The Journey to Zero Waste

By Gery Ciftcioglu

It is a quiet morning in the rural countryside of the Tokushima district in Japan. Nestled in the green hills, the small town of Kamikatsu is slowly waking up. Walking down the sleepy streets one can’t help but notice the multitude of bags in front of the houses. They serve to separate garbage in the first Japanese municipality that has pledged to become ‘zero waste’. Kamikatsu and its 1500 people have been working toward this goal of minimizing waste since 2003. The town became more widely known as Japan’s first zero waste town in the last 5 years due to coverage from social media and online news articles.

In a typically perfectionist Japanese style, for the people of Kamikatsu, zero means zero. They have grown accustomed to dividing their waste into up to 60 different categories. Meticulously and patiently, day after day, they collect various types of materials and bring them to the recycling centre which has replaced the incinerators the town used to have. The municipality has opened a reuse thrift shop where visitors can pick up whatever they need, and a "zero waste" hotel offers accommodation for curious travellers.

When thinking of Japan, one imagines pristine nature and smoothly operating urban systems. In fact, Japan is the third largest producer of plastic worldwide. Plastic comes from burning fossil fuels, the single most environmentally detrimental activity today. Even though Japan has become better at collecting and recycling plastic, according to Lee’s report (2022), the consumption per person annually still places the country in the leading position. An approach that minimizes, or even eliminates, waste is urgently needed. The Austin, Texas City Council's definition of "zero waste", found on the US Environmental Protection Agency website, is probably the most succinct. It states:

"Zero Waste is an ambitious goal to divert 90% of waste from landfills and incinerators, using a "whole system" approach to evaluate and manage the flow of resources and waste created by our communities."

Zero waste initiatives are indeed ambitious ventures at any scale, be it at a national, city, neighborhood, household, or individual level. A multifaceted approach is required in order to tackle this strenuous goal in today’s world. Indeed, the mindset and objectives people set up for themselves have to shift from being focused on consumerism and growth to sustainability, reuse, repurpose, and recycling.

Managing waste is a challenge on its own. Some of the biggest generators of solid waste - the USA, Japan, Germany, and the UK - are also the largest exporters. Part of their waste management system is shipping garbage to other countries where it gets dumped in landfills or incinerated (Börkey, 2022). 292,4 million tons of solid waste were collected in 2018 in the United States alone (National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling, 2022). Unfortunately, only about 40% have been recycled, composted, or dealt with in environmentally sustainable ways. Hence, the need to strive towards a zero waste approach.

Individuals can start by reducing their household waste generation. This may seem insignificant or even pointless at first, but over time it can add up to a lot and inspire others to change their habits as well. The main contributors to household waste are paper, cardboard, and food, followed by plastic materials, garden waste, metals, and glass. Eliminating single-use items at home is a good place to start. Usually made of paper or plastic, these can be replaced with reusable materials. For instance, one could use cloth napkins at the dining table or towels in the kitchen, instead of paper, or bring their own water flask when heading out – rather than purchasing a plastic bottle every time. Personal hygiene products can be tricky to replace. Menstrual cups, underwear, reusable makeup removal pads, recyclable toothbrushes, and dry shampoo are just a few examples of the growing number of environmentally friendly products available on the market. Plastic bottles and the packaging of goods intended for household use are two waste producers that are so prevalent that it is now challenging to notice them. However, practically all of the items that may be bought at the grocery store are packaged in plastic bottles, packets, or bags.

Food waste takes second place as a solid garbage contributor. It is generated at all levels of the supply chain, but the largest waste occurs at the retail and consumer level (Food Loss and Food Waste |Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, n.d.). Households can reduce food loss – the decrease in quality of food – as well as food waste by employing planned shopping, serving on smaller plates and quantities, and composting food scraps and leftovers. Emerging technologies allow using food waste for the creation of biogas and fertilizer, however, they need to be scaled up to incorporate domestic as well as industrial food waste.

Establishing a zero waste way of living would have to include making smart choices about all purchases including clothing, shoes, and accessories. Clever ways to contribute to the solution are thrift shopping and repurposing what is already available. Rather than following the cheap – but short-lived fast-fashion trends – purchasing garments, household items, appliances, and furniture from second-hand shops can be a great solution that decreases the amount of solid waste generated.  

There are many factors that could hinder the journey to a zero-waste life. These include having a newborn baby, moving house to an unknown location, and struggling with a chronic condition or a disability. There are a number of books, online communities, guides, and virtual spaces where one can find inspiration, advice, or like-minded people to share the experience with. Choosing to avoid waste accumulation in every aspect of daily life sends a firm message to the manufacturing, packaging, and shipping industries that humanity demands a cleaner and more sustainable future.

Photo credits: