Zero waste misconceptions: DIY

DIY zero waste face mask. DIY zero waste hand creme. Sound familiar? Have you seen blog posts about these things? I have, too. When you start living a lower waste lifestyle, you will inevitably find yourself caught between making something yourself or going without it; the alternative would be going against your values to have it anyway. Do-it-yourself gives the individual the power and control to consume products, be they foods or material goods, that they might not be able to otherwise. Unfortunately, we don’t all have access to package-free stores that can sell us everything, so making it at home can be the best option. That being said, zero waste and DIY aren’t the same thing.

The somewhat troubling misconception that zero waste and DIY are inseparable came to my attention when I read this Italian article on zero waste. While the article is one of the few articles about zero waste you can find in Italian and features some awesome English-speaking zero wasters, it has two big problems for me. To begin with, it’s about the USA and none of the awesome Italian zero wasters I’ve met or follow are featured in this article. As far as I’ve seen, none of the bloggers even mentioned here speak or write in Italian and couldn’t serve as great resources for monolingual Italian speakers, or any Italians who don’t have very proficient levels of English. The broader issue I have with this article is its description of zero waste habits.

“Piccole abitudini per raggiungere un grande obiettivo:

  • Andare al mercato per l’acquisto di frutta e verdura piuttosto che nei grandi centri commerciali

  • portare con sé una borsa di stoffa dove riporre la spesa fatta

  • produrre in casa il più possibile evitando i prodotti pronti avvolti negli imballaggi

  • preferire bottiglie per l’acqua riutilizzabili”

The translation by yours truly:

“Small habits to help meet the greater goal:

  • Go to the market to buy fruit and vegetables instead of supermarkets

  • Bring your own bag to carry goods

  • Make things at home as much as possible, avoiding ready-made products in packaging

  • Choose reusable water bottles”

While the habits above are not bad or completely unrealistic, the third tip to “make things at home as much as possible” is a common misconception that we must combat if we want zero waste to get traction with, you know, regular people.

I’ll say it here: you don’t have to make everything at home to be zero waste.

There’s nothing wrong with making things at home. I’ve read and tried a ton of DIY zero waste ideas from makeup to liquid soap, and I’ve even dabbled in it myself.

Making things at home is a band-aid for the real problem: there isn’t access to the products we actually want or need. You may be barred from something because of cost, location, or simply availability. I baked all of my own bread. I made weekly batches of granola bars. I’ve made more almond milk than I could tell you and I swear my homemade laundry soap works better than anything I’ve ever bought at a store, but making things yourself is not a requirement of zero waste. For one thing making all of your own bread, soap, yogurt, perishable mascara, and salad dressing isn’t possible for everyone. The ideal situation is having access to a bakery with plastic-free bread and milk (cow and non-dairy) available in returnable glass bottles.

DIY is a transition tool until you find a better option or have access to a better product. Equal and affordable options are what we need to make zero waste more accessible and less intimidating. Going zero waste will inevitably lead you to make changes, and that’s good, but not everyone needs to know how to make yogurt for us to reduce unnecessary uses of plastic and have a lighter footprint on the earth. Kathryn Kellog from goingzerowaste.com has mentioned a million times that she made her own tortillas until finding somewhere to buy them package free; I think that example is one to keep in mind. It’s fine to DIY while you search for a better alternative with a lower environmental impact or better packaging but DIY does not mean more eco-friendly. You can DIY a years worth of package-free taco seasoning, and ground beef is still really bad for the environment. In the long run, there are some things you might consume less of (or stop consuming) because neither the packaged nor the DIY options are up to par. The world won’t end if you go without mascara.

Personal sustainability is also at risk if we equate zero waste with making everything at home. Living with other people or with your family, especially if that family has young kids, is going to change the scale of your DIY and the time and resource commitment. Baking one loaf of bread a week is easy, but baking two…three…four…? While that may be within the reach of some people, it’s not a realistic long term model; most people, especially those in multiperson households, would have to devote most of their free time time to making everything at home and (unsurprisingly) most people aren’t so devoted to zero waste to use all of their spare time to make bread. To my fellow zero wasters, we’re going to scare away great allies and people interested in zero waste if we make the focus on DIY instead of on how to access products people depend on (like bread) without all the plastic.


Make things at home if and until you find a better option.

We need to promote “if and until you have a better option” from an afterthought to a central part of the message.

If you love to DIY and make things at home, more power to you. For the sake of our sanity (and the sanity of people interested in zero waste), let’s make sure to remind ourselves that making things ourselves is not always the better option and that making something at home isn’t always more zero waste than buying it. The solution is not for everyone to make everything themselves, but for us to tackle issues of accessibility to responsibly packaged and produced products.