The invisible nightmare behind the zero-waste dream

Believe it or not, someone is living the (near) zero waste dream, condensing a two years’ worth of non-recyclable, non-compostable waste into a 16-ounce jar!

However, there is an untold smelly story to be woven in the zero-waste narrative.

I’m taking part in the European Week for Waste Reduction (EWWR)’s campaign between 21 and 29 November 2020, and this year’s theme is invisible waste.

What’s invisible waste?

The term “invisible waste” refers to the amount of refuse generated during the manufacturing of a certain product. Sadly, the zero-waste dream is currently buried underneath this obscured pile of rubbish.

To give visibility to the hidden garbage we generate, I spotlighted some invisible waste you should be aware of below.


The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) launched the #save invisible food campaign to raise awareness about the hidden losses across the food supply chain.

As reported by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), as of 2011 ca.  1.3 billion tonnes of food produced for human consumption per year worldwide was lost or wasted, most of it being fruits and vegetables.

Do you enjoy avocado on toast for brunch?

I love it myself, but we should go easy on it.


As stated by UNECE, the COVID-19 crisis has affected the fresh food market. Last July, in Europe, 1000 containers carrying avocado were overstock and 1 million kg of this delicious fruit were going to be thrown away!


There are lots of skeletons hanging in the fashion industry closet.

Fashion supply chains release tons of refuse in the environment even before a piece of clothing reaches a store. The so-called pre-consumer textile waste is generated along the clothes production line by raw material (cotton, fibers) processing (e.g. spinning, weaving, dyeing, finishing). Scraps, swatches, end-of-rolls etc. are all fashion by-products.

Yarn and garment production give rise to ca. 440,000 tonnes of waste (primarily in China and India). When garments are cut out as patterns, 15 percent of fabric is discarded and wasted.

Let’s have a look at cotton trousers. They’re cool, comfy and light.

Yet, we don’t see the 25 Kg of waste produced when making them.

And it’s not just about solid waste.

Cotton is an extremely thirsty crop. It is estimated over 10,000 Kg of water are used to grow the cotton needed to craft a single pair of jeans.

If cotton is bad, polyester is even worse. This synthetic fiber (plastic, in other words) is present in 60% of our clothes and has a carbon footprint twice as large as the cotton’s.


Incredibly, a single smartphone is responsible for 86 kilograms of waste!

I know, it sounds like a rubbish phone.

But how come this smart, light device implies such a burden for the environment?

Smartphone components are made of rare earth metals (REM), including the so-called conflict minerals. The extraction of these materials requires ca. 34 Kg of rock to be mined and subjected to thermal and chemical processing. This means burning fossil fuels, generating heaps of solid waste, and contaminating groundwater.

There’s more to it than meets the eye. Phones are responsible for another invisible source of waste, i.e. data.


invisible waste

Emails, online searches, social media. Except for notification receipts, we don’t see any tangible trace of the digital information journey.

But nothing travels for free, not even data.

Strings of bits buzz around thanks to energy intensive physical infrastructure, comprising data centers, transmission networks and the electronic devices we now depend on.

80% of data centers are fossil-fuelled and currently equals aviation’s carbon footprint.

How do we reduce what we don’t even see?

Shortlist and make it last

We should think twice before buying or producing a new item.

If we really need to buy something, let’s make sure it’s heavy-duty rather than implying a heavyweight waste load.

We can’t keep our smartphones for only 21 months or a piece of clothing after only seven wears! Don’t change your phone if it’s still functional or can be repaired. Also, build a long-lasting capsule wardrobe.

As for food, dine out less often and keep your creative juice and sauces flowing in the kitchen.

Be minimal with video streaming, which is the major driver for data consumption. Think before sending and sharing (not just printing).

Circular fashion

What comes around your wardrobe must go round:

Fight for your right to repair!

Mend your clothes if you can or get a tailor to do it for you.

Incredibly, 4 consumers out of 10 don’t know how to access repair services for electronics.

“Don’t despair, just repair!” The Restart Project is coming to the rescue. This charity organisation throws e-waste fixing parties instead of chucking electronics.

If electro parties are not your cup of tea, just grab some coffee and look up how to repair your smartphone.

Zip your digital footprint

You can reduce the environmental impact of your emails by following these simple rules:

❖      Regularly clean up your inbox, spam, and bin.

❖      Use google drive to share files rather than attaching them to emails.

❖      Unsubscribe from email newsletters and mailing lists that you never read.

❖      Include only relevant people in blanket emails (remove unsubscribed contacts and update changed email address).

❖      Talk to colleagues (keeping social distance in pandemic times) instead of emailing them.

Stop googling stuff and switch to Ecosia, which will plant a tree for every 45 searches you run.

The end-of-life

Although a lifestyle based on the 5Rs’ mind-set is a big step forward, it’s still not enough for zeroing invisible waste. This will require building a society revolving around a circular economy model, thus developing a more sustainable design for products which eradicates waste upstream.

As responsible consumers, we should strive to postpone the products’ end-of-life as much as possible.

We’d better shrink the hidden mass of the waste iceberg if we don’t want our planet to smash against it!

About the Guest Author

Antonio Salituro is an environmental engineer and has got a PhD in a climate change-related topic. He published a scientific article in the Sustainable Chemistry Journal. Furthermore,  He is also a freelance environmental writer who crafted a few posts on his own blog promoting environmental sustainability.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Noissue: Budget-friendly Packaging Partner for Sustainable Businesses

E-Waste: The Dark Truth Behind our love of Technology