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  • Writer's pictureAtiqah Nadiah Zailani

10 Zero Waste Principles To Keep In Mind in an Extremely Wasteful World

Moving beyond specific categories, here are overarching principles when attempting to go zero waste in any part of your life.

zero waste items

I’ve been writing about how to go zero waste for specific categories (see them all here), and if you have been following, you will notice certain themes or principles coming up in each and every one of them.

(If you’re not sure why we need to obsess about waste in the first place, just know that our trash is overwhelmingly large and is EVERYWHERE, and that this needs to stop.)

trash-covered road in Myanmar

If you haven’t been following, no sweat, this post alone is likely enough to get you going with reducing all the unnecessary waste in your life. Below are 10 overarching principles to keep in mind in the effort to reduce trash and maybe even reach zero-waste.


Principle #1: Simplify, minimise and eliminate

minimalist beauty routine

Dans le sac minimalist beauty routine. Source

I bet that there are quite a number of things around you right now that you truly, honestly can do without, very happily too. Take a look at your daily routines and the products that you use to get by, and see if you can simplify them and at the same time eliminate the need for superfluous items.

For example, if you’re following the Korean 10-step beauty routine (with its retinue of products for each step), see if you can make do with a 7-step routine or a 5-step routine. In fact, Koreans themselves are apparently ditching the cumbersome routine for a simple minimalist routine - apparently all that mosh-mosh of products layered on top of one another can really do some damage to your skin.

This is not just for the ladies and our beauty routine, this can literally apply to every aspect of our lives (male or female). Make things easier for yourself and minimise the things you need to get on with your life.

For more on simplifying, minimising and eliminating routines:

Principle #2: Borrow, swap or share

patagonia worn wear campaign

How Patagonia celebrates Black Friday, and how we should too!

Where possible, instead of purchasing something, see if it makes sense to borrow or swap. Do you really need to purchase a 18-piece drill set when you can borrow your neighbour’s for that one-time fix? Rather than buying a whole new wardrobe when you’re tired of your current one, can you swap clothes with same-sized friends instead?

Before handing over your hard-earned money to the mall, pause and think if there are alternative ways to get what you need from existing sources, family and friends. Someone somewhere is likely to answer your call.

For more on borrowing, swapping and sharing:

Principle #3: Buy to last, buy secondhand and buy naked

Liftetime guarantee by Doc Martens

When there is no choice but to purchase something, do your best to buy something that was made to last a lifetime, and not a cheap plastic knockoff that will break next week. Reputable companies that build quality items are rare, but they do exist - look for those with lifetime guarantees (think Le Creuset for kitchenware, Jansport for backpacks, Patagonia for activewear and SkullCandy for earphones).

Even better, buy secondhand! Give things a new lease of life and bring them back into use. This will entail a bit of digging around and a lot of patience, but I myself have scored big at secondhand and thrift stores: leather briefcase, snowboarding jacket, comfy sweaters and of course, books, that I still use years after. Give it a short - you never know what you’ll find, and that honestly if the beauty of it all!

As and when possible, opt for products that come with zero or minimal packaging; in other words, buy things naked (hint: Zero Waste stores are the place for this!). If it does come with packaging, then pick the one with recyclable packaging. It goes without saying that plastic bags should be refused - use your own reusable bags instead, or simply stick it in your existing handbag or backpack!

For more on buying to last, buying secondhand and buying naked:

Principle #4: Avoid disposables

Say no to single use plastic

In relation to the above principle, buying quality and buying things that will last automatically means avoiding things that are made for throw-away, one-time use. Have an aversion for disposable things that take up so much resources to make and to get to your hands, only to be chucked out of your life after a few minutes.

This is getting even more pertinent with the rise of online food delivery, which inevitably comes in mounds and mounds of plastic packaging and cutlery that you end up throwing away each time. Yes, it is more convenient, and yes, nobody has time to cook or go down to a restaurant all the time - however, consider keeping online food deliveries to a minimum, and where possible, request for the least amount of packaging. GrabFood, for example, has provided users with a choice to opt-out of single-use plastics, a very small but nevertheless encouraging step in reducing the enormity of the waste produced within this industry.

Grabfood say no to plastic cutlery

Don’t let the ‘cheap’ price of disposable things fool you - that price is not taking into account all the things that matter: labour, transport fuel, labour and pollution. You are paying for those too, just in other ways that you may not even be aware of.

Reasons to refuse single-use plastic

For more on avoiding disposables:

Principle #5: Maintain, care and repair

patagonia if it's broke, fix it!

Here's Patagonia again, offering to repair and fix your broken or torn Patagonia products.

Part of making quality items last is maintaining and caring for them. Take good care of your things - it can be as simple as keeping them in proper conditions, or as difficult as oiling and buffing them every few months. Regardless, learning to cherish your items will only increase your appreciation for it. Build a relationship with your belongings. Use them for life, have stories about them to tell your grandkids and see them as more than transitory things to be bought and thrown away at whim.

When things go wrong, or break, or malfunction, always aim to repair, first and foremost. This is where purchasing from companies with lifetime guarantees and good repair services will come in to save your day like a hero! Only when the item is deemed dysfunctional beyond repair do you throw something out, and even then it is likely there are recycling options for the waste materials.

For more on maintaining, caring and repairing:

Principle #6: Bring your own [insert item]

bring your own

You’ll notice that a lot of the things we end up throwing away are things that can be easily avoided if we made the small effort of bringing our own. Think grocery bags, coffee cups, food containers, tumblers, etc.

Granted, this has a lot to do with the bigger problem of how our consumerist economy and our shopping malls are structured, which is a problem that is somewhat out of our individual hands. However, your actions as a consumer can have a lot of influence on whether your favourite stores allow and adopt reusable and waste-free options. Bring your own bottle / cup / plate / straw, both to avoid creating waste, but also to make a point to the staff and any nosy onlookers.

For more on bring-your-own:

Principle #7: Go digital

going digital

Personally, I have found this to be the best solution to decluttering and minimising waste. Instead of buying CDs, I download them from iTunes. Rather than buying physical books, I download them on my Kindle. I stopped printing photos and simply made digital scrapbooks of all of my travels, complete with animated transitions and music! The last two have saved me so much shelving space, it was incredible!

Of course, there may be sentimental reasons for purchasing physical books and records and printing photos - you do you. However, there are plenty of other areas to go digital on: paying bills, reading assignments, newspapers and magazines digitally, and having tickets for flights, concerts or events sent to your phone.

For more on going digital:

Principle #8: Regift or Donate

When an item serves you no purpose or has outlived its usefulness and is still in good condition, consider regifting it to someone who may appreciate it. As they say, your trash can be someone’s treasure. There are online groups that exist for the sole purpose of letting people regift their things to others who are more than grateful for it. Join such a group in your locality, or simply pick your favourite charity or thrift store to give to.

Some people have qualms over regifting something that they themselves received as gifts. While that is a totally valid feeling, try not to confuse the true recipient of your gratitude - namely, the gifter, not the item gifted. Your being grateful to the gifted does not necessitate you keeping the item out of obligation. Instead, show your appreciation with a sincere ‘thank you’ and by ensuring the item is well used, if not by you, then by someone else. After all, putting the gift at the back of your closet, never to see sunlight again, is not particularly grateful either.

For more on regifting and donating:

Principle #9: Refurbish or repurpose inorganics, and compost organics


If at the end of an item’s life, it is not suitable for regifting or donating, then think about how you can give it a second chance at life by repurposing it. The internet is bursting with ideas and examples of people who have up cycled or repurposed every imaginable thing into something else, and you’re bound to find something.

I put compost here too because it is a form of repurposing your food waste into nutritious soil. All of us generate food waste, without fail. If you haven’t already, consider starting a compost bin or subscribing to a composting service near you!

For more on refurbishing and composting:

Principle #10: Keep trying - improvement is the goal, not perfection

we need millions of people doing zero waste imperfectly

All of the above are easier said than done. Sometimes, even after trying so, so hard, you still forget to bring a reusable bag and end up with flimsy grocery plastic bags that you had to pay 0.20 cents for each. You go to a conference and can’t resist the bag of goodies, even though you know you’ll end up chucking half those stuff out. You’re really, really not in the mood to do dishes after throwing a party for 20, so disposable cups and plates it is! And then you beat yourself up for failing and decide: “you know what, this one-time failure is proof from the universe that this is not for me. I’m going back to my life before, who cares anyway, we’re all going to die and headed for the human landfill, also known as graveyards.”

Relax, it’s okay to mess up. You’re going against an entire culture and trend of wastefulness, it’s never going to be easy. If you forget this time, no big deal. You’ll remember next time. If you slip up or forget next time too, no worries, there’s always another tomorrow. In fact, for as long you wake up alive the next day, you have another opportunity to try better.

A few failures does not negate the hundreds of times that you did do the right thing. Reducing our impact is a continuous process - I started years ago and I still slip up, but I get up and try again.

Keep going, champ! It’s a long road, but a worthwhile one!

zero waste - nailed it!

On the other hand, here's a boy showing you how it's done #goals(?)

To get started on Zero Waste:

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