4 ways to normalize zero waste for a more sustainable future

If you live zero waste, are trying to reduce your impact, or are just taking interest in the issues, you’ve been at the asking or receiving end of plenty of questions. When coming from people with genuine interest, questions begin helpful and necessary dialogues, and my experience asking and eventually answering the questions was that the answers were never all that exciting. We can talk all day about zero waste switches, but from where I stand zero waste living doesn’t look nearly as different from non zero waste living as we like to think.

Our grasp of normal is an entanglement of objective and subjective, moral and social judgements, prone to changing for the better and for the worse.
— the powerful way “normalization” shapes our world, Jessica Brown

Zero waste living is not the single solution to fighting climate change. Big problems require big solutions, and systematic problems require changes throughout the system. While producers need to take responsibility for their products, the impact of production as well as the product beyond sale, we also need to consume less and more consciously. Changes need to happen beyond the individual in order for larger, positive change to occur, but there’s plenty to do as individuals as well. That said, it’s no secret that even making individual lifestyle changes means swimming upstream. The zero waste movement can work here to make sustainable and eco-friendly living more socially and culturally acceptable.

You bring your reusable mug to the coffee shop, and the drink is still put in a disposable cup. You ask for something in your own bag, and it’s placed in a disposable bag and then nested within your reusable one. On various levels, our culture is primed on disposability and constant, relentless consumption. Zero waste can step in to make cultural change. Of course, normalizing the use of reusable products is a good place to start, but there’s more to do than that. At the BBC, Jessica Brown suggests that efforts to normalize eco-friendly behaviors and position non-sustainable behaviors as deviant has contributed to increased recycling rates in the UK. In other words, when doing the “greener” thing became the normal thing, making unnecessarily wasteful choices became abnormal and negative. This is hardly a surprise, when we think of how quickly refusing disposable plastic straws took over the internet. The more correct and usual a behavior becomes in our culture, the more likely people are to engage in it. By spreading zero waste living and sustainable choices as normal and mainstream, we can reduce some of the discomfort and otherness associated with zero waste living and sustainable consumption.

So keeping in mind that our work has barely started, here are four places our lifestyles can help normalize sustainable living:

Zero waste groceries in reused containers

Zero waste groceries in reused containers

Reusables

Like in the non-example above, reusable containers and reusable products in general aren’t the norm. The more we use and ask for them, the fewer issues we’ll encounter. I can’t be the only one who has been asked by a friend to order a drink in their own cup because they were afraid of being told no by a barista. I’m not the only person who has had some sweaty-palmed grocery store checkouts when staff were surprised by my containers or bags. Disposability is built-in and expected where we consume, especially regarding food, so the more we build reusables into our lives and into the conscious of our communities, the easier it will be for those who come after.

Data on the exact role cultural norms play in encouraging sustainable lifestyle changes isn’t easy to find, but if we look back to the rise of the straw issue in 2018, we know that people are willing to think and talk about personal choices they can make to have a lighter impact on the earth. When refusing disposable plastic straws took off as an eco-action last year, it was widely adopted and began important discussions about access and accessibility in zero waste and sustainability as a whole.

Increasing environmental awareness among consumers is likely to remain the fundamental driver for the growth of the reusable water bottles market.
— Reusable Water Bottles Market Valued at Over US$ 8 Billion in 2018, Reveals Fact.MR Study, PRNewswire

One example we can look at regarding the popularization of reusable products is water bottles. Retail Insight Network claims that about 20% of consumers had purchased a reusable water bottle within the past year, and over half of the people who had purchased reusable bottles did so in an effort to reduce the amount of plastic they used. Popularity and demand have increased; while it’s difficult to say exactly how much peer influence has impacted people’s choice to purchase and use reusable water bottles, we do know the association has been made between reusable bottles and pollution. That in mind, we can try to popularize and normalize other reusable choices like bags, containers, menstrual products, and more by spreading the word, using reusables and making the association between our personal choices and issues like pollution. As we can infer from water bottle buying patterns, plenty of people make conscious purchasing decisions with the earth in mind.

Secondhand

Of all the reasons to shop second hand, the easiest way to conceptualize it in a zero waste way is that if you buy something that already exists, no new resources like electricity, labor, water, etc. are needed to fulfill your needs. If you buy something new instead, all of those resource inputs to make it are required again, even though there is probably a preexisting resource that can serve your need.

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The good news is that secondhand shopping, in American culture at least, has lost a great deal of the stigma it once had. It is not, however, the first choice of most. Rather than being the most common way of purchasing new things, secondhand shopping and thrifting are chosen when new isn’t an option or when looking for more eccentric purchases.

Data shows that 28% more women buy secondhand clothes than three years ago, but clothes are still viewed as disposable. ThredUp claims that 77% of millennials prefer to buy from environmentally-conscious brands, but I caution that the new rise in secondhand shopping shouldn’t continue with the model of fast fashion. If clothing purchases continue on their trend of constant acquisition rather than conscious buying for long term use, we’ve done little to stand against ultimately unsustainable buying habits. While this trend seems to be towards recirculation over accumulation, meaning clothing is purchased and quickly discarded back into a circular economy rather than the trash, there are plenty of brands flooding the secondhand market that are not ethically or sustainably made. It’s predicted that secondhand will be larger than fast fashion in ten years due to huge predicted growth of the secondhand market and more modest, although still notable, growth in fast fashion. And between 2018 and 2023 the secondhand clothing market will double in value to be worth $51,000,000,000 (fifty one billion dollars) (x). The increased popularity in secondhand is good, but we must take it with a grain of salt. As long as fast fashion continues and maintains its status as disposable, it is still a threat to sustainable consumption; purchasing fast fashion with future intent for resale still isn’t good, especially considering the already large secondhand market and other resources available like renting or borrowing clothes.

As zero wasters, we can normalize thrifted, consigned, and swapped goods by talking openly about where, how, and why we shop. The more typical used clothes, furniture, housewares, and the like become, the more likely usable resources will stay in the circular economy; these are not lesser options, but simply available resources. And while the stigma around secondhand is certainly fades, our actual attitudes towards clothes don’t seem to be. We buy 2x as much clothing and wear it half as long since 2000, and according to the EPA, we threw away 16,000,000 (sixteen million) tons of textiles in 2015, which made up 6.1% of everything thrown away.  Let’s promote the longevity of clothes and the importance not only of where and how we buy, but of how we maintain our clothes and possessions. Secondhand shouldn’t replace constantly buying unethically made firsthand goods, but be a part of conscious consumption: thoughtful, appreciated, and with the intent to fully use.

Low impact diets

Vegan and vegetarian diets are more mainstream than ever, but they still stump plenty of people. We’ve all been a victim of “where do you get your protein?”, but the often frustrating conversation can be a way to discuss one of the various reasons diets free-of or low-in animal products are beneficial. My experience is that most people assume vegetarians and vegans skip animal products due to compassion for animals. That is a compelling reason, of course, but when asked why I bring vegan food to parties or order the vegan option at a restaurant when I’m vegetarian, I explain the relationship between our diets and emissions and that even if vegetarian is better than with meat, vegan is best. The more frequently we associate our dietary choices with real-world consequences like emissions, labor conditions, and suffering, the less strange it seems to make dietary choices due to their impact beyond ourselves.

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This is a difficult balance to strike; I’ve never been hassled by a vegan but I’ve been frequently hassled by people who choose to eat animal products. Regardless, the expectation and stereotype is that people who don’t eat animal products will shame and attack people who do. That in mind, we are not responsible for informing everyone we meet about the positive environmental impacts of eating fewer animal products, nor are we responsible for guilty consciouses that lash out when we skip cheese.

There is some evidence for the cause of vegetarian and vegan diets becoming more mainstream relating to normalization. One 2016 poll found that veganism in the UK has increased by 361% in the past decade, from about 150,000 to 542,000 people (x). As for why the large increase has happened, there are various factors, including the new face of veganism largely popularized on the internet through influencers and content creators. While some feel that this rebranding of veganism has diminished the powerful stances it took on politics and society, it seems unlikely that plant-based diets would have seen their recent rise in success if they had remained so solidly associated with the fringe rather than the mainstream and concerns about health and the environment. Finally, the word “vegan” itself has undergone a transformation; while plenty of people still choose plant-based to label themselves, vegan is hardly the dirty word it used to be.

So, what do we do? In 2018, Mintel found that more than half of Americans feel a meal is incomplete without meat. In addition to eating as much vegetarian and vegan food as you can, I suggest we serve, share, and normalize our meat-free meals. Food is closely tied to tradition and culture, so adding plant-based foods and plant-based versions of your favorite foods to your life can bring animal product-free foods closer to whatever diet is normal for yourself, your friends and your family can be a powerful sign that plant-based foods have a place in everyone’s life, even those who eat meat, dairy, and other foods derived from animals.

Consumer culture

One of the most troubling and wasteful parts of our culture is consumerism, or the idea that consuming and owning more is better than consuming and owning less. In other words, it’s good to buy things continuously, and our buying need not correspond with our actual needs so much as our wants. On the flip side is that those who don’t consume, don’t partake because they don’t have the resources (money) to do so. The issue with changing this cultural attitude is that it’s closely related to ideas of wealth, poverty, and status.

If your own observations don’t have you convinced we might have a teeny, tiny, nasty problem, here are some facts as compiled by Joshua Becker on Becoming Minimalist. About 50% of online shoppers will increase their shopping cart just to hit free shipping minimums (x). One survey of girls by Varsity Brands and Ketchum Global Research Network found that girls aged 13-18 identified shopping as their favorite pastime(x). About 95% of teens and adults say they take part in some kind of retail therapy (x). And if you haven’t heard it yet, the average American throws away about 65 lbs of clothes a year (x). We buy constantly, we look for things to buy even when we don’t need them, and we use buying as an emotional support.

The first thing to do, of course, is buy less and make sure the things being bought are needed and used thoughtfully. Consumption is not a hobby. It’s time we stop shopping for sport, just to pass the time when we don’t need things. It’s time we fess up that nothing we buy in excess can bring contentment to our lives. Beyond that, we need to normalize owning and maintaining things with care. Talking about how you consume consciously, the research you do or the freedom you feel without the need to continue buying, can help push this cultural shift. Some suggestions to push this change in our own lives include giving up shopping as a social event and online shopping as a pastime, sharing our buying habits with those we know, and corny as it may be, show in our own lives that we can live happy, fulfilled lives outside of the pursuit of stuff.


Since about the beginning of 2018, Google Trends indicates searches for “zero waste” have doubled. Figures aren’t solid, but it can solidly be said that online interest in zero waste has increased. If zero waste is on the rise, let’s be clear about the changes we need to make for it to thrive. Working to normalize sensible eco-friendly choices, sustainable secondhand, low impact diets, and consumption are important steps in making zero waste easier for ourselves and less foreign to others.

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