The Five Rs to Living a Zero Waste Life Challenge

When did the three Rs of environmentalism become five? And isn’t a zero waste life something only radicals do? Nope, you can easily challenge yourself to zero waste living and will definitely find some peace in the lifestyle.

Imagine a day with no trash to take out or recyclables to sort. Not a single little wrapper to toss, nothing to rinse just to “throw away”… no excess, no waste, and no disposables. Everything you have is reused, and you don’t take more than what you need.

Life is tidy. The drawer, cupboard, or closet that was once overstuffed with plastic bags is clutter-free save for a few sturdy cloth bags in their place. None of your food–whether bought fresh or prepared–ever touches petroleum-derived plastic and yet, your health and pocket flourish in spite of it. Instead of instant oatmeal and just-add-water ramen soup, there is time and space in your life for the enjoyment and appreciation of whole foods that are nourishing and sustaining. 

Such a day seems idyllic, maybe even archaic, but it is increasingly becoming the norm for Zero Waste enthusiasts. Often citing Bea Johnson, author of the “Zero Waste Home,” as their modern inspiration, zero waste advocates are the new, logical face of environmentalism.

Looking at Johnson, I would not have known that she was ‘unconventional’. Her sun-bleached blonde hair wasn’t formed in dreadlocks, colorfully dyed, or shaved like the radical friends I had in college. Her personal choice to use baking soda for toothpaste, a crystal rock for deodorant, or a shampoo bar to wash her hair didn’t show.

She wore light makeup, but how could I know that her do-it-yourself cosmetics were charred almonds for eyeliner or cacao powder for bronzer? Her fashion sense was truly sensible, as she curates an entire wardrobe made of secondhand clothing that can conveniently fit into a single carry-on piece of luggage. From head to toe, I saw no signs of poverty or scarcity, but rather a privileged European woman making a choice to live according to her convictions.

The Five Rs to Living a Zero Waste Life Challenge

When recalling the impactful talk of Johnson to my friends and family members, they were just as shocked as I was that her entire family of four generates only a single jar of trash every year.  Many of us struggle to only discard that much trash per day. And of course, the majority don’t even think about their trash. Of all of Johnson’s practices and prescriptions, the one that most evidenced her discipline to me was the fact that she refuses in-flight meals, even on long-haul journeys.

While plane food is the highlight of my international travels, Johnson has no appetite for anything in disposable packaging and insists that every time we accept them, we condone them and create a void for yet another throwaway to be created. As she points out, airlines offer vegan, vegetarian, diabetic, and gluten-free meals, but she is waiting for the day when there will be a Zero Waste Meal with real plates and silverware just like in Business Class.

In my evaluation, what drives Zero Wasters across the globe–from Canada to Malaysia and many cosmopolitans in between–is the moral obligation to make a difference. It’s as if they have collectively declared war on single-use plastic. Their tools of combat are the hundreds of bulk shopping stores exploding across the developed world, the revival of abandoned traditional markets and farmer’s markets, and municipalities that collect compostable trash. Heroes among them are the small businesses that innovatively create solutions and products that support the 5 R’s of Zero Waste:  Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot. Truly, Zero Waste sounds like a fun challenge.

The Five Rs to Living a Zero Waste Life Challenge

1 – Refuse (to live without Zero Waste)

The easiest way to avoid waste is by simply saying “No”. No to anything you don’t need—junk mail, complimentary samples, any product, whether bought or not, that doesn’t serve your life’s functionality and needs. Marketing is designed to convince you that you need something that you never thought you did. It’s our responsibility to filter through the freebies, clearance racks, and gimmicks and simply say “No thanks.”

2 – Reduce (wasteful habits)

Simplifying our needs to the lowest common denominator saves time and money. If your entire house can be cleaned with vinegar, baking soda, castile soap, and essential oils, do we need to buy separate exclusive products for the bathroom, kitchen, floors, and windows?

The same is true for personal-care products. By reducing our arsenal to the bare minimum, we can spend less time chasing the perfect cream or deodorant and alternatively find natural and healthy products that can be bought in refillable containers and serve a wider variety of our personal-care needs. 

3 – Reuse (it’s a healthy lifestyle choice)

Secondhand shopping extends the life of a product whether its clothing, furniture, vehicles, or books. Our attachment to the smell of newness – “newness” is an actual volatile organic compounds (VOC) created to lure us in! That addictive scent is toxic to our health, the environment, and our psyche.

If we can be humble enough to appreciate and share pre-loved commodities in our lives, we can divert them from the awaiting rubbish bin or landfill. Also, by getting rid of disposables, we avail ourselves to cost-saving alternatives, like cloth napkins, safety razors, menstrual cups, cloth diapers, etc. 

4 – Recycle (every single thing you can)

Though many people take great pride in their recycling efforts, the industry has its limitations. Recycling is an energy-intensive process that is often outsourced globally and not entirely efficient or reliable. Much of what we send to be recycled ends up in landfills or, as in the case of plastic, is recreated into a material that can no longer be recycled.

If you must buy new, choose glass, metal, or cardboard instead. Find ways to recycle within your own home before shifting the responsibility to a third party.

5 – Rot (no really! It’s the one Zero Waste application the least amount of us are doing)

Composting is an opportunity to return vital nutrients derived from plants back to their source—the soil. Biodegradables like veggie scraps, fruit peels, egg shells, dried leaves, and paper can find new life as enriching compost for plants and trees.

In some cities, a separate waste stream is collected for large-scale composting, but if you have a backyard, you can do it yourself. If your land space is limited or non-existent, worms can do the work for you by vermicomposting, which accelerates the decomposition process. If you happen to live near a farm or countryside, look into sharing your organic waste with livestock instead.

Living a totally waste-free life might seem impossible in your current living arrangement. However, if we can start to shift the responsibility to ourselves, instead of someone else to deal with our waste, we may find ourselves to be more resourceful that we imagined.