Many of us zero waste lifestylists focus on direct waste; the materials that we interact with daily. As it turns out, though, these direct materials are just the tip of the wasteberg…

The beginning

My zero waste journey started with packaging…too much packaging. I realized that everything, and I mean everything, was packaged. Sometimes the packaging was paper, but more often than not it was plastic; often plastic wrapped in another layer or two of plastic.

I had been working in solid waste and recycling as a consultant for a few years already, but for some reason packaging just wasn’t on my radar. I don’t know if this has happened to you before, but once I started noticing excess packaging, I couldn’t stop seeing it. Maybe for you it wasn’t packaging, but there was something that probably had a similar impact on you, like a car. An ex-girlfriend, for example, bought a Kia Soul that was fire engine red. I had never noticed those cars previously, but after she bought one I couldn’t stop seeing them. They stand so much that even today when I see them I think of her.

After a relatively short ramp up, I gave it up (packaging, that is, not unseeing vehicles resembling my ex-girlfriend’s car!).  I started buying everything in bulk at farmers markets and grocery stores. I avoided produce bags and stopped purchasing anything individually wrapped and/or encased in plastic. I had already removed most disposable items from my life, but avoiding packaging was the last step to zero wasting my life.

Or so I thought…

The zero waste lifestyle movement had typically focused on direct waste but it was becoming apparent to me that we were leaving too much on the table by not adequately addressing indirect waste. As I mentioned earlier, in 2013, Americans consumed 4.4 pounds of material per day. Of that amount, only about one-third gets recycled on composted! I don’t mean to state the obvious, but this is important to note: two-thirds of all material generated in the United States ends up in the trash! So, even if you are an avid recycler, there is a good change that a lot of your recyclables are not being processed correctly.

If you are like me, then you think that 4.4 pounds of material per person is a lot. I mean, I don’t generate that much material every day, do I? YES, I do, and YOU DO TOO!

For many of you that last statement is hard to read, but it is the reality…sorry

Meet Mrs. Iceberg’s plastic bag-headed stepchild, Wasteberg. Like an iceberg, a wasteberg only shows what’s on the surface. It has been said that for every one pound of waste we generate directly, there are 70 pounds of waste generated upstream!

As hard as it is for me to wrap my head around this, 70 pounds is widely accepted in the industry as accurate. I reached out to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance for clarification on this ratio and am waiting to hear back from them. I will update this post accordingly.

Here are a few examples of indirect waste. They are hard to quantify on each case-by-case basis, but are worth sharing anyway so that you have an idea of what indirect waste looks like.

Example 1: Meat

I commend the zero wasters out there who purchase meat in bulk from an actual butcher using your own packaging. Most industrially processed meat comes packaged in Styrofoam that is wrapped in Cellophane. Both of those chemically-laden plastics are made of such low quality materials that they do not get recycled.

Indirect impact of eating meat:

If livestock were their own country, they would be the third largest generators of greenhouse gas emissions behind the United States and China! Cows burp and fart methane gas, which doesn’t stay in atmosphere for as long as CO2, but it is something like 20 to 70 times more potent. In addition, livestock eat a lot of food and drink a lot of water. They must be slaughtered, processed and distributed to retail outlets before you eat them. Even if you only eat responsibly raised and fed animals, their footprint is must larger than what we see as end-users.

Reduce your impact:

Put simply, eat less or no animal products to reduce your indirect environmental impact. Yes, we humans eat food and drink water too, but eliminating meat is akin to buying factory direct. When you cut out the middle-man you save money. But wait, there’s more! In addition to saving money you also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Example 2: The Cloud

If you are like me, then you take a lot of pictures. For every picture you see on my Instagram account, there were probably 10 more photos taken in an attempt to get the best shot. The Cloud has been touted as a great way to backup your files in case of a loss, but what are the true costs of using a cloud platform?

A photo posted by Jonathan Levy (@zerowasteguy) on

Indirect impact of the cloud:

Let’s go back to the Instagram picture example. Clouds are built on redundancy, which is why they do such a good job of preserving your information. If your photos were only saved to your computer and it died unexpectedly, you would lose them. Instead, with the cloud, they are backed up to multiple locations…you know, just in case. So those 10 photos might be saved on five different servers. If you, like me, also upload your Instagram photos to Facebook and Twitter, then they might take up even more server space.

Reduce your impact:

Server rooms consume a lot of electricity and water, and take up quite a bit of real estate. Determine what information actually needs to be backed up and delete the rest. Yes, it can be cool to look through a decade of archived emails in your Gmail account, but keeping files on the cloud that don’t need to be backed up comes at a cost.

What can you do now?

Indirect waste is hard to quantify because it is hard to see, but since 98% of all waste generated is behind the scenes, we must reduce everything that we do not need. It’s that simply.

About the author:

Jonathan Levy is a environmental consultant who focuses on developing and implementing zero waste plans for businesses and municipalities. When he is not consulting, Jonathan is a blogger and social media influencer as Zero Waste Guy, where he shares tips and tricks for living a zero waste lifestyle.

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