People both online and off have been covering the zero waste movement throughout this past year. And no, the popularity of this topic does not wane during the holiday season. In fact, it’s even more relevant during Christmas due to the amount of waste we continue to produce.

Obviously, with a topic as popular as zero waste, you get a lot of interesting and useful information from various sources. However, the flip side of that is the massive amount of misinformation that comes with it. At times, it is simply a matter of getting some terms wrong or mixing them up. Of course, this mainly happens because zero waste has a lot of overlap with other green practices out there.

One common term that people tend to get mixed up with zero waste is recycling. At first glance, the two seem to be the same thing. And while they are incredibly similar concepts, they are not one and the same. This article will explain both recycling and zero waste individually, and then compare how they are similar and how they differ.

What Is Recycling?

Recycling is, simply put, the process of collecting and processing different waste materials that you would otherwise throw away and turning said materials into new products. The main goal behind this practice is to reduce the amount of harmful waste and pollution. However, there’s an additional component to it. When we recycle, we put the waste back into circulation, so to speak. Instead of taking raw materials and depleting their natural supply, we convert what we wasted and repurpose it further.

We can recycle different types of waste, including but not limited to:

• Plastic

• Metal

• Cardboard

• Paper

• Glass

• Electronics

• Batteries

• Textiles

• Tires

Of course, not every item can be recycled. In fact, quite a few of the ones that can’t seem to be mass-produced the most. For example, let’s take a quick look at plastic

Generally speaking, when we manufacture plastic products, we either use thermoset or thermoplastics options. Thermoplastics can easily be melted and reused, while thermoset cannot. After all, thermoset products contain polymers that crosslink and form a bond that is impossible to reverse. So, try as we might, we cannot melt them in extreme heat. That makes them extremely non-recyclable. Unfortunately, due to how well they resist deformation, thermoset packages are often used in many modern industries today. 

What Is Zero Waste?

Zero waste is a broad concept with a lot of modern-day practical applications. In fact, it’s a surefire way to keep the planet clean while simultaneously creating job opportunities for millions of people worldwide.

Broadly speaking, zero waste is a set of practices we use to conserve every single resource within an industry, from literally the first to the last step of a product’s life cycle.

Throughout the history of manufacturing, the creation of a product went through a linear cycle: take-make-waste.

More often than not, the waste that ends up in landfills doesn’t come from you throwing it away. In fact, wasteful materials wind up there as early as the production process of an item (the ‘make’ phase). A huge chunk of that comes from as early as raw material extraction (the ‘take’ phase). So, even if you only apply measures to the end process, i.e. the ‘waste’ phase, you are only doing a third of the real work. In other words, you need a system that will reduce waste across the board.

In the 2010s, the concept of a circular economy developed. It covers the best business practices manufacturers and companies can apply to reduce as much waste as possible. For instance, you can focus on using renewable resources in order to reduce landfill pollution.

Furthermore, your products can be made so that they are easy to both assemble and disassemble. That way, you will be able to harvest them for reusable parts, as well as the materials you can reintegrate into the production process. Making the products last longer and easy to repair is also crucial. It will extend their life span and keep them away from landfills as much as possible.

Similarities and Differences

When we compare recycling and zero waste, we can definitely see a lot of overlap, but as we stated earlier — they are not the same. As you can see, zero waste is a bit more all-encompassing. While recycling focuses on dealing with the waste you already produced, zero waste aims to eliminate it altogether, completely.

In addition, zero waste living is a lot more involved and complex than recycling, as it entails focusing on many different aspects of both manufacturing and everyday life.

However, the two are similar in a few key aspects:

• They both aim for a greener, pollution-free life.

• They both contain a set of steps you need to follow.

• No matter which one you choose, you will have to make some life changes.

• Both show positive results and are a net benefit to companies and individuals alike.

Which One Should I Choose?

Looking at these two as separate concepts is a bit redundant. After all, based on all of the above, recycling is really just one part of zero waste. So, does that mean it’s logical to pick zero waste over the pair?

Well, not necessarily. As stated, zero waste is a complex process that will require changes, both at home and at work. More often than not, people get a bit intimidated by the practice, so they choose not to do it. If you happen to be one of those people, you will want to start slowly — zero waste living is not something you can achieve overnight.

With that in mind, the best place to start your zero waste lifestyle is, in fact, recycling. By separating different types of waste and acquiring the appropriate bins, you will contribute to reducing the amount of trash that ends up polluting the environment.

That will be the perfect first step, followed by trying out some additional zero waste practices. For instance, you can do a trash audit and figure out what you don’t need and what you can reduce via shopping less. In addition, you’ll know exactly which products have non-recyclable items, i.e. items you don’t want to waste. You can even go a step further and start composting your organic waste. The options are endless.

So, in short, you can choose either of the two, but a good way of doing both is to start with recycling and work your way up to more complex zero waste methods.

Final Thoughts

Zero waste is still a new concept, an expansion of green practices that came before it,  like recycling. Hopefully, this article has helped you understand them a bit better and has given you an idea of what you can do to contribute to creating a green, waste-free world.