Maybe it will inspire us to live in a more sacred relationship with the natural world.

10. Go meat-less for few days of the week.

( Slowly get it down to eating meat only on special ocassions and weekends. )

If meat must be had, eat chicken instead of red meats like lamb, beef and pork.

11. Eat (much) less dairy if you are a grown adult.

( Am not qualified to give dietary advice. Please use some skepticism. )

12. Learn cooking techniques instead of learning recipes.

If we know what to do with locally grown ingredients, it solves a lot of fundamental problems behind food waste. Imagine buying what ever is in season and being able to whip up good food !

13. Be vigilant about food waste in the house.

Buy less and use it up. Eat the right amount. In some cultures, they advocate eating till you are 7/8th full. If possible, do the European style grocery shopping – multiple visits to the store and getting only what’s needed for the next day or two. Have a pantry with dry foods like beans and lentils to carry you over to the next grocery visit.

14. Instead of buying paper towels in the kitchen, use cloth rags.

In America, you can find 2$ tshirts in thrift stores. They can be cut into 4 rags on an average. They last months even if they are the only rags you own ( provided you live in a small home. Mansions need more back and core strength to be mopped. )

Use recycled toilet paper or a bidet.

15. Carry a handkerchief in your bag.

16. Use a cloth tote bag instead of leather bags.

17. Use less leather.

18. Pick up one piece of litter everyday from your surroundings.

19. Use baking soda and vinegar for cleaning the home.

Use rags and bar soap to get the stains out.

( Natural products work only if you clean often. Else, it’s a long day of scrubbing that will make you wish for harsher cleaners. )

20. Find a community to share resources with.

( I borrow tools from Fernando for repairs. I have a boss who gives me lemons from his backyard. I borrow Indian clothes from my sister/mother to wear to weddings. )

21. If you go on a hike, pick up the trash you see on trail.

22. Buy the best quality you can afford. Buy once, use it till it dies.

( Not to be confused with buy the best quality ever. )

23. Use products till the end of their life cycle.

Don’t throw out stuff because some minimalist on the internet did and is flaunting the aesthetic. Use up the things you own. Do not throw out stuff that you would repurchase after 3 years.

24. Learn a few repair techniques for your most beloved products.

Or go to the local repair shop.

25. Stretch the boundaries of what is considered ‘worn out’

“30 more wears, dear”

26. Re-write the mindset that calls something old.

Treat the older goods as more valuable, like one would respect their grandparents.

27. Tell yourself that you do not have the luxury of getting bored with the things owned.

Buy and cull is terrible for the environment even if you are buying well made products.

28. Refuse that plastic straw.

If it does make it to the table, politely take it back to the kitchen and return it to be put back. ( They trash unused straws when they clean the table. )

29. Refuse plastic water bottles.

Carry a small reusable bottle.

30. Be ashamed of shabby ideas, not shabby things.

( These are Einstien’s words, not mine. They helped me rewire my thinking. I won’t get rid of my old car. I am not ashamed of living in a tiny home. I love sleeping on the floor. I refuse to be ashamed of the stuff I own. I can say these words for the most part, but the society makes it very hard. )

31. Tweet/share good ideas on social media.

Even if you don’t have a following or if you don’t see a difference your tweet can make, it helps. The ranking of an article goes up with every share, like and comment. It becomes more searchable and and visible.

Share, tweet, comment and like. It’s free !

32. Read and converse.

If you are not in a monetary position to make sustainable choices, educate yourself on the issues. Support the ones who are fighting for the cause. The early adopters pave the way for the rest of the society. Some of these choices trickle down once the markets catch up.

33. Surround yourself with the right influence.

Do not read the blogs that is an endless parade of stuff that gets acquired / disposed / hoarded. My life has gotten easier since I detoxed blogs and magazines.

34. Become comfortable with empty spaces.

Imagine not having the itch to fill it up with stuff ….

35. Hit the flea market for your furniture.

36. Hit the thrift stores for household items.

37. When ever possible, try to avoid plastic packaging.

38. Try growing one vegetable/herb by your window/patio/backyard.

39. Try using multipurpose products at home – like coconut oil / mild bar soap / baking soda, vinegar, ….

40. Over-dye your clothes to give them a refresh.

I buy navy blue/black clothes because they don’t show stains. When the fabric becomes patchy, I dye them again in the same color.

41. Line dry your clothes instead of using the dryer.

42. Recycle properly.

Batteries, medicines, electronics should not be sent to the landfill. Look up information on how your city recycles.

The thin plastic wrapping needs to go to a special facility to be recycled. Look up a place to drop them off. ( In America, grocery stores have a box for them. )

Write to your civic leaders asking them for better recycling facilities.

43. Take shorter showers.

44. Elect officials who give a shit.

45. Rethink electronic upgrades.

( if you work in the tech innovative field, consider renting instead of owning+discarding. )

46.Switch to email-notifications instead of snail mail from institutions you do business with.

47. Consider adopting a uniform. Call your self a minimalist and proudly announce it to people.

It liberates you from a race where we keep up with the Jhonses. They are less likely to judge you harshly or dump stuff on you if they know your philosophy.

“Your apartment is tiny”

I live a simple life.

“You should buy a new outfit for the wedding”

I am a minimalist.

“You eat lentils every day?”

I like simple food.

“Why aren’t you shopping?”

I am a minimalist.

” You still drive that old car? ”

I am zero waste. My car works !


48. Consider adopting a plant-based diet made up of local ingredients.

Make week day meals as simple as possible.

49. Adopt voluntary simplicity.

What are some common mistakes people make when trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle or build a more sustainable home?

One common mistake that people make is throwing money at a problem in order to be more “sustainable.”  Yes, you may be able to buy a giant photovoltaic system to meet all of your power needs without cutting back on anything.  But remember, those solar components don’t come out of thin air, and they don’t last forever.  Bigger system = bigger waste.  Scale it back first, and then look to technology for solving your remaining problems.”

– Jessie Kamm.

50. Do not declutter for an aesthetic.

Buying less is more important than decluttering. Using up what we own is more impactful than Marie-Kondo-ing. Throwing stuff away for a minimalist aesthetic is wasteful. Buying piles of ethically made/second hand stuff is hardly sustainable. It’s treating a symptom while keeping the disease alive.

51. When buying packaged goods for the pantry, save up and buy the largest bag available instead of multiple small ones.

52. Switch to a menstrual cup.

53. Switch to a reusable water bottle.

54. Carry a tote bag that can house a water bottle, some cutlery, a hanky and a small box at all times.

55. Switch from plastic disposable razor to a safety razor.

56. Carry your re-usable coffee cup.

57. Look for bamboo toothbrushes instead of plastic ones.

58. When in the market for a hair brush, look for one made of bamboo.

59. Have a grocery store kit.

Have a few cloth bags in hand for loose produce. Have a bottle on hand for any bulk bin shopping you might do.

60. The thin plastic bags are notoriously hard to recycle. Some grocery stores take them back. Be vigilant about sorting the waste produced.

61. Buy conventionally-ugly fruit and vegetables.

62. Volunteer at a food back or soup kitchen.

63. Store the left overs properly or freeze the extras.

64. Meal prep to avoid wastage of food.

65. Use bar soap for cleaning and bathing.

66. Figure out a way to compost in your community.

If you have a backyard, you won the jackpot. If you live in an apartment, there are options.

67. Declutter responsibly.

Try selling the items instead of dumping them on a charity shop or into a landfill.

68. Build an attic responsibly. 

If you own doubles/ excess that can be used in the future, store it away. Bring it back as replacements.

69. Buy versatile easy to pair clothes.

70. Learn to dress up every day clothes for evening wear.

Buying a garment that can only be worn 5 times a year is a waste. Underutilizing a resource is also a waste.

71. Encourage folks around you to share.

Offer your possessions to be borrowed.

72. Say no to palm oil.

Look for ingredient lists before you purchase products.

73. Do not hoard unused items. Let someone else who have a need for it have them.

74. Avoid conventional dry cleaners. They use petro-chemicals. 

75. Buy clothing in natural fabrics that are durable.

76. If you have a toddler, toilet train and ween off diapers as soon as possible.

Use cloth diapers if your lifestyle and budget allows for it.

77. Shop local.

78. Do not throw out existing durable plastic wares for glass/bamboo just for an aesthetic.

79. Avoid skin care products with micro beads. Avoid clothing that contributes to mico-plastic pollution when washed. 

80. If you own pets, look for more sustainable protein / diet.

They need not eat salmon / lamb on an everyday basis.

81. Plant a tree.

82. Buy carbon offsets if you air travel.

83. When buying your clothes, consider the country in which they are made.

Does that country have strong laws preventing the dumping of toxic byproduct into the local water sources ?

84. Try out the baking soda toothpaste.

85. Use a compostable scrub at the kitchen sink.


86. Switch to a shampoo bar.

87. Reuse the plastic that comes into your home. Encourage up-cycling.

88. Do not smoke.

89. Weddings create a ton of waste.

Simplify the event and forego the unnecessary.

90. Stop buying blood diamonds and conflict metals.

91.Buy ethically made and fair trade. Buy from companies who use a circular economy. 

92. Consider environmental causes in your fund raisers and charitable contributions.

93. Stop supporting fast fashion companies.

94. Avoid coffee pods and tea bags.

95. Lay off the wild life.

Please don’t keep exotic pets for recreation. Please don’t buy tiger claws, ivory and exotic skins. Let the wild animals be. They keep our forests healthy.

96. Shop your groceries from the bulk bins.

97. Switch to an electric car.

98. Install solar panels on your property.

99. Buy vintage/antique wares.

100. Donate to environmental campaigns.

101. Sponsor a girl child’s education in an under-developed country.

102. Buy organic.

103. Switch to a more ethical bank.

104. Support corporate initiatives that encourage a cyclic economy.

105. Investigate supply chains of the organizations you work for, and make waste a parameter to optimize.

106. Slow Travel.

107. Lot of our ocean plastic comes from developing countries due to lack of good waste disposal system.

Raise awareness, raise understanding, raise money – if you can.

Zero Waste Vs Low Waste : Does the terminology matter ?

Everytime a layman hears the “zero” in zero-waste, it becomes a mission to prove me wrong. The conversation shifts into a personal attack and becomes an evaluation of individual failures. “What about the grocery store from which you bought your bulk produce ? Are they plastic free ? You zero wasters leave your trash elsewhere and pat your backs. ” We are an complex system with many layers. Each layer needs to be optimized for zero waste. I cant go design a supply chain for the grocery store to eliminate its plastic. The store cant force me to buy unpacked goods. But we can each do our jobs and work towards a better system.

Zero waste is not a personal egotistical mission. It doesn’t matter if I don’t send anything to the landfill if our fundamental economy is not circular. IT IS NOT. I won’t second guess if my actions make a difference because there is no other way to do it given the state of affairs. I won’t quit because I believe in community leadership having the power to make an impact. I think we have a long way to go. Zero waste a mind set and a collective goal, not a Pinterest board or a trash can paraded like a trophy. Instead of being intimidated by the word zero, I want us to never loose sight of the big goal.  Zero waste should be “our” goal. Once we understand the problem, we go about life with a different mindset.


The Real Big Picture

Astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev measured the energy needs of a civilization on the Kardashev scale and extrapolated this data to categorize the progress of civilizations :

Type I designation is given to species who have been able to harness all the energy that is available from a neighboring star, gathering and storing it to meet the energy demands of a growing population. This means that we would need to boost our current energy production over 100,000 times to reach this status. However, being able to harness all Earth’s energy would also mean that we could have control over all natural forces. Human beings could control volcanoes, the weather, and even earthquakes!

Type II civilization – can harness the power of their entire star (not merely transforming starlight into energy, but controlling the star). Several methods for this have been proposed. The most popular of which is the hypothetical ‘Dyson Sphere.’ This device, if you want to call it that, would encompass every single inch of the star, gathering most (if not all) of its energy output and transferring it to a planet for later use. Alternatively, if fusion power (the mechanism that powers stars) had been mastered by the race, a reactor on a truly immense scale could be used to satisfy their needs. Nearby gas giants can be utilized for their hydrogen, slowly drained of life by an orbiting reactor.

Type III, where a species then becomes galactic traversers with knowledge of everything having to do with energy, resulting in them becoming a master race.  In terms of humans, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution – both biological and mechanical – may result in the inhabitants of this type III civilization being incredibly different from the human race as we know it.

 Type IV civilizations would almost be able to harness the energy content of the entire universe and with that, they could traverse the accelerating expansion of space.

Type V might just be the next possible advancement to such a civilization. Here beings would be like gods, having the knowledge to manipulate the universe as they please.

And we are at ……..

Type 0. ( or 0.7 if you want a more encouraging number to use as a label. )

We still meet our energy needs from fossilized dead plants and animals while sending our trash to the landfills/the atmosphere/oceans. There may be planets out there in the universe with intelligent life that went extinct before they transitioned from type 0 to type 1. I hope we make it. ( In my personal opinion, the difference between humans perishing and thriving depends on if we can get from Stage 0 to Stage 1 in the next 50-100 years. Sustainability is important ! So are the technological advancements. )

Aren’t you inspired ? So much to invent ! So much to do !