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Decoding eco-living: a guide

Green, Sustainable, Zero-Waste: Unraveling the Differences in Eco-Friendly Lifestyles

Ashley Robinson
January 3, 2024

Green, Sustainable, or Zero-Waste Living?

If you’re concerned about the future of our planet, there’s a good chance you’re making efforts to minimize your environmental impact day-to-day. But with increased global interest in eco-friendly living on the rise, the buzz words, opinions, and (let’s be honest) marketing gimmicks can make it hard to know where best to start making modifications in your daily life. Depending on your lifestyle, priorities, and environmental goals, the solutions you find may be different. Let’s go through some of the broad categories of environmentally conscientious lifestyles and pick out our favorite strategies from each!

Green Living

The idea that we should care for the environment has been a part of human history for thousands of years, but modern environmentalism is a byproduct of industrialization. A lot of the early green movement was political in nature, springing from concerns about pollution, chemicals, and irresponsible use of resources, but as the idea of environmentalism became more mainstream, the focus started to include individual behavior and impact. Enter the idea of green living.

The idea of green living is pretty simple: whenever possible, make the choice that does the least harm to the environment. Generally, the term “green” is used to describe any process or product that promotes environmental well-being. Terms like “environmentally friendly” and “eco-friendly” are often used interchangeably with green. Overall, living green means being aware of the environmental impact of our day-to-day lives, from emissions to resource usage to waste, and making the best choices we can based on that awareness.

Because the term “green” is pretty vague, it is broadly applied to a lot of different products and practices. Anything from building an energy-efficient home to composting to buying recycled paper products counts under the green umbrella.

If you’d like to embrace a green lifestyle, here are some main focus points:

  • Be aware of resource and energy consumption in the home and life, and try to conserve whenever you can.
  • Choose biodegradable and/or recycled products when possible.
  • Opt for organic or local foods and try to keep your diet plant-based.
  • Choose household products with fewer harmful chemicals.
  • Minimizing trash by composting, recycling, and reusing.

Sustainable Living

One subcategory of green living is called sustainable living. While “green” is a broad term, sustainability is clearly defined as the ability to maintain or reproduce at a certain rate.

So, the idea of sustainable living is a little more specific: to try to only consume products and resources in a way that can be regenerated and maintained over the long term. Sustainable living focuses on the long-term impacts of products and life more generally, in hopes of creating a world that can keep on keeping on. Sustainability is about creating balance between meeting human needs and preserving the planet's resources and environment.

There is a lot of overlap with green living, but the focus is on long-term, societal level impact. This means that solutions should be practical and affordable at a large scale, that products should be manufactured from renewable materials and energy, and that consumption overall should be limited to keep our resource usage in check.

Let’s look at an example of difference in thinking between green and sustainable practices: disposable plates. With a green focus, one might choose to purchase compostable disposable plates instead of Styrofoam because of the immediate environmental benefit. If thinking sustainably, however, one may skip the disposables altogether and buy a set of durable plates made from a sustainable ceramic material that can be reused for years.

If sustainable living sounds interesting to you, here are a few specific points to keep in mind:

  • Buy products that will last as long as possible to reduce consumption overall.
  • Instead of focusing on biodegradables and recycling alone, try to think in terms of circular economies by reusing, repairing, and repurposing as much as possible.
  • Consider shifting where you spend and invest your money to align with companies and institutions committed to sustainability.
  • Focus on limiting food waste as much as you can in addition to buying locally.
  • When possible, invest in home projects that will reduce your home energy consumption (and maybe even generate your own energy) over the long run.

Zero-Waste Living

Zero-waste is the most specific of the terms we’ll discuss today. Put simply, zero-waste is all about sending as little trash to the landfill as possible. The average American sends 4.9 pounds of material to the landfill every day, so zero-waste is focused on cutting that down.  Specifically, zero-waste focuses on reducing single-use plastics in one’s life as these plastics can’t be recycled or composted, but the overall goal is to limit waste and consume fewer resources.

Because zero-waste is a more clear-cut and definable goal, governments globally are starting to consider zero-waste guidelines, and they’re already being used at the municipal level in the US to define goals for cities.

There’s certainly a lot of overlap with sustainable living, and zero-waste falls under the green umbrella. But the goal is very focused on stopping the waste and consumption cycle of the modern economy while not necessarily as focused on holistic sustainability.

To compare zero-waste with the other lifestyles, take the example of disposable plates from above. While the green choice might be compostable plates, and the sustainable choice is a reusable plate made of sustainable clay, the preferred zero-waste choice might be a second-hand set of plates from a thrift store. The plates are reusable over time, and buying second-hand reduces demand for new consumer products. Not to mention that the second-hand plates probably don’t have any packaging to deal with!

If you’re interested in trying out a zero-waste life, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Shop second-hand instead of new to reduce demand for new products and limit shipping and packaging costs.
  • Look into zero-waste cooking practices to learn more about using the parts of foods that may usually get thrown away.
  • Limit packaging waste by shopping in bulk with reusable containers, sourcing products from zero-waste companies, and even growing your own food or making your own cleaning products.
  • Learn what materials are actually recyclable in your community and avoid buying anything that comes in other materials.
  • Remember that producing no waste isn’t actually possible, so be patient with yourself and do your best!

It’s worth noting that in terms of marketing, terms like “green,” “clean,” “eco-friendly” and so on are not highly regulated, and visual cues like brown packaging and natural images are certainly not regulated. The reality is that greenwashing is a big problem, and the benefits of projecting a green or sustainable image are very clear to marketing teams across industries, whether or not the products being sold are better for the environment or not. So whether you’re looking to go green, sustainable, or zero-waste, make sure you look past the buzzwords and do your research!

There is a lot of overlap between green, sustainable, and zero-waste lifestyles, and the best future for our planet combines all of them in one way or another. Remember that none of us can live a fully zero-impact life, so every step towards reducing your environmental impact is something to celebrate. Find some strategies that fit well with your lifestyle and values, do your best to be aware of the environmental impact of daily life, and most importantly, don’t try to be perfect. Just get started!

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