There has been a lot discussion lately as to whether or not Covid-19 restrictions on reusables mean the end of the zero waste movement. Although I began my low waste journey about 20 years ago, quarantine has thrown some thoughts about living “zero waste” into sharp relief for me. To be honest, I struggle with the term “zero waste” for a lot of reasons. There is no such thing as zero waste, at least not in the physical sense. Waste is so much more than what is in your bins – it is resources, energy, labour, emissions, human rights, policy, and politics. But “zero waste” is attention-grabbing and makes for good headlines, hashtags, and Ecosia searches so…here we are!
If we approach zero waste as a mindset rather than a trash jar, we see that it is really about our habits, behaviours, and choices. Set yourself up for success by managing your expectations, cutting yourself slack, and giving yourself room to learn and grow. With Plastic Free July upon us, I have put some thought into the intangible pitfalls I wish I had paid more attention to when struggling with guilt and frustration along the way. I am guilty of ALL of these at one time or another, including today. Circumstances change and our approach should change with it. It it important to take a step back, take stock, and reassess your goals and actions.
So, without further ado, some things to be mindful when pursuing a more sustainable lifestyle.
…try to change everything at once
Yay! You are learning about zero waste and are motivated and excited to change all the things! But going slowly is the best way to ensure that you are using up what you already have while building new habits. Trying to do it all can be overwhelming and you are likely to meet resistance within yourself as so much of what we buy/use/do is based on comfort, habit, and convenience.
…throw away all your plastic
When you first open your eyes to plastic, you realize that it is EVERYWHERE. Plastic is not the enemy – its overuse and perceived disposability/recyclability are. Resist the impulse to throw away perfectly good plastic items that have a lot of life left in them! The zero waste aesthetic is nice, but reusing items until the end of life is nicer. Use everything you own until it is no longer usable, then be mindful of disposing of it properly.
…get sucked into buying “essentials”
Beautiful items are nice, but buying things you don’t need to replace perfectly good items you already own defeats the purpose. If you did not need it before, it is not “essential” now. There are a million swaps, with a million questions attached to each. It takes time to figure out what you truly need and suits your lifestyle. Consider how you will make the change (and research which companies you want to support) as you are using up what you already have.
…get hyper-focused on packaging
Bulk sections, refill shops, and farmers markets are great for reducing your household waste – if you have access to them, which lots of folks don’t. Driving way out of your way just to avoid some packaging isn’t sustainable for you or the planet. Make the best choices you can with what you have access too. Worrying about fruit stickers, elastic bands, the plastic bits on thrift store tags, the blister packs your allergy meds come in…it’s missing the forest for the trees. Try to keep the bigger picture in mind (for example, locally grown carrots in a plastic bag versus package-free imported from thousands of miles away). To paraphrase Lindsay Miles, household waste (garbage, recycling, even compost) is a great place to start, but a bad place to stop.
The zero waste movement can be hyper-focused on plastic and personal trash, but for most of us, fitting a year’s worth of trash into a mason jar is simply impossible. Not to worry! There are SO MANY things you can do that have nothing to do with packaging – here are 50 ideas to get you started today.
…do it all yourself
DIY swaps are great as you can customize things to your needs and liking, but it is simply not possible to make everything. Time is a privilege and precious resource. There are experts making things (from sourdough to deodorant) ethically and sustainability. You can still buy things! Prioritize local makers, small businesses, and ethical companies.
Nobody is zero waste – nobody. We live in a linear economy and systems are just not set up for it. There will be things there is just no way around, either because of your location, budget, access, needs, health, etc. Access to bulk sections, refill shops, eco-living stores, and farmers markets (not to mention the time required to visit several different stores) is spotty at best and not realistic. Your version won’t look like a curated social media feed. Your version should look like what works for you, and that’s beautiful too.
…try to convert people
This might seem strange coming a person who writes about this kind of thing, but hear me out. Share your journey, lead by example, and engage outside your bubble when possible, but avoid proselytizing. It tends to turn people off. Shame, fear, and criticism simply aren’t effective ways of motivating people to examine their choices. Similarly, announcing sweeping changes to the household is likely to be met with resistance. Focus on your personal habits and waste first, then move on to common items one at a time with family input. Remember that real change comes from conversations and support.
…think you are an expert
Sustainability is a HUGE topic and there will always be more to learn. Simple swaps and recycling statistics are just the tip of the iceberg. The waste problem and climate crisis are product of centuries of social injustice, racism, colonialism, exploitation, and profits over people and the planet. Systemic issues are intertwined and cannot be acted upon (or against) by everyone in the same way. It is critical to consider whose voices are and are not being heard when discussing sustainable solutions – environmentalism MUST be intersectional. We all have our skills and areas of expertise to contribute to this larger picture. There is no simple or easy answer. This work will (and indeed has to) look different for everyone.
take a step back, take stock, and reassess your goals and actions
It is so easy to feel guilty about our past behaviours and choices, but remember that when we know better, we do better. And even then, we make mistakes. We are living in a throw away society and opting out of that is going bring up some feelings. Sit with them and examine them so that that your actions bend toward the sustainable and just. Feeling guilty is only natural, but let it spur you into action rather than apathy.
You may feel like you are alone in what you are trying to do locally, but chances are you just need to find your people. When I first moved to my town, I found like-minded folks in a birding group. I knew nothing about birds, but I love nature and wanted to help. Many years later, I have friends of all ages from this group and know a good deal about local wildlife now too. An online community is amazing (and necessary) but a local eco-minded community is where real change can take hold. Search for local groups online, ask at the library, go to Town council meeting, volunteer, or join the community garden. And if these things don’t exist? Start one!
What do you wish you knew when you started out? And if you are just starting out, leave your questions below!