Developing Zero Waste in the world is a much-needed endeavor. Especially in the fashion industry, clothing and other textile wastes are piling up in landfills at an alarming rate.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that 16.9 million tons of used textile wastes are generated each year in the United States. The average American throws away 70 pounds of clothing every year.
More than USD 500 billion is lost due to a lack of reuse and recycling every year in the global textile and apparel industry alone, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Less than 10% of all plastic is recycled.
Cheap synthetic materials that contain plastic, such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, and polyethylene take up to thousands of years to decompose. They release toxic gases, and potent greenhouses gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere as they break down.
More than 300 million tons of plastics are produced every year, as reported by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). And 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean annually. The equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic is leaking into our oceans every minute of every day of the year.
Plastic waste has a disastrous impact not only on the environment but also on people and animals. Plastic microfibers threaten human health, wildlife, and the planet by polluting the air, water, and entire food chains.
People get exposed to harmful pollutants contained in plastic microfibers by drinking polluted water and eating contaminated seafood. Workers in garment factories, wastewater treatment facilities, cruise ships, and fish farming industries are particularly endangered.
Today, it's more important than ever to take massive action toward Zero Waste. The first peer-reviewed internationally accepted definition of Zero Waste was created by the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) in 2004 and last updated in 2018.
“Zero Waste: The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.”
However, while we can all reduce the amount of waste we produce, zero waste remains an unachievable goal. Here are the top 10 reasons why zero waste is impossible.
1. Environmental protection requires more than limiting waste
Our excessive consumption kills many people and animals globally each year. Shopping for new products has become cheaper, easier, and faster than ever before, especially for clothing.
The fashion industry is the second-largest polluter globally after the oil industry. To protect human lives and nature, it's necessary to make our industries more sustainable.
Sustainability involves economic, social, and environmental aspects. And protecting the environment requires so much more than just limiting waste. What about the exploitation of natural resources, deforestation, chemical pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, water, and energy use?
Everyone has a role to play. Yes, consumers can adopt new consumption habits to drive change in the industry. But key players, businesses and organizations, also need to solve the currently wasteful and highly polluting production systems.
2. 100% waste-free is an unattainable ideal
It's impossible to be Zero Waste, 100% waste-free, just like 100% cruelty-free. Even if we actively try to minimize the amount of harm we inflict on the world, we are bound to create some hurt at some point.
It’s hard and impossible to achieve Zero Waste. We need to work toward Low Waste first. It's completely impracticable to create no trash in the world we live in. But we can reduce the amount of waste we produce by quite a lot.
Even buying new products without packaging doesn't make it Zero Waste. It's very likely that new clothes or other items were packaged at some point for transportation, creating pollution and waste.
Our goal should be to reduce waste. Simply decreasing the demand for new clothes helps tremendously. It lowers both waste and pollution associated with its production, consumption, and disposal.
3. Recycling costs resources
Recycling converts waste into new materials that can be reused. Waste is broken down before creating new things. It's a more conscious alternative to conventional waste disposal that minimizes impacts and waste ending up in landfills.
However, recycling has an impact on the environment on its own. It's expensive, uses resources, water, and energy. Some materials can't even be recycled because it isn't economically viable.
The collection, sorting, shipping, and treatment of waste exploits tons of natural resources and local communities. It sometimes supports local businesses, industries, and artisans involved in the process but often encourages overproduction and overconsumption.
4. Waste is more than plastic
Plastic-free doesn't necessarily mean Zero Waste. Individual efforts to reduce plastic are a good thing but to achieve Zero Waste, taking all types of waste into consideration is necessary, not just plastic.
The Zero Waste movement seems to be majorly focused on one type of waste, household plastic.
To reduce strain on the environment, we not only need to analyze all sources of waste, industrial, commercial, domestic, and agricultural, but also their nature, such as liquid waste, solid rubbish, organic waste, recyclable rubbish, and hazardous waste.
The leading sustainable waste management company FCC Environment categorizes waste into 12 types, that involve more than only plastic:
- Ferrous metal
- Non-ferrous metal
- Mineral oil
- Organic fat
- Organic solvent
- Paper, carton, cardboard
- Refuse Derived Fuels (RDF)
5. Zero waste is expensive
Actually living with less waste isn't cheap. Zero Waste is an expensive goal. It requires a lot of investments that come with a high price. It's very costly not only for consumers but also for industries.
Zero Waste products are expensive because plastic is cheap. The plastic industry is thriving because it offers easy and affordable solutions to complex problems.
Many alternatives to plastic exist but they are in very low demand and costly to produce. For all types of waste, their Zero Waste alternative isn't cheap.
The reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning or discharging into the nearby environment cost a lot of labor, time, and money.
Zero Waste will remain impossible without an economically viable solution. It's a great movement that views lifestyle changes as an ideal. But its applicability in the real world is lacking.
6. Organic isn't always the solution
Especially in the fashion world, it's often beneficial to use natural and organic alternatives to wasteful petroleum-based materials such as polyester and nylon.
Unfortunately in many cases, organic production requires more resources, time, labor, land, water, and energy. Natural and organic materials are expensive to produce and sell. They also lack subsidies and protection. As a result, they aren't as efficient, provide a lower yield, and revenue.
7. New consumption habits come first
To drive change in the industry, besides new policies and initiatives from large players, the general public needs to adopt new consumption habits.
Single-use plastic isn't the only wasteful practice of most consumers. Eating meat and using animal-derived products are some of the most destructive consumption habits.
Avoiding food packaging is a step toward Zero Waste but we need to make many more efforts to change our behavior and find solutions, particularly when it comes to our fast fashion addiction.
8. Zero Waste requires discipline and commitment
Adopting a Zero Waste lifestyle isn't easy. A large commitment is required to transform our way of life. And without the discipline to follow it through every day, lasting and sustainable change won't happen.
Living with less waste also needs a lot of knowledge. We need to educate ourselves and stay informed to understand what's going on in the world around us, how our decisions impact our lives as well as the future we leave for our children.
9. It's difficult to say no
We all have a responsibility to manage our waste sustainably. The five R's of waste management are:
The first R, refuse, is arguably the most important and difficult to practice. Zero Waste is hard because saying no is difficult.
We need to refuse single-use plastic, straws at restaurants, perfume and shampoo samples, plastic bags, litter, napkins, and water bottles.
We need to stop buying things we don't need, change our wardrobe, and take better care of the things we already own.
10. The needed infrastructure is missing
Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure are one of the 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development, political objectives of the United Nations for the coming years.
It aims to build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation. It's a huge issue to tackle and one very important but still missing step toward Zero Waste.
"A functioning and resilient infrastructure is the foundation of every successful community. To meet future challenges, our industries and infrastructure must be upgraded. For this, we need to promote innovative sustainable technologies, [...] upgrade infrastructure and retrofit industries to make them sustainable, with increased resource-use efficiency and greater adoption of clean and environmentally sound technologies and industrial processes, with all countries taking action in accordance with their respective capabilities."
- The United Nations (UN)
The Policy Hub, a joint effort between the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), the Federation of the European Sporting Goods Industry (FESI), and the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA), also published a proposal to lead the apparel and footwear industry towards a green recovery post-COVID-19 crisis.
One of the seven highlighted principles is accelerating circularity by helping to scale up technologies and to establish infrastructure for collection, sorting, reuse, and high-value recycling.
A lot of technology innovation, infrastructure development, and investments are still required before the industry can become more biobased, circular, and regenerative.
As it's impossible to be perfect, Zero Waste is impossible. Despite all of this, it's still possible to reduce the amount of waste we produce.
Please don’t feel guilty about it. If you are just starting a new lifestyle on your Zero Waste journey, take it one step at a time every day. Do what you can the best way you know how to.
About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.