Many people assume that separating their plastic, aluminum and another recyclables from the rest of their trash will make a massive impact on the planet.
The issue is that the increasing number of products consumed may diminish the positive effect of recycling.
“Recycling should really be viewed as a last resort rather than the first line of defense,” said Kathryn Kellogg, the consultant and public speaker behind the Going Zero Waste blog. “We need to be recycling less, not more."
The zero-waste community is going above and beyond recycling by addressing the source of the problem: humans are producing far too much waste.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans generate more than 250 million tons of trash while only recycling about 1.51 pounds of the approximately 4.5 pounds of waste each person creates daily.
Zero waste does not mean producing no waste at all; it simply means sending nothing to a landfill, said Kellogg.
While the philosophy of zero waste does include recycling, it embodies a whole-system approach to the vast amount of resources consumed and waste left behind.
According to the Grassroots Recycling Network, the movement’s goal is to maximize recycling while minimizing waste and reducing consumption.
“Zero waste is kind of about re-framing our perspective,” Kellogg told AccuWeather.
“Right now, we live in a linear economy, or a cradle to grave, where we use resources, we produce things, and then we throw them away; they’re useless,” she continued.
The ever-growing zero waste community aims to shift instead to a circular economy, in which nothing is wasted and everything is resumed back into the system, as it does in nature.
“In nature, there’s no trash," said Kellogg. “Trash is strictly a human invention.”
Kellogg’s zero-waste journey
Kathryn’s motivation to pursue a healthier, largely plastic-free lifestyle began with a health scare at 20 years old.
“I started feeling a lot of pain in my left breast and I wasn’t really sure why,” Kellogg said.
Doctors discovered several tumors, she said.
Although the tumors were benign, the eye-opening experience led Kellogg to question the products and chemicals to which she was exposing her health.
“I just assumed everything I was consuming was safe, she wrote on her blog. “There's very little regulation and testing for the products we buy.”
She also noted that cleaning companies are not required to release the ingredients used in their products.
Since her diagnosis, Kellogg began phasing plastic from her life and taking steps to minimize her footprint.
Kellogg doesn’t ask for plastic straws when buying drinks; avoids collecting receipts, which contain the cancer-linked BPA; and asks for coffee mugs or brings her own beverage container when getting her caffeine fix.
Her Going Zero Waste blog offers additional tips for anyone eager to shift toward a greener lifestyle.
From homemade dental care to household cleaning and restaurant food takeout, Kellogg details her personal steps to maintain her commitment to zero waste.
The most surprising part of her journey might be the 16-ounce mason jar in which she has stored much of her trash since 2015, with minor exceptions.
“The trash jar is a physical representation of trash from my home, the trash that I have brought into my house,” she blogged.
Kellogg said that while some people may be intimidated by the thought of reducing the bulk of their waste to a small jar, she added that getting involved in the zero-waste movement takes tiny changes.
Small steps towards a lasting impact
“I definitely think we’re starting to see a huge shift in consumerism and the way people are viewing things,” she said.
Kellogg emphasized the importance of taking part in collective action and bringing awareness to the zero-waste movement.
“I think having lots of people participating, even if it’s small stuff, adds up to huge change,” she said.
Kellogg’s biggest recommendation is to ditch plastic water bottles and opt instead for reusable containers.
Everyone I know, before they leave the house, are like ‘phone, wallet, keys,’” she said. “So, I just tell people to add it to that little mantra: 'phone, water, wallet, keys.’”
In addition to helping the environment, she said, it saves money.
“Any change you make is a step in the right direction,” Kellogg said. “I would just say truly commit to it and give it a go.”