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Could you live a zero-waste life?

Picture: Pete Linforth/Pixabay

Picture: Pete Linforth/Pixabay

Published Jun 15, 2021


Almost everything we do, from having a shower, switching on a light or cooking a meal involves creating waste.

Yet we need to minimise the waste we create if our planet – and we – are to survive.

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One initiative is the Zero Waste International Alliance, which aims towards a world without waste and has drawn up an extensive set of guidelines, policies and processes to achieve this.

The alliance defines the “zero-waste” movement as “the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health”.

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The concept of zero-waste goes way beyond merely recycling and reducing the use of products – recycling can be power-intensive, time-consuming and sometimes more expensive than using new ingredients.

Zero-waste encompasses the entire life cycle of a product from the design phase, the use of the product materials, the minimisation of environmental impacts and the conservation of natural resources.

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In essence, a zero-waste lifestyle aims to have as little impact on earth as possible. It is much more than reusing a plastic water bottle or recycling office paper – it means not buying the plastic water bottle or printing that email. And it means being more conscious of every single thing we do.

New and recycled plastic pellets are used to make everything from vehicle dashboards to children’s toys. And here’s the bad news: a May 2020 article published by Plastics Recycling Update said the Covid pandemic pushed down prices of virgin plastic and increased costs of recycled plastic.

This essentially makes it cheaper to buy new rather than recycled plastic.

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Currently, plastic recycling is not economically viable at the scales we are seeing in South Africa and most other countries. Without government subsidies, the plastics recycling industry will not be able to compete with virgin plastic prices.

A key aspect of living a zero-waste lifestyle means we should try not to use or accept single-use plastics in any form. Single-use plastics include takeaway cutlery, plastic shopping bags, disposable nappies and clingwrap.

A polystyrene is also a form of plastic – it’s a polymer of styrene – that we use daily for packaging and in food containers. It is rarely recycled and heads straight to landfill.

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Besides the fact that single-use plastics add unnecessary waste to landfills, a lot of it is finding its way into our waterways and oceans, killing marine life and suffocating ecosystems.

The entire process of manufacturing any single-use process is wasteful. Crude oil that has existed beneath the earth for millions of years is extracted, transported and processed into ethane and propane which are further treated with heat, turning them into ethylene and propylene which are combined to create different plastics. All that just to make a spoon or bottle we use just once and then toss out.

Almost all the essential items we need in our homes such as detergents, bath soaps and shampoos come packaged in some form of single-use plastic. It is possible to reduce this waste by buying similar products from zero-waste stores which offer refills or eco-friendly packaging options.

Fashion is another incredibly wasteful industry. The BBC Future estimates that 92 tons of textile waste are created globally every year, with the equivalent of a rubbish truck full of clothes ending up in landfill sites every second.

Excellent marketing, easy access to cheap clothing and the increasing reach of online and social media sales has created a culture of fast fashion. By contrast, a zero-waste lifestyle means we use clothing for as long as possible and then use the fabric to create something else.

Buying secondhand clothing has gained traction in recent years with vintage shops and market stalls becoming popular in many affluent parts of the world. If you need to buy new pieces of clothing, buy good quality, durable items that will last.

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