Circular Living: The 3 Tiers of Waste

I created the term Circular Living, because I struggled with the term zero-waste. The "zero" aspect of zero-waste can be misleading, and I felt that it did not fully represent my way of being in the world.

Circular Living! 

Circular Living! 

Zero-waste can be a misnomer. People would automatically try to prove that I wasn't "zero," and they were right. I used to reply, "Zero waste doesn't actually mean zero waste," which was exhausting. My definition of zero-waste sort of meant zero garbage to the landfill, which was not accurate, as the consumption of food alone has a huge trash footprint.

Producing literal zero-waste is longer a goal for me. I realized that holding myself up to a standard I could never achieve was not sustainable for me. My goal now is to simply be a kind person and a sensible consumer, voting with my dollar and circular actions to inspire change all the way up the waste stream. If we design things with social and environmental intention, then we use non-toxic materials, we create as little pollution as possible, we make things to last, to be reused, repaired, recovered, and/or to re-enter the environment without causing as much damage. As long as there are human beings on this planet, there will always be waste. It's our time to decide what kind of waste we want to create and let enter this world, and how to responsibly manage it. Realistically we won't ever be zero-waste, and that's ok, because everybody poops!

Waste has many forms, and I define it as anything that will pollute the environment and our bodies (plastic, trash, greenhouse gas emissions, chemical-run off, etc.), and any resource that we misuse (using water and electricity in excess, letting food spoil, etc.). The goal is to drastically reduce the waste that pollutes our planet and our bodies and effectively reduce and manage the resources we use. We cannot infinitely exploit the earth. 

I've created some terminology to help understand our waste, because almost everything that we buy and use has a waste footprint. When we purchase something, I believe that we inherit the item's waste footprint. We are not separate from our consumer choices; everything is circular and connected. Our waste inheritance is 3-fold, and I've broken it down into three tiers. In the example below, I re-trace the waste footprint of the food we buy in bulk. 

Primary Waste

Primary waste is the waste produced by an individual.

Primary waste begins with us. If we buy food from the bulk bins and use a plastic bag, we generate primary waste. When bulk shopping, we can avoid creating primary waste by bringing our own cloth bags and jars instead of using the provided paper or plastic ones.

Primary waste is the waste that we have the most control over. Circular Living helps us reduce as much primary waste as possible, because we adjust our consumer behaviors to prevent the misuse of resources, and the production of trash and recycling as an end product.  

The trash that I keep in my jar is also an example of primary waste. I keep this jar, because it inspires me to continue Circular Living. It is not a mechanism for guilt, shame, or anything negative, but rather a friendly reminder, that changing my actions to reflect my environmental values makes a tangible difference. Plus, I want to make some funky art out of my trash once the jar fills up! 

Not all of my primary waste goes into my jar. For example, if I use a bandaid, I'm not going to keep it. There are other exceptions that wouldn't be hygienic to keep in a jar. 

Secondary Waste

Secondary waste is the waste produced during the packaging and procurement of a product.  

Gettin' sassy with this plastic-waste. Photo credit: Hannae Syd 

Gettin' sassy with this plastic-waste. Photo credit: Hannae Syd 

We've just refused to create primary waste by bringing our own cloth bags to buy bulk food; however, taking a step back, we see that there is still waste associated with the product we are about to buy. The food that is used to fill the bulk bins usually comes in large plastic bags, which will get landfilled in most cases. Those large plastic bags were filled with food by someone wearing plastic gloves, which will also end up in the landfill. The food also traveled by truck, plane, train, ship, or a combination of those, which polluted the air we breathe and contributed to greenhouse gas emissions. The packaging and procurement of bulk foods is an example of secondary waste. I created a plastic film-recycling collection system at the grocery store where I work, because the plastic bulk bags were previously going into the trash. In the photo I'm holding a small amount of the plastic bags from 1/2 a day of working in the bulk department. We are tiny store, so a larger health food store is producing 2 or 3 times more plastic waste from their bulk department every single day. Note: Buying food in bulk creates far less waste and negative impact on the environment than buying individually packaged items. 

Circular Living helps us reduce as much secondary waste as possible by reaching out to companies, asking questions, and advocating for change that supports the health of people and the planet. Lately I've been reaching out to large suppliers of bulk foods and asking them if they will consider extending their "green" practices to their packaging. Most of the companies I've spoken to defend the use of plastic because it's affordable and durable. Our society is in dire need of environmentally friendly packaging innovation!

Tertiary Waste

Tertiary waste is the waste produced when manufacturing or producing a product. 

The bulk food was packaged and transported so that we could purchase it, but how was it grown? Free of waste? Absolutely not. Industrial Agriculture (even organic) uses tons of plastic in the fields to control weeds, to irrigate (tubing), etc. Upstarts come in plastic flats, tractors that pollute the air are used to cultivate, harvest, etc. A huge amount of water is also wasted in agriculture. (Animal agriculture is particularly resource intensive and wasteful.) I call the waste associated with growing food or producing/manufacturing a product, tertiary waste

So how can we influence change this far up the waste stream? We can make phone calls, ask questions, and advocate for practices and companies that are kinder to the earth. Who grows our food? If we are getting produce from a local farm (Yay!), then we can schedule a farm tour, and/or call them up to inquire about their waste management practices. The same actions can be taken for larger commercial farming operations. 

We can make an even greater impact by getting involved in policy change. If we want to stop pollution, we have to cut if off at the source! We can keep picking trash out of the ocean, which is great, but if we don't work toward making systemic changes, the ocean will just continue to be a dumping ground. We can also attend hall meetings, and we can donate to organizations that protect clean water, clean air, our oceans, our state parks, etc. We can call our representatives! 

We Have Positive Power

We vote with our dollar all the way up the waste stream. It's important to make a commitment to research what we're buying and to retrace the waste footprint of those products, so that we can take positive action from product inception to product consumption. 

Making consumer choices that don't produce primary waste is awesome! By becoming aware of secondary and tertiary waste, we can effect positive change at root level. When beginning a Circular Lifestyle, it's important to go slow, because it gives us more of a fighting chance for our changes to become habit. It's also important that once Circular Living becomes second nature not to become apathetic, but to continue to organize and take action. In the words of my dear friend Tatiana Burdiak, keep "protecting what we love!" 

I now feel called to expand my Circular Living practices by getting involved in local and state-wide wide policy change. Some companies have made great strides to reduce their waste footprints by going solar, using wind energy, recycled materials, composting, and packaging without plastic, etc. We as consumers have the power to keep these changes happening through our circular mindset and actions!