Approaching a Zero Waste Lifestyle

Zero Waste sounds impossible? Liberating all sentient beings sounds impossible too, yet as Mahayana Buddhists, we vow to do so every day. Results matter, yet what matters even more is our firm intention, the sustained direction we give to our attention and the actions that result from it. Direction functions as an endpoint!

The reason wild natural ecosystems are so beautiful is that they produce no waste.

In other words, they are regenerative. All outputs from the many interconnected life forms of an ecosystem are inputs for other life forms. From the point of view of the whole, there is no waste.

So what are we human beings doing that has created our waste problem? We produce, consume and throw away too much stuff. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2015, U.S. citizens generated 262 million tons of waste. That’s 4.5 pounds of waste per person per day or 1635 pounds per year. The recycling rate was at 34.7%. The remaining materials were incinerated, which allows for energy recovery, or dumped into over 3,000 U.S. landfills. Globally, a big problem of landfills is that a large percentage of this waste inevitably blows and washes into the sea, from where it is distributed into each and every ecosystem on Earth.

From an absolute point of view, our “outputs” will surely be broken down and digested eventually. New life forms like fungi and bacteria may evolve that specialize in feeding on our various chemically engineered waste products that are currently littering and poisoning the world.

However, if we hope to preserve and continue to enjoy the beauty and miraculous self-regulation of our local and planetary ecosystems, we have to adopt a relative point of view and recognize that existing life forms are incapable of digesting our massive amount of output fast enough. Our output is waste, because we are overwhelming other life forms with it. Often overwhelming means killing – poisoning, choking, starving, depriving of territory.

Most of this problem is out of sight. However, to give just one example of how toxic and dangerous the situation has become, let’s look at the disaster plastics are causing in the world today. By now, many of us have heard about the five “gyres,” the large swirling accumulation zones of plastics in our oceans that – unbelievably! – cover 40% of the oceans’ and 25% of the planet’s surface. Plastics entangle and choke millions of sea creatures; innumerable species mistakenly ingest small plastic particles as food; the toxic fragments, into which plastics slowly disintegrate, cause cancer and birth defects in fish and birds; and of course, through the food chain the poisonous synthetic chemicals plastics are made from end up in our own bodies.

Waste creates an ecologically degraded world! So what to do about it? Famed “Zero Waste Home” blogger Bea Johnson has suggested the 5R formula: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot. The order is important. She instructs,

“REFUSE what you do not need, REDUCE what you do need, REUSE what you consume, RECYCLE what you cannot Refuse, Reduce or Reuse, and ROT (Compost) the rest.”

So here at CMZC, we’ve begun to examine the products we use, the activities we engage in, the many unaware habits of our day-to-day Sangha life. We will use this blog to update and hopefully inspire you with the steps we take to transform the way we engage the material stream of the world.

Direction functions as an endpoint!