What Exactly is Zero Waste?

There are a lot of excellent resources out there that will get you well on your way to living a zero waste lifestyle, and plenty of grassroots organizations and social media efforts that will guide your decision making when it comes to sustainability. But whether you're working to make small changes at home or implement large-scale changes in your company or organization, understanding the definition of zero waste is where you want to start.

What is Zero Waste?

Defining Zero Waste

The best (and only peer-reviewed) definition out there comes from the Zero Waste International Alliance, which defines zero waste as “a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.”

I encourage you to read the full definition here, but in the simplest of terms, zero waste living means sending nothing to the landfill or incinerator.

Linear vs. Circular Economy

Ultimately, whether you’re burning trash or burying it, these processes only serve to bolster a linear economic model that hinges on the non-stop production of items designed for the dump. Zero waste aims to redesign that economy into one that is circular, where products and resources can be reused indefinitely (as in nature) so that we can eliminate the production, and ultimately the entire concept, of waste.

If you’re interested in learning more about how this concept impacts your daily life, check out The Story of Stuff Project. Inspired by Greenpeace Executive Director Annie Leonard’s 2007 online documentary, The Story of Stuff Project has grown into a global movement fueled by the desire to create lasting change in our world around our most pressing environmental and social challenges. Whether you’re an experienced activist or new to the concept of zero waste, Leonard’s original documentary is required viewing.

Easy Ways to Get Started with Zero Waste

By now, most of us know that recycling is important, but few people truly understand the time, energy and resources required to break something down and turn it into something else. Recycling is not the only “R” word you want to consider when making zero waste decisions.

While the ultimate responsibility for moving our society out of a linear model and into one focused on zero waste processes should fall on producers and manufacturers, you can take small steps to eliminate waste from your life by considering these additional options:


We are bombarded on a daily basis with stuff! Mindfully choosing to accept what we actually need and refusing the unnecessary is the first step in breaking down perceived conveniences. Refuse swag bags, plastic straws and disposable shopping bags - you can do it!


We’ve been sold the false convenience of a consumer lifestyle, and it’s making us sick and unhappy. Simplify your life by eliminating cheaply made items designed to wear out. Avoid purchasing items with unnecessary packaging. Ask yourself what you can borrow, rent or purchase used. Buy new items that are long-lasting and will impact your life in a truly positive way. When you do this, you’ll save the planet AND your money!


Just Say No! to single-use disposables. Swap paper napkins for cloth, disposable water bottles and coffee cups with reusable ones, and bring your own bag. Look to mend and repair before purchasing new and look for products with lifetime warranties.


Rot = compost! But before tossing all of those leftovers into your compost bin, consider whether or not you can feed it to people or animals first. Check out the EPA's Food Recovery Hierarchy here.

When I began my journey to zero waste living, I was gung-ho and convinced that making the switch should be a simple choice for everyone. Now, of course, I know that is entirely not true. Opting out of using single-use products can make you feel like you’re swimming upstream at first but trust me when I tell you, it gets easier, and is incredibly liberating.

Sustain LA is here to help! If you’re looking for zero waste solutions, leave a comment below or stop by our next refill station at the Highland Park or Altadena farmer’s market to see our package and plastic-free alternatives, and learn more about how to make zero waste a reality in your life.