Why are so many zero wasters minimalists?

It's easy to look around online and see the aesthetic prescribed to zero waste. Lots of white walls, natural fibers, and empty space, but are all zero wasters minimalists?

Of course not. I would venture to say that most minimalists are definitely not zero waste. The two don’t always go hand-in-hand.

However, minimalism stems from zero waste for many people because trying to reduce your waste means looking at your consumption. From top to bottom, transitioning to a lower waste lifestyle means evaluating the physical waste from the things that you have. For example, when you stop using disposable sandwich bags, you might start using reusable containers. If you replaced every single disposable product in your life with reusable products, you could end up with an astronomical amount of stuff because unlike disposables, you don’t toss things away and never have to see them again. Specific reusable bags or containers for snacks, sandwiches, reusable bowl covers, reusable cling wrap, and so on, would pile up. It’s easier (and more logical) to have multipurpose items. For example, owning a million mason jars just for storage and then separate containers for storing liquids is a waste of space in most homes.

We live in a world with a ton of waste. Disposable options are more available than responsibly packaged or package free options. It may take some ingenuity to reduce our waste in the first place, and living minimally lends itself to being flexible. Having a minimal wardrobe might mean you borrow a dress for that wedding, or living in a small or minimal home might mean you ask to borrow an air mattress when friends come to town rather than keeping one around at all times for a once a year occurrence. Similarly, you might use the napkin you keep in your bag as a hankie if you unexpectedly have a runny nose. There are many products that are geared for only one use, like individual cleaning products only meant for the tub or counter-tops, and there’s not always a need for them. Trading all the chemicals and disposable plastic bottles for vinegar and baking soda really disillusions you and makes you wonder what else you don’t need that has been sold to you.

Practically, ethically and sustainably made products also may come at a price tag. If you’re a regular person who decides to save up for these kinds of things, chances are you don’t have many of them. Keeping a minimal wardrobe might be a great joy, but also compulsory, if you purchase first hand, ethically made clothes. It is totally worth it to support companies producing well-made and ethically produced goods if you can, but it's not always accessible. Second hand goods are a great, affordable alternative to this. Quality goods also last longer and can be repaired. It’s the parable from The Office: Alfredo’s Pizza Café or Pizza by Alfredo. Do you want a lot of okay pizza, or less of good pizza? The same logic can be applied in the home and in our lives, and this is a big link between zero waste and minimalism. Do you want a lot of low-quality clothes produced in sweatshops or fewer, better-made clothes? I really think once you’ve begun to consider what you do and don’t need, it doesn’t feel meaningful to have many possessions that have the same function.

I recently heard Bea Johnson (author of Zero Waste Home) in an interview talking about our excess stuff in terms of resources. She said that when we keep things in our home that we don't use, we are by extension denying those resources to people who need them. Let's take a step back--the photo albums of you grandparents wedding are not a resource being denied to anyone, but what about the blender you haven't used in a year? What about those clothes you'll wear when you lose ten pounds? Your possessions are ultimately yours, but supporting and participating in the second-hand market is an excellent, accessible way to encourage the wise use of our limited resources. When someone is unable to find something on the second-hand market, it encourages the purchase of more first-hand goods, typically made from new materials. Clothing production alone has a massive environmental impact. I know it's unfamiliar and abstract to think of things as resources, and to also think of resources as transferable, but donating and selling your unneeded things ensures that they continue being used and discourages the creation of new resources for things that already exist.

Finally, looking at your consumption requires considering why you want things in the first place. Food, for example, is an easy one, because you need it. When it comes to material goods, however, the answers are more personal. Why do I want to go shopping and buy pretty plates that need massive resource inputs to be made (and often pollute the environment) when I already have the dishes I need? Or buy mores shoes when I have enough? Or shop when I have plenty of warm clothes for winter? Personally, the answers to these questions came away with big answers. We are taught to create our identity through things, so owning that new dress might make us feel more like ourselves (somehow). When you stop buying into consumerist ideas, you can shift your identity from the things you own, to what you live and the values you have.

So, why do so many zero wasters live minimally?

  1. It’s more efficient to own multipurpose things and products

  2. You need less if what you have is well made

  3. Giving away excess resources ensures they're used and discourages production of more resources

  4. Owning stuff is usually less appealing when you consider why you want it

What's your experience? Do you love your stuff, useful and not, or live with less? Has reducing your waste changed this?