The EPA defines Zero Waste as more than just a problem of disposal but a need to reduce harm encompassing the entire life cycle of a product. In the past 50 years, humans have consumed more resources than in all previous history. This take-make-dispose system is not sustainable and needs to change on every level of the production process: the manufacturing, distribution, purchasing, and disposal.
As consumers, we are at the center of this materials economy. We can make an impact on every part of the system by buying consciously, speaking up for what matters, and disposing responsibly. But we can't fix it alone and we can't fix it over night. The most important thing to understand about the concept of Zero Waste is that it is a process. Zero Waste does not mean 100% no waste, it is building awareness and implementing actions one step at a time.
Zero Waste is not just minimizing the amount in your trashcan that you set out once a week, there are so many more aspects that we need to consider. For every 1 can you put at the curb, there are 87 cans worth of materials that went into the creation of all that stuff.
When we talk about waste we need to consider both the upstream and downstream impacts. Upstream is everything that went into that production of that product before it got to you, the consumer, including the extraction of natural resources, the manufacturing, the transportation, etc. Downstream is everything that happened to that product after you disposed of it.
Read more about Upstream and Downstream Impacts
The take-make-dispose model is a linear system and you cannot run a linear system in a finite planet indefinitely. We have one planet, but if everyone consumed resources like we do here in the U.S., we would need 5 planets' worth of resources to keep up. We need to halt extracting natural resources and move from a linear take-and-dispose culture to a cyclical or closed loop system.
Read more about the Circular Economy
The EPA's Waste Management Hierarchy works towards this idea of a circular econmy. It prioritizes reducation of waste as the primary option (Reduce) with the highest value, extending the use of products as the secondary option (Reuse), and the cycling of disposed materials into new products as the third option and least value option (recycling). Though reduce has the highest value to waste managment, all three are important in creating a circular, close loop economy.
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