Zero Waste Lingo Explained

Whether you are a seasoned zero waste enthusiast or just starting out on your sustainability journey, it can be hard to remember all of the zero waste lingo and what everything means.

When I started my first job out of college as a zero waste coordinator, my zero waste knowledge pretty much stopped at “recycle”. I wasn’t an expert in that world by any means, but I quickly came to learn all of the necessary words that are often used in the sustainability world.

If you, too, are curious about what all the zero waste lingo means then please read on! In this post I am going to explain the common definitions of each term and how they might pertain to you.

  • ZERO WASTE

While there is no one set definition of zero waste, the general consensus is that it is the goal of waste prevention through redesigning systems so that all resources are reused.

Another common definition of zero waste, which we used for my work, is that 90% of material is diverted from landfill, meaning that 90% of waste produced is either recycled, composted, or reused.

However, I think it’s important to note that everyone’s definition of zero waste will be different and the main thing is that we are striving to lead a zero/low waste lifestyle more than anything.

  • SUSTAINABILITY

Sustainability is a broad term meaning the ability to be maintained over a long period of time. And in relation to the environment, sustainability is the conservation of resources in order to maintain our environmental balance.

Sustainability is often noted as having three pillars: social, economic, and environmental. Basically, this means that for any one system to be sustainable, it must take into account the ability for people, profit, and planet.

  • RECYCLE

According to terracycle, the definition of recycle is “the process of recovering material from waste and turning it into new products.”

Items like aluminum cans, plastic containers, and glass all go through a process where they are eventually converted into another usable product.

I think it’s important to note, however, that while glass and aluminum are both endlessly recyclable, plastic can only be recycled so many times before the quality degrades and has to be thrown into the landfill.

That is why recycling isn’t the answer to our plastic problem. It will all end up in our landfills and oceans eventually.

Also, be sure to check with your local recycling center to check to see what is accepted, as every where is different on what they accept.

  • COMPOST

Compost is decayed organic material that is turned into soil/fertilizer and composting is the act of turning organic material into usable fertilizer.

Organic material basically includes all plant food scraps, yard scraps, and paper. Our motto at work was “food and flowers” and if it came from the ground (like a vegetable scrap or wooden skewer) then it can go back into the ground.

An important note on compost: if an item like a compostable cup, bowl, etc. says it is “commercially compostable” that basically means that it has to go to a special high heat composting facility in order to break down. It will not break down in a normal backyard compost bin. Check out my blog post on bioplastics for more information on this if you’re curious!

And if you are looking for a way to divert food waste and do your own composting, then check out my blog post on composting at home!

  • LANDFILL

A landfill is a disposal site for waste. It’s basically where they dig up a huge hole in the earth and dump all waste that wasn’t recycled or composted.

  • REUSE

The process of using a material or item over again, thus diverting it from landfill.

For example, instead of throwing away or recycling a pasta sauce jar, you can reuse it for something else. Pretty straight-forward.

  • REDUCE

To make less of something, or minimize it.

When we reduce our trash, we are making less of it. And we can do that by recycling, reusing, composting, and buying less landfill items. Woo!

  • REPURPOSE

To take a product/item and use it for a different purpose.

You can take the pasta sauce jar example here and repurpose it to store homemade almond butter or salad dressing!

  • UPCYCLE

This is one of those kind of obscure zero waste words that I didn’t really know about at first.

Upcycling is the process of taking waste materials and transforming it into a better, higher quality item.

One example I read was taking an old t-shirt and making it into a reusable bag! Basically you’re taking an item that might have otherwise gone into landfill and remaking it into something new and usable.

  • DOWNCYCLE

As you might guess, downcycling is the process of taking a product and turning it into something that is of lesser quality than the original item.

An example of this is turning writing paper into cardboard. Once it is recycled into cardboard, the paper quality degrades and cannot be made into writing paper again.

Not that cardboard is less valuable than paper, per se, but it basically means that once it is turned into something else, the quality of the item (paper) degrades.

  • GREENWASHING

Greenwashing is a marketing tactic used by companies aimed at making consumers believe they are selling “green” or “environmentally-friendly” products, when in fact, they are not.

Examples of greenwashing may be environmental images used on a product, misleading labels, advertisements, etc.

Picture this: Company X sells a counter-top cleaner made with harsh chemicals packaged in plastic bottles but slaps on a label with green rolling hills and the recycling symbol (which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s recyclable, by the way) on the bottle.

  • TARE

A tare weight is the weight of an item/goods without the weight of the container it’s in.

People tare their jars/containers when bulk grocery shopping by weighing them at the register before putting, let’s say, coffee beans in the jar. When checking out, the cashier will only charge you for the weight of the coffee beans while excluding the weight of the jar.

Please let me know if there is a word you would like added to this list that I might have missed and I will be more than happy to add it!

While there are probably a million other words related to sustainability, this is just a general list that covers the basics. I hope it helped shed some light on some ways these terms are used in our world today and helped you make some more informed decisions on how to go about putting these terms into action!



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