Zero Waste for Clean Air

fog, mist, city

by Deven Patten

An amazing benefit of a zero-waste mindset is that it impacts more than just the waste we generate or avoid. In a vacuum, reducing, reusing, and recycling already has a great impact on the physical goods we consume, and the materials used to deliver those goods. However, with an understanding of systems thinking, we know that the impact is more far-reaching than simply preserving the value imbued in the packaging, containers, or products we bring into our homes. The amount of energy and virgin resources saved by a zero-waste approach can quickly add up to some amazing benefits to the environment and air quality. Similarly, applying the principles of zero-waste to other areas of our lives can have equally beneficial results.

If you have spent any time driving along the Wasatch Front, you have noticed that Utah has an issue with air quality. This air quality issue in Utah, particularly across the Wasatch Front, is a product of the area’s unique geography—with large mountain ranges to the east and west, much of the pollution emitted from vehicles and other sources becomes trapped and remains in the immediate atmosphere. The cold weather of the winter months often gives us a stark reminder of the problem through the inversion layer that we see throughout much of the winter.  

Too often, an unsafe level of air pollutants elicits health and environmental ramifications. While we cannot change our geography, using our zero-waste skills, we can affect how many emissions we release.  As an aid in combating harmful winter inversions, the Utah Department of Transportation developed the TravelWise initiative in 2008, which outlines several actions Utahns can participate in, to lower energy consumption and improve air quality.

Many of the advised actions mirror the zero-waste practices of refuse and reduce. Try first to cut out or refuse unnecessary trips. Telecommute, schedule errands or appointments on the same day of the week so you only need drive a few times in the week. Where driving is necessary, reduce your impact by biking, walking, planning a more fuel-efficient route, combining trips (ie. while running errands), taking public transportation, or carpooling when possible. 

Throughout the month of February, the State of Utah through the TravelWise initiative is running an interactive event to help Utahns reduce their emissions through the Clear the Air Challenge. This annual, month-long competition started on February 1st but don’t worry, you can join at any time and even track your progress through the rest of the year. Join the challenge and start tracking your impact by going to

Why is the Challenge important?

•             With a growing population, Utah faces several environmental concerns, including increased greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles during transportation. Nearly 50% of the pollutants trapped during inversions are caused by transportation emissions.

•             During the winter inversion season, about 50 percent of the particulate matter in Utah’s air—especially along the Wasatch Front—is from vehicle emissions.

•             By driving only 10 percent less, you can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 0.2 to 0.8 tons per year.

•             The average Utah driver travels approximately 298 miles in 60 trips per week.

•             Roughly 80 percent of Utah’s population lives along the Wasatch Front corridor.

•             The risk of becoming ill due to winter inversion and fine particulate matter pollution applies to people of all ages.

Remember, you do not need to stop driving altogether to help improve air quality. Just as we need millions of people doing zero waste imperfectly, we need millions cutting their emissions to improve our air.  Every trip traveled smarter helps!