Recycling vs. Zero-Waste… What’s the difference?

Most people who try to be conscientious of the environment and limited resources know that they should recycle. However, we know that simply recycling is not enough. In some cases, when people recycle, they have a false sense of “doing the right thing” for the environment and manufacturers of disposable items have been given a way to market overconsumption without the “bad for the environment” guilt.
Should you stop recycling? Absolutely NOT! Can you make smarter choices about what you buy, how you buy and when you buy it? Absolutely!
This guide describes zero-waste and provides ways for you to move toward reducing the waste you produce.

The old 3-Rs were: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

However, the “new” 5-Rs of zero waste are: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot.


In our consumer driven society, this may be the toughest “R”! Like any habit, good or bad, actions get easier with repetition… just say “no”? What should/could you refuse?

  • Refuse a bag at the store—Why does a bag of potatoes need to go into another bag? Why do you need a bag for one small purchase that could easily fit in a pocket or purse? For larger shopping excursions, bring your own reusable bags. You can do this at any store, not just grocery stores. Bring your own bags to the mall!
  • Refuse bottled water—Choose instead to refill your own reusable container. The quality of the water is the same while the cost to you and the environment is… zero!
  • Refuse any “extras” you don’t want or need—This can include salt, pepper or ketchup packets, loads of napkins, utensils with food on the go, freebies or swag bags from parties, conferences, festivals, sporting events, etc.  Most of these items you would never pay money for… why would you want it just because it’s free?
  • Refuse “single-serving”… anything—Almost all bulk items (liter of soda, chips, yogurt, canned fruit, etc.) are cheaper than single serving sizes. Buy in-bulk and then package “single-serving” in your own reusable containers.
  • Refuse to-go containers—Keep a few small, reusable containers in your car to bring with you to restaurants. When you “choose to refuse” you may even set an example for servers or other patrons of the restaurant.


By “refusing” extraneous items or products, you have already begun to “reduce”. Good job! Here are some additional ways to reduce the waste in your life.

  • Reduce your use of bags—Why not reuse that apple bag from the store last week to bring home more apples this week? Alternatively, by purchasing and use “produce storing” bags (like Debbie Meyer Green Bags), you can bag those apples at the store and be ready to throw them in the frig when you get home… and they’ll stay fresh longer!
  • Reduce excess packaging—Make purchase decisions (at least partly) based on the amount of packaging. Buy bulk mushrooms or green beans (maybe in your Debbie Meyer bag), or loose peppers or other vegetables (not the ones packaged in sytrofoam and plastic wrap).
  • Reduce food waste—Don’t buy food that you aren’t sure you will be able to eat before it spoils. Freeze food for later use if you don’t think you will consume it before the expiration date. When trying new items, buy a small amount until you know that you and your family will like it.


There are many simple and easy ways to reuse products. Be creative! Encourage your children to find creative ways to reuse items. If you can’t reuse, find someone else to reuse your items.

  • Reuse paper—Save used paper as scrap for shopping lists, notes and drawing paper for children. Wrap postal packages or cover textbooks in brown paper bags. Reuse newspaper as gift wrapping paper, or use as lining for your animal cage. You can even enhance your indoor compost bin with a few sheets of newspaper!
  • Reuse plastic—Refill empty plastic bottles (such as mouthwash bottles) with water and freeze to use in your coolers for picnics and camping. Use empty yogurt, dip, or cream-cheese containers to hold individual portions of food. Refill small, empty personal care product containers with other products (lotion, sunscreen, etc.) for travel. Wash out sandwich bags for reuse.
  • Let someone else “reuse” your item—Your junk could be someone else’s treasure! Sell you item on Ebay or Craig’s List or give it away at


This may be the oldest “R”, but it may now be one of the most confusing.

  • Know what’s recyclable—Check with your local recycling center to determine exactly what is and what ISN’T recyclable in your area. The Monroe County ecopark recycles dozens of different items. If they don’t recycle a particular item, their website will tell you where you can recycle it.
  • Avoid cross-contamination—Many people don’t realize that “cross contamination” (when you put something not recyclable in a recycle bin) may lead to the entire bin being tossed in the garbage. For example, at some businesses, custodians may be prohibited (for their own safety) from removing items from a trash can or recycle bin. If a non-paper item is found in the paper recycle bin, then the entire bin must be discarded.


This may be the most ‘productive’ “R”! Start your own traditional compost pile or vermicompost (using worms) to break down food and yard waste.

  • Only use plant based materials—Avoid adding any food products that are animal based (meat, cheese, yogurt, milk) or oily, any plants that are “weeds” that you don’t want to spread in your new fertilizer or any pet wastes or kitty litter.
  • Find a “compost guide” online for more information—Read the “Start Home Composting Today” guide on the CET website. Sierra Club has many composting articles on their website. The Environmental Protection Agency offers composting information for facilities.

This is only the beginning to dozens of other ways that you can improve your life and the environment by aspiring to a “Zero Waste” life!