What Does Zero Waste Actually Mean?

Written by Ollie Wilkinson

Zero waste. Two words bandied about more than comic book reboots. And just like superhero remakes, the zero waste movement’s all about reusing timeless materials to save us from unnecessary rubbish. 

The sustainability glossary’s getting bigger and bigger, but guileful greenwashers have ironically muddied the waters. So, to celebrate the launch of our brand-new Refillables range, we’ve written the go-to guide to become a zero hero, covering: 

Shout-out to our own eco hero and Sustainability Manager, Registered Environmental Practitioner and Modern Milkman VIP, Nicola Tremayne, for dusting off her fact-checking cloak and magnifying glass for this one! 

What is meant by zero waste? 

According to the Zero Waste International Alliance (AKA the zero waste wizards), zero waste is a pollution prevention movement that requires “responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of all products, packaging, and materials.”  

The Alliance goes on to clarify that this does not include burning waste or any methods that cause “discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.” 

Abandoning the take-make-waste model of consumption would help avoid unnecessary damage to the environment, with a closed circular loop ensuring materials and energy aren’t wasted after one use. 

But making this magic happen isn’t easy. It requires a huge overhaul of supply chains and infrastructure. 

As our friends at B Corp say: “Zero waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials”. 

What’s the difference between zero waste and low waste? 

The key difference between zero waste and low waste is that zero waste is much more absolute, while low waste gives brands and businesses more wiggle room. Zero waste means no waste is produced at all, whereas low waste refers more to minimising waste, rather than eradicating it altogether. 

The Cambridge Dictionary defines zero waste as “a situation in which no waste material is produced.” In other words, zero waste = no waste. Hardly a twist M. Night Shyamalan would be proud of, right? But low waste isn’t quite as black and white. 

If you think of zero waste as Superman, low waste is more like your nephew in a cape on non-school uniform day. Both look awesome and are trying their best, but Superman’s impact just goes a little bit further. 

Low waste factors in things like recycling, which, while more eco-friendly than single-use packaging, is not enough to protect the planet from pollution (as revealed by The Big Plastic Count). This is because recycling still requires energy and resources, and many recyclable materials don’t last forever and will eventually become waste. 

If you’d like to learn more about this, dive straight into our blog on the difference between reusing and recycling

Why is zero waste important? 

Zero waste is important because it reduces pollution, preserves resources, and mitigates the environmental impact caused by production and disposal of new materials. Embracing zero waste cuts out single-use items, plastic in the ocean, and emissions from landfill sites and incinerators. 

Is zero waste practical? 

You don’t need to live in a tree and wear pants made of leaves to adopt the zero waste lifestyle. But that’s not to say it doesn’t come without its challenges. 

Our society is structured around linear systems, with materials and resources all crossing the finish line too soon. This wasteful 100-metre sprint is what our infrastructure is built upon, and to wholly embrace the endless, sustainable circuit of the circular economy would require a radical upheaval across every industry and supply chain. 

To strictly adhere to the dictionary definition of zero waste would almost demand you to stand perfectly still and not consume anything. Ever. Technically, even growing your own fruit creates a form of waste as it takes nutrients from the soil! 

“We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” 
Zero Waste Chef, Ann-Marie Bonneau

It doesn’t take a superhero time machine to know that circular supply chains are the future. But as much as we’d like to, we can’t reach a fully circular economy overnight. No matter your superpower! 

You’ll always have an impact on the planet, but embracing the zero waste movement means striving to leave our environment in a nicer state than we entered it. 

Only by making small, incremental steps, can we make giant strides towards reducing our carbon footprint. And whether it’s return and reuse glass bottles, compostable paper or refillable pots, anything that avoids single-use packaging and keeps materials in the sustainable loop is a leap in the right direction. 

Our return and reuse zero waste journey 

Zero waste goes beyond what you read in dictionaries and websites of so-called sustainable brands. And as a Certified B Corp™, we go beyond your average milkround, ensuring we meet the highest standards of accountability and transparency.  

So, in true zero waste style, we’ve cut out the rubbish and asked our super-powered Sustainability Manager, Nicola, to take you through our milkround’s zero waste ambitions. 

Waste is for losers, which is why we’re return and reusers! 

“The lack of circular supply chains in our society’s infrastructure makes it near impossible to avoid waste entirely,” says Nicola. “This means that more and more brands are creating their own interpretations of zero waste. Some better than others! 

“To us, zero waste should be exactly that: the avoidance of any waste that causes physical or chemical pollution. It’s much more than a buzzword, flashy label, or marketing campaign. It’s an aspiration; a constant pursuit and the ultimate aim of our milkround, led by the evolution of return and reuse packaging.” 

“Prevention of waste altogether is the best control strategy to achieve this, as all other options have some kind of environmental impact further down the line. This is something our eco-friendly milkround aims to bring to your home, by continually expanding the range of groceries you can buy in return and reusable packaging. 

“As laid out by our Impact Report, our circular economy shopping model supports the following United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

Together with the UN, we aim to significantly reduce food waste by 2030, by helping people make their food last longer, and shop little and often for what they need.” 

This is just the beginning! 

Our returnable, refillable and reusable packaging provides a waste free shopping experience, edging us closer to a world without wheelie bins. 

“83% of products we sold in 2022 were in zero waste packaging, delivered in glass bottles that can be collected, washed and reused around 25-30 times,” says Nicola. “And when they can’t be washed and reused, they can be recycled infinitely, as demonstrated in our Life Cycle Analysis and Impact Report

“Having kick-started our milkround with return and reuse glass-bottled milk and refillable household products, we now bring the waste-fighting lifestyle to your doorstep via an ever-growing team of circular economy superheroes, including milkshakes, fruit juices, soft drinks and more! Our brand-new cereals and sugar, for example, arrive in sustainable pots that can be returned, reused and refilled over 700 times!” 

What are the main goals of zero waste? 

The main goal of the zero waste movement is to produce as little waste as possible, limiting the environmental impact of the refuse we produce. How do we do that? By minimising the need for new materials, reducing the rubbish in landfills, and embracing the circular economy, of course! 

Adopting zero waste in day-to-day life has countless aims and benefits, including: 

The conservation of resources 

The more materials we reuse, the less we need to extract from the environment. This helps protect natural habitats, ecosystems and biodiversity, while futureproofing supply chains and food sources for generations to come. It doesn’t get much more sustainable than that! 

Protecting the planet 

When waste decomposes in landfill, it releases harmful greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. Combined with incinerators and litter, landfilled waste accounts for 3.3% of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the World Economic Forum, reforming the waste sector “could cut global methane emissions by 13%.” 

Saving our seas 

Eight million pieces of plastic leak into our ocean every day. The most common sources of plastic waste? Carrier bags, bottles, wrappers and food containers.  

You may wolf that choccy bar or bottle of coca cola down at Quicksilver level speeds, but its single-use packaging can torment the planet and ocean for hundreds of years! That’s why buying sweet treats in home-compostable paper, cereals in refillable packaging, and soft drinks in return and reusable glass bottles is the best way to turn the tide on waste. 

Boosting the economy 

Zero waste efforts like using second-hand clothing apps and refillable packaging aren’t just a cost-effective way of preserving energy and resources. They also create jobs. That’s right, it’s called a circular economy for a reason!  

Don’t believe us? Check out Eco-Cycle’s article on the economic benefits of zero waste

Who started the zero waste movement? 

Bea Johnson is often credited as the founder of the zero waste movement. Before her blog and book in the 2010s, the concept of zero waste was mostly limited to policymakers and expert theories. But she made zero waste a part of everyday life. 

Now we know what you’re thinking: “Hang on a minute, the traditional milkround was around in the 60s, and that embraced return and reuse glass bottles before ‘zero waste’ was cool!” And you’re absolutely right. After all, why else would we have rebooted it for the 21st century!?  

But back then, the phrase “zero waste” was yet to be coined. The earliest use of these words can be traced back to the 1970s, when chemist Paul Palmer founded “Zero Waste Systems”, a company that reduced chemical waste in laboratories in America. 

If you really want to be picky, the concept of zero waste is even older than that. Heck, it’s even older than your great grandfather’s great, great, great, great, great grandfather. Because whether it’s prehistoric hunter gatherers avoiding food waste or Ancient Japan’s aversion to wastefulness (known as Mottainai), the zero waste lifestyle began long ago.  

Think about it, there’s a reason why we don’t see wheelie bins in cave drawings! 

How to go zero waste 

Zero waste starts with the way we produce goods and materials, and it ends with… Well, it never really ends! Because wiping out waste extends the lifespan of the resources and energy we need, while ridding us of the rubbish we don’t. 

Bringing the zero waste lifestyle into your home means getting the most out of what you buy, with the least negative impact to the planet. This could include buying milk in glass bottles on our milkround, because we deliver them in return and reusable, infinitely recyclable glass bottles. It could also mean swapping single-use packaging for cereals in refillable pots, or fruit and vegetables in home-compostable paper bags. 

But wiping out waste isn’t just limited to packaging. It stretches to many walks of life. For instance, you can also combat food waste by: 

How do zero waste shops work? 

Zero waste food shops allow you to buy the exact amount of groceries you need without single-use packaging. Also known as refill stations, they invite you to bring your own reusable containers to refill with loose dried goods. This sustainable shopping method helps to reduce food and plastic waste

Bringing the refill station to your doorstep 

Zero waste shopping puts an end to the single-use sinners lurking in your wheelie bin. But lugging jugs and juggling jars at the refill station can be a tiresome task, especially if you need to drive to get there. 

Reusable packaging prevents wasted materials and resources. But what if we could bring the refill station to your doorstep, and save you from wasted time, too? 

Our milkround’s return and reuse glass-bottled drinks and refillable groceries are delivered in sustainable packaging which we collect from your doorstep. In and out of your house like the Flash, these circular economy superheroes protect the planet and defeat the evils of waste once and for all. All in a day’s work! 

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