A Comprehensive Understanding of the Zero Waste Movement


Brianna Crites, Senior Editor

When one hears the term Zero Waste Movement, it probably invokes some sort of imagery focused on environmental activism. According to the Vox article, “The Zero Waste Movement Is Coming for Your Trash,” the movement is succinctly described with the goal to, “create as little trash as possible.” In theory, most would probably view this as a step in the right direction in the fight against climate change, and in some ways, that is a completely true notion. The amount of waste that we as consumers produce is insurmountable, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt our planet if we all became more conscious of the waste we were producing, maybe even limiting ourselves to a modified zero-waste plan.

The problem here isn’t with the spoken goal of the movement: one that promotes a conscious and sustainable way of life. Rather, it lies in how the movement is projected, using tools of shame and guilt to disproportionately blame the consumer for the current and future state of our planet rather than recognizing according to an article in The Guardian, just 20 corporations are responsible for over one-third of all global carbon emissions. This consumer-blaming ideology reinforces the normalization of classism, blaming those who cannot afford the expense of going zero-waste for not being able to do so. All of this is not to say that there is no purpose to the zero waste movement. Its presence in mainstream media promotes a more conscious awareness of the environmental crisis that we are in, and the work of those who do try to limit or eliminate their waste does significantly reduce the amount of waste produced each year. But it is important to recognize the limits of the movement so that you can be more aware of the other steps that must be taken in order to save our planet.


Pros and Cons of the Zero Waste Movement


  • Curbing Waste Production

The most obvious pro to this movement is that it limits the amount of waste being produced. With the sole spoken purpose being to create zero waste, it is no surprise that that is a reality of this movement.

  • Keeps People Aware

The forced awareness of waste production that has been brought on by the Zero Waste Movement keeps the mainstream public aware of our environmental crisis. While not everyone believes in man-made climate change, it still helps to keep those who would otherwise be apathetic to the problem aware.

  • Allows for Individual Environmental Engagement

It is safe to assume that those who place more of an effort into going zero waste are also more likely to be involved in environmental issues. The Zero Waste Movement can be seen as a sort of individual activism that opens the doors into a broader and more collaborative activism.


  • Increased Production of Reusable Items

The production of some reusable items is only justifiable if they save x amount of product. For example, according to The Conversation, a reusable cotton bag should be used roughly 7,100 times before it can be considered “worth it.” The best way to avoid buying into this is to shop second hand when searching out reusable items like totes and water bottles.

  • Blames the Consumer

Placing too much emphasis on the idea of going zero waste distracts from the reality that reflects the way in which big companies produce most of the waste and toxins that lead to climate change. While it may bring comfort to think of being able to solve climate change as an individual, we must recognize the broader change that must occur.

  • Classism and Capitalism

The major social problems that occur within the movement are that they promote a classist attitude by promoting the shaming of those who cannot afford the cost of going zero waste as well as relying on a capitalistic model of society to solve climate change. When most of our climate problems can be traced back to the rise of capitalism, it is safe to say that a capitalistic approach to remedying our planet is not the best move.


A Brief History of the Movement

1970: Earth Day is solidified as a national holiday, marking the first point in American history when protecting our planet was made into a national task. In this same decade, efforts to increase recycling programs increased significantly.

1980’s: The first mention of the term “Zero Waste” is recorded, coming from Daniel Knapp’s concept of Total Recycling. 

1995: Knapp’s concept of zero waste spreads rapidly, leading to Australia’s adoption of a program called “No Waste by 2010.” Lynn Landes starts a website in the U.S. to promote the idea of going zero waste, and Bill Sheehan starts a program called GrassRoots Recycling Network.

Late 1990’s: Georgia Senator Donzella James institutes the first zero waste legislation in the United States, making the goal of Georgia going completely waste-free by 2020.
2001: Zero Waste International Alliance is formed.

2013: Bea Johnson publishes a book titled Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying, providing succinct steps for fostering a zero waste home.

Now: Laura Singer’s blog Trashers for Tossers has started the trend of attempting to fit all of your year’s waste into a single mason jar.


Limiting Your Waste

If you are interested in limiting or illuminating your waste production, you may be wondering where to start. In a society where excessive waste production is promoted, it is no surprise that the task of going zero waste can feel quite intimidating. Click HERE to download a list of tips for limiting your waste.