How to Go Zero-Waste in Our Modern World

how to go zero waste with reusable jars


I still remember the first time I saw a YouTube video featuring a young girl who had successfully managed to stuff all of her waste for an entire year into a small mason jar. The jar was colorful — full of tiny items like plastic twist ties and broken rubber brands. 


My first reaction was to be incredibly impressed, but if you’re anything like me those thoughts were quickly replaced with a single question: How?


We live in a world where it's commonplace for a single family to fill a kitchen bag with trash at least once a week. So how did this girl manage to reduce all her waste down to a miniscule fraction of the average American? 


If, like me, you've wondered how to go zero-waste in this modern world, today we're going to break it down. 


But before we get too deep into the “how”, it's helpful to have a complete understanding of what zero-waste means and how the movement came about. 

What Is the Zero-Waste Lifestyle?

In the world of sustainability, zero-waste is the gold standard. 


The term zero-waste means exactly what it sounds like — that nothing is wasted. And it's actually the natural state of the planet. When we look at nature, there is a cyclical nature to things:


Plants grow, animals eat those plants, and nutrients continuously cycle their way up the food chain. When those animals have run the course of their life, they decompose back into the ground and transfer those nutrients to help the plant life grow. Nothing is wasted. The circle of life in itself is a zero-waste system. 


Waste is a distinctly human problem. To create things that last beyond their useful lifespan and have no further purpose is a very modern concept. Even our ancestors did not create waste like we do today. Back when sourcing and production were limited, those resources were cherished. They were reused as much as possible and then repurposed after that. 


With the industrial revolution, humans became capable of mass, easy production. Without recognizing that our resources were limited, we began to make more than we needed. And anything extra — anything leftover — became waste. 


Waste is something without purpose. Something buried, or burned, that is no longer part of the cycle of life. 


The key to going zero-waste is to understand how that cycle works, and learn how to “close the loop” (which is another way of saying zero-waste). 

The Five Principles of How to Go Zero-Waste

How to go zero-waste: reduce, reuse, repair, recycle, rot


If we’re going to be real for a second, our modern world is not set up to make zero-waste easy. It takes a lot of knowledge and a lot of commitment. But once you create the habits and have your systems in place — it is achievable.


If you have heard of the three R's: reduce, reuse, and recycle, then you're well on your way to achieving zero waste. 


In order to close the loop and go zero-waste, it's important to understand what a waste hierarchy is. We go more in depth in this blog, but essentially a waste hierarchy means you have an order of operations for how you treat items that come in and out of your life. The primary principle here is to start by reducing. (Psst: we’ve done a deep dive on each of these subjects in our previous blogs — click on the hyperlinks to read more about each principle):

1. Reduce

If you’re wondering how to go zero-waste, the very first thing you need to do is start reducing. Reduce the things you buy, reduce your food waste by buying only the groceries you need, and refuse single-use plastics. Reduce the number of clothes you purchase and the number of trinkets you collect. By simply creating less demand for things, we take a giant step toward creating less waste. 

 2. Reuse 

The next step to going zero-waste is to reuse as much as possible. For many of us, our first instinct is to recycle because it feels like it will be reused. But in actuality, most recycling is actually “downcycling” — meaning the materials are degraded or contaminated and can’t be used for the same purpose anymore. 
Also, recycling requires energy and creates emissions, so it’s not a perfect solution. Reusing is a much more effective way to close the waste loop. 

 3. Repair and (Upcycle)

Repairing an item is the next best thing after reusing it, because in essence you are elongating the amount of time it can be reused. 
Upcycling is another effective way to prolong the life of an item, as it gives it a new purpose. However, both of these methods typically require the input of new materials to make the repaired items useful again, so it falls below reuse on the hierarchy of waste. 

 4. Recycle

As mentioned above, recycling falls further down on the waste hierarchy because it is not a perfect system. If you want to live a zero-waste lifestyle, it will still be an essential part of your journey, but it shouldn’t be your first resort. 
Recycling also includes a lot more intricacy than many people believe. Check out the blog to learn more about less common recyclables such as textiles and electronics. 

 5. Rot (aka Compost)

To stick with the theme of “R’s” you can remember it as “rot”, but we’re talking about compost here. It’s important to remember that sending something to the landfill is not the same as composting. Landfills produce exponentially more methane, which is one of the most potent greenhouse gasses and contributes heavily to global warming. 
Remember, the most important part of the waste hierarchy is reducing waste in the first place. But compost still helps close the loop because the finished compost can be used as a rich soil or fertilizer that keeps those nutrients useful to the ecosystem. 

A Few Actionable Tips for How to Go Zero-Waste

A tip to go zero-waste: pay attention to packaging, which makes up 40% of plastic waste


Understanding the theories and frameworks is essential in order to achieve zero-waste. But I wanted to leave you with some actionable advice to apply immediately. 


Here are a few easy steps you can take to begin your journey toward zero-waste: 


  • Bring your own containers and buy in bulk — bring your own bags and containers to the store and use them to fill up on pantry staples and produce. 
  • Borrow/rent rather than buy — if you don’t plan to use an item more than once or twice a month, consider if renting it wouldn’t be better, both environmentally and financially. 
  • Pay attention to packaging — this is a big one, since packaging accounts for 40% of all plastic waste on the planet. (Psst: Cloud Paper has 100% plastic-free packaging to help you live a zero-waste lifestyle). 

While the zero-waste lifestyle may feel very out of reach for you, just remember that we all start somewhere. Pick an area you know you can improve and work on it. And remember the waste hierarchy. You can do a lot to close the loop and begin a zero-waste lifestyle by simply reducing what you buy. 


Enjoy this blog? Take a moment to share it with one of the social buttons below!