Behind the trash jar: zero waste concerns

What was your introduction to zero waste? Was it a short video someone shared of a blogger with a trash jar on Facebook? Was it a friend or an article you read? Did you feel drawn to a life with less plastic?

Once you dive beneath the surface of zero waste, it gets clearer and clearer that zero waste is not only about making no visible trash. Whether we want to admit it or not, it took a long time and at least a little bit of effort learning new habits to get to this point, and nobody did that just to have a mason jar full of candy wrappers and receipts on their counter top. There are a million reasons to live a low waste or zero waste lifestyle, and the reasons why are way less talked about than the how-to.

To make anything stick, there has to be a reason to do it in the first place. Let’s look behind the thrifted, organic cotton curtain to see what else most zero wasters care about.

Waste in the Upstream


If this is your introduction to zero waste, let me introduce you to the idea of waste in the upstream. The upstream is pretty much the entire life of something before it gets to you, and there’s plenty of wasting to do in the upstream, even if you buy products package free. If you buy a new tee-shirt and refuse the disposable plastic bag and opt for your own, it doesn’t mean that was a “green” purchase. It takes 2,700  gallons of water to make that shirt, which is enough drinking water for one person for 2.5 years. The shirt may have been dyed in an area where waste water is dumped into waterways and pollutes. The shirt may have been made by exploited persons.

The idea of the upstream is vital to actually reducing your impact on the planet. Buying package free doesn’t erase the impact an item has already had on the earth. It doesn’t matter if you buy beef and take it home in your own container or with plastic, if that beef was grass-fed, organic or “regular”; raising that animal to eat it was still an inefficient use of resources and negatively impacted the environment. For example, “a single quarter-pound hamburger requires about 460 gallons of water to raise and process the beef.” Animal products in particular are always plastic laden and particularly difficult to find without wasteful packaging. This article even found the following:

The carbon footprint of a Big Mac cheeseburger is 4 kg of CO2 equivalent gases (well really 3.4 to 4.82 kg but I will call it 4, see calculations below). Of that .5 kg is from diesel emissions, .9 kg is from electricity emissions and 2.6 kg is from the cattle eructations and flatulence methane emissions.
— The Carbon Footprint of a Cheeseburger, SIXDEGREES

You can be conscious of the impact of your choices even in the upstream. For one thing, buying secondhand ensures that all the resources that went into creating an item were not wasted because it is still being used, and also reduces the demand for more resources to make more new products. You can eat more plant-based foods and less animal products to reduce emissions in the production of your food. It’s not all doom and gloom, I promise, but beyond our eyes and the waste we see there are larger impacts.

Remember the upstream and don’t be blinded by a trash jar. While creating less waste is always better than creating more, remember that the system is wasteful and somewhere plastic was probably used irresponsibly or something was thrown away. You might order the vegan option at the restaurant (good for you!) and bring your own take-out containers, but in the kitchen half of the ingredients for your meal came in disposable plastic. You might buy everything from the bulk section of your grocery store, but the paper cartons used to refill the bulk bins aren’t recycled. Waste will be created, but we can try to make better choices and push for change.



When you first come across zero waste, pollution might not be the issue you latch on to. One of the biggest parts of our plastic problem is what happens as plastic degrades in the environment. When plastic degrades and breaks down, it breaks down into microplastics, which are tiny pieces of plastic. Regular plastic cannot be composted, and it will never break down into organic matter than can be returned to the earth. Even biodegradable plastics aren’t the solution, because they simply break down into harmful microplastics faster.

So what? What’s it matter anyway? For one thing, that plastic goes into our bodies. Microplastics have been found in 90% of bottled water by the World Health Organization. Microplastics can also get into the food we eat, like fish. While there isn’t much research into the possible effects (or lack thereof) on the ingestion of microplastics, it’s widely agreed that more research should be done. One issue you may be familiar with is that of microbeads, which were popular in soaps and scrubs. Microbeads are now a concern because they may pass through waste water systems—yes, like sewage – and pick up bacteria that people may later ingest. 

Most of us have probably heard of BPA by this point, and when plastics containing BPA like the lining in cans and plastic water bottles break down, they can become microplastics that can also enter our bodies. Yum. While there are many plastics these days without BPA, it’s not as if the ocean selectively takes in BPA free plastic or that BPA plastic is never ingested as microplastic. Luckily, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has found, based on current evidence, that at current levels of BPA in food, we are safe from adverse effects from food contact with BPA plastics.

Beside the point, we’re not the only ones affected by this plastic, and for marine animals the impacts of plastic in the oceans are worse: 

The impacts include fatalities as a result of ingestion, starvation, suffocation, infection, drowning, and entanglement.
— The Problem of Marine Plastic Pollution,

So if we come full  circle to zero waste, you’ll see why avoiding plastic as much as possible is important. Recycling?, you ask. Sorry, less than 9% of plastic is recycled. Plastic has a negative impact on our environment, possibly our health, and certainly other living things.


Reducing our waste, changing our consumption and our reducing CO2 emissions can help reduce our personal contribution to climate change. I’m going to proceed as if you are familiar with the greenhouse effect, which essentially tells us that certain gases in our atmosphere can cause it to increase in temperature and hold heat, which has devastating effects on the climate and can result in extreme weather, rising sea levels and more.

Waste is not only physical. Using our resources (food, water, electricity, material goods) irresponsibly is wasteful. Electricity is often produced through burning fossil fuels that release CO2 into the atmosphere. More on that here. Adding more of these gases to the environment exacerbates the greenhouse effect. The choices we make have an impact. While we have to go to work, we can choose to carpool. While we may want to travel, we can choose to do so by mass transit instead of taking a personal car. 

Let’s not forget the huge burden of raising animals for slaughter on the environment. The inputs from water alone are staggering, and we live in a world where many of our resources are used faster than they can be replenished. Zero waste ties in with much of the usual “green” stuff because being mindful of your impact on the planet is holistic, and isn’t only about package free rice or taking shorter showers. Pollution and climate change are intertwined, and part of systems that use our resources irresponsibly and cause damage to the earth.

It's impossible to reduce your waste without learning new information on the way, and zero waste has led me to learn a great deal. What I have learned has made zero waste more meaningful to me, and therefore much easier. While reading the how-to blog posts has helped me reduce my waste, reducing my physical trash has only been the first part of my zero waste adventure. There is more than what we see and zero waste is more than a trend to try out or a way to grocery shop. Let’s make lasting changes in our lives and in our systems to solve bigger problems.