Zero Waste Movement: A Complete Guide


What is the zero waste movement?

The zero-waste movement is all about reducing trash output. The goal is to shrink a person, business, or system's waste production as small as possible by implementing the 5 principles: refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, and recycle. Although it seems unrealistic in today's very disposable society, countless people all over the world show that it's possible to do so.

Zero-waste leaders are reworking the way they approach trash, encouraging the world that we all have the power to do our part to protect the environment. The movement recognizes it would be impossible to live a life with a complete net zero waste. Making better choices isn't about perfection, it's about being conscious of your actions.

The less waste we send to landfills, the less damage it does to the environment and natural habitats. From clothing to food and beverage packaging to hygiene products, reusable alternatives, these movement related changes are intended to ensure that the environment is protected, communities are benefited, and a circular economy is supported.

To learn more about what a circular economy is check out the blog post: What is Circular Economy and Why Should you Care About It

When did the zero waste movement start?

Zero waste as a concept has been practiced since the time of ancient, premodern civilisations, tribes and villages. In fact, they would likely question when and why we started with overproduction and overconsumption. Not even five decades ago, our grandparents were still returning glass milk bottles to the store, reusing bags, containers, and jars in the kitchen and at the grocery store. Many cultures around the world adopt a zero waste lifestyle out of necessity, having little resources and financial means to be as wasteful as we are here in North America.

No one knows for sure what one person started the zero waste movement and when, however, there have been a number of influential individuals and organizations who have helped push it into the mainstream. The term zero waste was first introduced by Daniel Knapp’s in the 1980s.

The zero waste concept has evolved from past generations’ ideas of sustainable living due to the levels of modern consumption and rapid population growth.

Who started the zero waste movement?

Thousands of organizations, political movements, laws, legislation, and of course, zero waste blogs have worked together for more than 50 years to make zero waste a reality.

The BEGINNING of the “zero waste” term

The term "zero waste" is frequently associated with Daniel Knapp's Total Recycling idea has direct connections to Knapp's salvaging operation UrbanOre located in Berkeley, California in the 1980s. In an effort to save landfill space, the policy suggested all waste be diverted and reused in some way by the community.

The concept was idealistic and ahead of its time, but by several years. Nonetheless, the concepts driving the movement, such as sustainability, recycling, composting, and waste management, started to catch on after this point.

“The goal of Zero Waste policy is zero landfilling, zero burning, and maximum materials recovery. The method is to develop reuse, recycling, and composting fully for all types of discards. Zero Waste policy supports Zero Waste facility design. A central premise is the principle of highest and best use.”

Urban Ore Resources

No waste policy GAINING traction

Daniel Knapp was able to spread his Total Recycling concept to Canberra, Australia, in 1995 after Urban Ore gained popularity in its home community and across the United States. Australian Capital Territory implemented a waste management strategy called No Waste by 2010, in 1996 which became the first program of its kind in the world. 

The vision for the program that can be found here highlights a total of 7 goals including the following five: 

  • To encourage producers of goods to take responsibility for the way their products are sold, in order to prevent waste from being generated during production, during use, and at the end of their existence.

  • To create an environment where innovative waste-reduction solutions can be developed.

  • For citizens to only buy the items they need. From building materials to groceries, efficient buying and production reduce waste.

  • To develop cost-effective solutions to recover resources so they can be reprocessed or reused

  • To set up industries to handle unwanted materials.

You can clearly see the similarities of this strategy to the current goals of a modern circular economy.

The Zero Waste International Alliance

In 2002, Richard Anthony served on the scientific board of EMPA's Resource conferences (called the R-series). It was during this conference that he mentioned he would like to see a workshop dedicated to Zero Waste. He offered to put together a team of experts if EMPA sponsored accommodation and waived registration fees.

The team consisted of:

  • Dr. Bill Sheehan, Director of the Grassroots Recycling Network (GRRN)

  • Dr. Jeff Morris, an expert on cradle-to-cradle and cost-benefit analysis

  • Dr. Dan Knapp, President of Urban Ore a for-profit Reuse Resale enterprise

  • Dr. Paul Connett, Chemistry Professor and noted international advocate for Zero Waste and sustainability

  • Bill Worrell, Manager of the San Luis Obispo Solid Waste Authority

  • Joan Edwards former head of New York City and Los Angeles City Recycling programs

  • Richard Anthony, Grassroots Recycling Network (GRRN) Board member and Zero Waste advocate

In response to their first conference success in the UK, the Zero Waste coalition of the UK was formed with the help of Professor Robin Murray, and the Zero Waste international alliance was formed shortly after. 

In the years that followed, the dialogue continued to encourage a positive approach to ending pollution. Over the last two decades, the alliance has led the way for the birth of zero waste research, initiatives, and policy across the world.

The Zero Waste Lifestyle

Over time, the zero waste concept found its way from the hands of experts, policymakers, and environmentalists to the newly emerging online blogging space around 2008. Bea Johnson has been widely credited with starting the zero-waste lifestyle movement from her blog Zero Waste Home, documenting the sustainable lifestyle of her family of four.


The New York Times featured her in 2010, and in 2013 she published Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simple Living by Reducing Your Waste, which introduced the '5Rs' (Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot). This strategy has had a remarkable impact on individuals, and her zero-waste plan has reached millions of people throughout the world.

Since Bea, the lifestyle has continued to expand into the mainstream media, blogging space, and influencer culture — promoting the all-encompassing view of reducing waste consumption in order to live more sustainably.

Why is the zero waste movement important?

The zero waste movement is important because it encourages everyone to rethink what they’re throwing away. Disposable goods are garbage, not only to the planet but to the soul of society. Landfill waste directly contributes to the emissions of various pollutants and climate change as it decomposes. People are finally starting to recognize the problem of bringing more and more trash into this world, and it is imperative to try and stop this cycle now before it is too late.

As human beings, we must stop abusing our planet and its resources, and many people are finding that the zero waste lifestyle is the solution they need to do just that. The zero waste movement conserves resources and minimises pollution. Using less, reusing more, and recycling more are all key ways to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. 

The movement’s approach protects the environment and reduces pollution during extraction, production, and disposal. People who reduce and reuse make fewer products, buy less, and make longer-lasting items. By choosing to apply one or more of the 5 zero waste principles, waste is prevented from entering landfills or incinerators. Once the need for new material starts to decline, manufacturers can produce new goods made out of existing material instead of raw material. This will have a huge impact on the future of our planet.

Starting to implement zero waste practices can have a tremendous impact on protecting the environment, helping the economy, and improving our health. All around, this is a win-win for everyone!

What is the benefit of zero waste?

As the current system stands, waste and unused goods are dumped in landfills or disposed of in incinerators after they are used. Alternatively, zero waste systems conserve natural resources and the materials already in circulation, while reducing environmental pollution. This approach, the focus is on selecting the best course of action for our health, wildlife, and workers' rights.

zero waste benefits our health

Reducing air and water pollution decreases respiratory disease and cancer risks for humans, while reducing acid rain and nutrient buildup in our waterways improve ecosystem health as well. For example , the Tellus Institute reports the following:

If the United States recycling rate rises to 75% by 2030, they will able to reduce:

  • Respiratory emissions by 45%

  • Carcinogenic emissions by 70%

  • Eutrophication emissions by 60%

  • Toxic emissions by 25%

  • Acidification emissions by 80%

  • Ecosystem toxic emissions by 90%

zero waste benefits for our environment

Throughout the years, it has become increasingly difficult to conserve natural resources. In the long run, humanity will suffer from the depletion of resources if we do not control how much natural resources we use. If we eliminate waste or adopt a zero-waste approach, we will conserve our natural resources. 

The result of this will be that manufacturers will use fewer raw materials, lowering output and production levels. People will start implementing zero-waste practices to adapt to the fact that there will be fewer products manufactured. It would reduce the pollution resulting from resource extraction, manufacturing, and discarding and preserve the planet’s health for future generations.

zero waste benefits the economy and workers’ rights

It is estimated that Zero Waste creates an average of ten times more jobs than those of landfills and incinerators. This is spread across technology and design, new infrastructure, the retrofitting and refurbishment of existing materials, and a greater volume of recycling.

As well as creating jobs, Zero Waste keeps materials out of landfills, saving the community money. A ton of trash buried in a landfill contains items such as paper, plastic, and metal that could be recycled. There are funds from those materials that could be supporting local businesses and the community.

What are the 5 principles of the zero waste movement?

For achieving Zero Waste at home, author Bea Johnson presents a modified version of the 3Rs, the 5Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot in her book Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying your Life by Reducing your Waste that have been widely accepted as the core principles of the zero waste movement. 

Principle 1: Refuse

In this step, you eliminate waste, where possible. Especially with single-use items like bags, straws, cutlery, cups, as well as junk mail, freebies, and other items that end up in the garbage.

Saying "no" to waste can be just as intimidating as saying "no" to people or situations that do not serve us. The ability to say "no" is a learned skill that can have a profound effect on the way we live, increase our ability to define personal boundaries, and move past learned processes to redefine a life with less waste.

Principle 2: Reduce

To reduce waste, you usually have to let go of items that are no longer needed, donate them, or sell them. This reduces clutter and opens up space. When you cut back, you're more likely to shop with a purpose and focus on buying essentials instead of random splurges. 

We end up dumping these items in the trash, or keeping them in our closets to clutter up our homes and lives. By exploring our consumer habits, we can determine whether they are truly serving our best interests, or maintaining the health and sustainability of the Earth as a whole and change them for the better.

Principle 3: Reuse

There are many daily items that are designed to be used once and thrown away. Whenever we notice something that is dirty, worn, or damaged, there is enough at our disposal that we think we can just throw it out and replace it immediately. 

When you reuse a product even once, you reduce the amount of waste produced by the manufacturing, shipping, and packaging of a new item.By reusing, we can extend the usefulness of an item before we recycle, compost, or dump it.

Principle 4: Recycle

The recycle principle encourages us to understand the correct place of recycling in the waste hierarchy. As a society, we are programmed to believe that recycling is the best means of reducing our waste; whereas it is closer to the bottom of the principles in terms of sustainable options. This principle speaks to the importance of learning how to recycle things properly, but also consider the need for new processes.

In its current state, recycling infrastructure is quite limited and often results in the downcycling of recyclable materials into garbage that will ultimately end up in the waste stream. Recycling infrastructure cannot keep up with the enormous quantities of single-use products humans consume and discard with record speed. It is almost as if it is becoming the new landfill.

Principle 5: Rot

The final principle rot, speaks to the implementation of more composting processes. Your food scraps, as well as other organic materials can be composted in order to create fertilizer for your plants or garden. Essentially, this restores the earth's natural cycle from used materials. 

Composting is essential for reducing greenhouse gases released by landfills as a result of mass food waste decomposing. Methane is heavily emitted in a landfill setting and is 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat.

How does the zero waste movement relate to Total Recycling?

Total Recycling is where the term ‘zero waste’ was initially spoken into existence. In the 1980s, Daniel Knapp founded a salvaging business and market in Berkeley, California. Through this practical experiment, he demonstrated how waste of all types are diverted from landfills and reused within the community. The company Urbancore is still successful today, diverting more than 8,000 tons of waste from landfills annually.

Since this original ‘end of waste’ business model, there has been an increase in innovative zero waste practices across the globe.

“Throughout its long history, Urban Ore has worked on building the reuse and recycling industries. It has been active in the politics of recycling, participating in regional and national organizations as well as countless activist and advocacy actions. It has helped write several influential pieces of legislation that became law by votes of either citizens or elected officials.”

Urbancore About Us

What is the zero waste lifestyle?

​​Zero waste is a lifestyle designed to promote eco-friendly habits which try to minimize waste production on a daily basis. The primary goal of this lifestyle is to send as little waste to landfills as possible. Zero waste principles encourages a more conscious way of living in order to help the environment.

The lifestyle recommends recycling and reusing products instead of buying single-use items that clog up landfills and contribute to climate change and global warming. Zero waste also recommends thrift shopping, buying second hand or recovering unwanted items to create new, recycled products.

Adopting a zero-waste lifestyle can seem hard at first because you have to unlearn wasteful habits and learn how to think and act sustainably. Those on their journey to purse a zero waste lifestyle often find it helpful to connect with others in the community. That way they can provide support and share new tips on how to navigate waste generating situations. Make little changes, such like composting, recycling properly, and repurposing household items instead are all easy ways someone can get started with the lifestyle.

The Zero Waste Creative blog was created to help build community in this way and inform readers of the simple things they can do to be a better advocate for the environment. The blog contains over 75 helpful posts on sustainable education, zero waste tips, and lived experiences by writer Claudia. Get started on learning more below.

Why is the zero waste movement not possible?

With the growing success of the zero waste movement, there came a lot of backlash, specifically surrounding the use of the word ‘zero’. Bio-centric advocates argue that the term ‘zero waste’ suggests that the goal is to reach a value of ‘0‘ value, which is not true. They are often very quick to point out that waste is an unavoidable by-product, which can’t be removed or eliminated.

Truth be told, "zero waste" does not imply participants are expected to reach zero at all. Getting rid of waste completely would be impossible in today's society. One would have to live without electricity, technology, a car, or any other daily convenience; you would have to cut yourself off from modern society. Then even still, you are subject to deal with the waste made in nature such as food scraps or from the materials used to create tools.

In order to be successful at reaching zero-waste on a large scale, there needs to be a ton of participants actively working towards conscious consumption — not centered on the perfectionism the use of ‘zero’ may initially suggest.

The unfortunate reality is that the sourcing, production and waste streams of modern society are completely out of our control. The only thing we can control is how we choose to lead our lives, and advocate for policy changes to reflect that.