Zero Waste vs Low Impact: What’s the Difference?

Written by • Last Updated October 6, 2020

When you decide to live more sustainably, you’ll be faced with a dilemma: zero waste vs low impact. But what exactly is the difference between these movements?

Zero waste living and low impact living are both rooted in eco friendly practices. Each aims to preserve the Earth’s natural resources and protect the quality of life for future generations.

However, there are a few key differences between zero waste vs low impact living.

What is the zero waste movement?

The zero waste movement kicked off in the year 2000. It transformed from the dreams of “No Waste” recycling activists into a fully-fledged way of life for people around the globe.

At its core, the zero waste movement has one goal: to stop waste from piling up on Earth.

To achieve this lofty yet necessary goal, zero wasters focus on two things: waste prevention and resource lifecycle changes.

Sound confusing? You’re not alone!

To put it simply, people who practice zero waste principles aim to create no trash. They avoid single-use plastics and other non-compostable products. That means no candy bar wrappers, no takeaway coffee cup lids, and no plastic ballpoint pens (among many other things).

The term “zero waste” can be off putting and confusing. In our current global economy, it’s not possible to be 100% waste free.

And that’s why the other aim of zero waste is to create a circular economy. If we manufacture products with resources that can be renewed, recycled, and easily composted, it will stop the growth of landfills and the plastic lakes floating in our oceans.

Large green leaf on white background with letterboard, text: "There is no planet B".

What is the low impact movement?

As the name implies, low impact is a sustainable lifestyle that aims to lower your ecological footprint through daily actions and habits.

From shopping local to eating less meat to avoiding single-use plastics, your daily choices directly impact the planet’s future. What may seem inconsequential from day to day adds up over time, especially when more people practice low impact behaviors.

Longer-lasting choices, like buying a smaller home and limiting air travel, also play a role in the low impact movement. However, our day-to-day choices have a far larger effect on the world around us.

Unlike other sustainable living movements, there isn’t a rigid set of rules that define low impact living. You can’t fail at it the same way you can “fail” at being vegan or minimalist.

Instead, the movement asks you to evaluate where your actions exist on the spectrum of how negatively (or positively) they affect the environment. It’s a lifestyle built with every helpful change you make, whether that’s composting food waste or buying only sustainably-crafted clothing.

RELATED: 10 Low Waste Living Tips to Succeed at Sustainability

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How are they different?

The key difference between the zero waste and low impact movement is what they focus on. The zero waste movement focuses on waste creation, while the low impact movement deals with the entire ecological footprint.

So what does that mean in practice?

A person who follows zero waste principles would bring their reusable coffee mug to a cafe and bring home the paper sugar packet to compost later. But they might drive a car with poor fuel economy to get there, and take whole milk in their coffee rather than a vegan alternative.

Someone following low impact principles in the same scenario would consider all of these choices–the mug, the car, the milk, the cafe location–rather than just the ones that lead to their own “trash count”.

Now, that doesn’t mean that low impact followers are all waste-free vegans who walk everywhere! Instead, low waste living is about seeing the whole picture and making as many positive choices as you can.

Save me for later!

Zero waste vs low impact: which is right for me?

The wonderful thing about low impact vs zero waste is that you don’t have to choose. In fact, you can practice zero waste principles as part of a low impact life.

Reducing our trash production and changing how the economy works are both incredibly important. But so is ending our reliance on fossil fuels and industrial agriculture.

We as individuals cannot do ALL the things. But we can decide where to put our time, energy, and money.

Don’t worry about aligning yourself with a movement. There are no “sides” for safeguarding our planet. Focus on making sustainable choices, and lead by example.

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