Zero Waste: the Future of Environmental Consciousness

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A complex transformation in society is updating the “sustainable citizen” handbook by highlighting zero-waste projects

by Fernanda Franco Cannalonga translated by Carolina Walliter revised by Tracy Miyake

The way society faces its environmental responsibilities gives clues to how it is undergoing a critical and complex transformation. The years of preaching the same old canons related to sustainable citizenship are coming to an end. Separating recyclables, conserving water and planting trees is not enough for the new protagonists of this story. People are rolling up their sleeves, taking control and responsibility for the situation, and putting a stop to waste production.

Recycling, which was once the great promise of salvation, is not so new. It began in times of recession and wartime out of necessity, not consciousness. Over forty years, recycling still is not intrinsic to human behavior. Furthermore, most cities do not have enough recycling centers to process the amount of waste they generate. In São Paulo, even with waste sorting, the problem is capacity: less than 10% of what is discarded everyday gets recycled, far too little to make a difference.

Out of sight, out of mind

When a person no longer wants an object, this object has to go somewhere. Throwing things away is almost automatic, either because of habits or because of a lack of solutions offered by governments. Few people give any thought to where their trash ends up or what consequences it creates, and it becomes entirely the government’s responsibility. Waste usually ends up in the farthest corners of the cities, on islands, or even in poorer countries that have less stringent laws. What matters is that it is far away from our eyes and noses.

In a globalized world, young people begin to reject the idea that their garbage will go into this “incredible invisibility machine” and simply disappear. They can see the need to reduce or eliminate waste production.

Living without generating trash is an exercise that extends to all spheres of urban life. Everything that makes up a house, everything that is used, eaten or worn has the potential to end up in a landfill.

The model in which everything is disposable is starting to give way to zero-waste projects. Although some people believe this lifestyle is impossible and not suitable for urban life, it is attracting more and more followers every day, in Brazil and around the world. This way of life requires doing without some of the conveniences of modern society, like food delivery at home, but it permits the rediscovery of other pleasures like cooking meals with ingredients from your kitchen garden, or spending the money saved from this lifestyle change to accumulate experiences instead of objects.

Ecology’s new look

Lauren Singer
Lauren Singer

Lauren Singer lives in Brooklyn, New York, and holds a degree in environmental studies. Nothing too unusual, except for the fact that all of the trash she generated over the last two years could fit into a jelly jar. When she was in college, Lauren realized that just stating her love for the environment was not enough: she felt she had to live as if she really loved it, and that is how her zero-waste journey began. She writes about her lifestyle in her blog, Trash is for Tossers, showing how it can be simple, affordable and fun.

One of her first steps was to seek alternatives to essential products that can only be purchased in disposable packages, like toothpaste and cleaning and hygiene products. She did some research and started to produce these products at home using natural ingredients without pollutants (which are also a kind of waste). Lauren recently crowdfunded and launched her brand Simply & Co., which sells laundry detergent she produces with only three components: sodium bicarbonate, sodium carbonate (a type of salt that makes the product more effective), and vegetable soap.

O supermercado Original Unverpackt, em Berlim.
Original Unverpackt grocery store in Berlin.

Creating green products or services comes naturally for many people who are looking for a more conscious lifestyle that is in line with their values. In Berlin, Milena Glimbovsky and Sara Wolf realized that packaging accounts for most non-organic waste. They founded Original Unverpackt, a grocery store where consumers can buy everything in bulk, bringing their own reusable containers to the store. The growing tendency to purchase in bulk also inspired Bea Johnson to create the Bulk app, which makes it easier to find stores and markets that sell unpackaged products nearby. Today over a thousand of these establishments are registered worldwide, and customers can add them to the app.

O aplicativo Bulk
The Bulk app

The sharing economy

Rethinking consumer habits is also part of this change of lifestyle. Using what is already available generates less waste, and refusing to buy new products is a solution. Taking care of what you have and fixing what is broken instead of throwing away is another part of this trend.

New apps and social networks are focusing on this behavior; they can be used to meet the existing demand for products without expending any new resources. For example, Tem Açúcar? [Got Sugar?] is an online platform for non-monetary exchanges between neighbors. The site encourages users to go back to the old habit of knocking on your neighbor’s door to borrow things, bringing back the sense of community. This Brazilian initiative created by Camila Carvalho already has 52,000 subscribed users who have been exchanging all sorts of things since December 2014. In a recent user survey, she found it was even possible to throw a party using entirely borrowed decorations.

Another example in Brazil is Banco de Tecido [Fabric Bank], a physical space that provides lengths of different fabrics, where anyone can deposit, withdraw, and buy fabric by the kilogram. This initiative is especially interesting for zero-waste supporters because fabric doesn’t usually get recycled, and here they go back into the bank and can be used by others.

sacola plástica

Sharing is also an exercise of generosity and detachment. Projects like Free Your Stuff encourage donation in everyday situations through a very natural and hands-on approach. The movement began in a Berlin Facebook group, and has already reached Porto Alegre and São Paulo. Participants can donate objects, like cellphones, tools and furniture, or experiences such as lessons and museum tickets.

Composting: the plate-to-plate cycle

Not only packaging and old objects make up landfills, much of the waste is organic. Although burying waste like food scraps, egg shells, plants and coffee ground seems like a good idea, there is a proper technique for doing this: composting. On her blog The Zero Waste Chef, Anne Marie gives some tips on how to run a zero-waste kitchen. There are three basic steps to reducing organic waste when cooking. First, buy less and better quality, only purchasing what is necessary and planning carefully. Next, cook food from root to stem. Finally, compost everything that can’t be eaten.

Horta do Shopping Eldorado que utiliza adubo proveniente da compostagem de restos de alimentos da praça de alimentação. Imagem: Thiago Mattos/Folhapress
Kitchen garden at the Eldorado Mall, fertilized using composted food scraps from the food court. Image: Thiago Mattos/Folhapress

Composting brings together the plate-to-plate cycle: the kitchen garden provides the ingredients, and the leftovers get composted and fertilize the garden soil. With the help of its employees, Eldorado Mall in São Paulo created a groundbreaking composting project. They used food court leftovers to fertilize an enormous urban garden, which is built on the roof of the building.

São Paulo’s city government selected 2,000 households of all stripes to receive composting boxes and to participate in composting and planting workshops as part of a project entitled “Compost São Paulo.” The purpose was to generate data to promote and foster the development of public policies to encourage home composting in the capital.

zero waste jar

People are already showing that what looked impossible can actually be done. We just need to know if they can influence a large portion of the population to actually diminish impacts on the environment. If this new consciousness can gain steam, the current generation may see the changes that result. Many soldiers will be needed in the front lines of this battle, who are willing to swap fast food for the kitchen and trade the drugstore for the garden. Can you imagine any changes you could make to your daily routine?

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Go further

Why I live a zero waste life?

Lauren Singer speaks to TedXTeen attendees about her decision to stop generating waste. She also details the steps she took to achieve this lifestyle. “I’m just an average lazy person and I wouldn’t live this lifestyle if it was difficult. In fact, the benefits of living this lifestyle far outweigh any of the negatives that you can imagine,” she says.

Heading Towards a Zero Waste World

In this interview, the executive director of Zero Waste Europe explains the philosophy behind this new approach to waste management. He talks about real-life success stories in Europe and implementation problems in countries around the globe. He also gives some practical guidelines for those who want to join this movement.

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