Zero waste vs climate action: what’s the difference?

What’s the difference? Pic: Alisha Pilkington

Confused about how to save the planet? Wondering whether to ditch the plastic or focus on helping to reduce London’s carbon footprint?

Eastlondonlines unpicks the language of zero waste and climate action in this guide which aims to shed light on the two movements and show what everyone can do on a daily basis to help protect the environment.

The biggest difference between the two approaches is carbon. Although zero waste culture does reduce your carbon footprint as a side effect, it’s not necessarily the ultimate goal.

Climate action specifically targets the major ways that you can reduce your carbon footprint. This includes transportation, cutting out meat and campaigning against deforestation. Going zero waste will help your carbon footprint, but it doesn’t tackle things like walking instead of driving or taking less holidays that require flying.

Zero waste generally focuses on the effect humans have on life on the planet. They want to clean up the sea for aquatic life, minimise ‘throwaway culture’ (which encourages people to replace broken things rather than fixing them), and composting food waste to improve soil and plant life.

Climate action is more about keeping the planet habitable for humans. This does mean making the planet healthier and liveable for all life, but there’s a reason campaigners are called ‘Extinction Rebellion’ – they’re fighting the potential extinction of the human race.


Three key points of zero waste Pic: Alisha Pilkington

Climate action is more immediate. As previously mentioned, the UN estimates we have 11 years to make some major changes before even more catastrophic environmental changes happen. It’s estimated that we’ll see an increase in heat-waves, a decrease in freshwater and crop yields, and a near-total bleaching of coral reefs.

Climate change is closing in on us, meaning that immediate action is needed. There may be a lot of people who think going zero waste on a global scale should happen as soon as possible, but it’s not necessarily as urgent.

A lot of zero waste action is focused on the products we use. Bamboo toothbrushes, glass travel cups, stainless steel straws. Zero waste doesn’t necessarily mean you change your lifestyle very much, especially as most people aim for low waste rather than zero.

Zero Waste Europe sums up zero waste as a matter of “conscious shopping and proper waste separation at home.”

Climate action, on the other hand, tends to require major lifestyle changes. Taking public transport or walking to reduce your carbon footprint, less flying and switching to renewable energy companies, cutting meat out of your diet.

Both are trying to protect the planet, but zero waste is more geared towards improving the environment as a whole.

Kathryn Kellogg, author of ‘101 Ways to Go Zero Waste’, defines zero waste as the aim not to send anything to the landfill. This is to reduce the overconsumption of resources and to help the fact that a lot of rubbish ends up in the ocean instead of a landfill.

Climate action is specifically trying to undo or at least mitigate the damage of climate change. The United Nations Development Program estimates that CO2 emissions must be cut by 45% in the next 11 years to limit further damage to the planet.

Essentially, zero waste is trying to make the world a better place for all life and climate action is trying to make sure there’s a still a world for us to live in.


Key points of climate action Pic: Alisha Pilkington


Ultimately, both zero waste and climate action are good for the environment. They tackle different things but are both positive actions. It’s important not to get them confused, though. If you want to help with the climate emergency, then the most important thing is reducing your carbon footprint and actively stopping support for harmful industries (eg. Animal agriculture).

One way to dip into both areas is to recycle more carefully. Making sure to properly sort waste and send as little as possible to landfills will help reduce greenhouse gas production. This helps stop further damage to the planet and holds off worsening climate change.

This is especially important in South East London, where three of East London Line’s boroughs (Lewisham, Hackney and Tower Hamlets) are in the bottom five London boroughs in terms of recycling. Making the small effort of separating your rubbish could have a positive impact on the planet.

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