7 zero waste beginner mistakes to avoid
If you’re just starting zero waste, you might feel overwhelmed. Zero waste can be incorporated into your entire life, so it can feel like there are a lot of places to go wrong and a lot to tackle. The good news is that you’re not the first person to come up against these obstacles, and that you don’t have to live in any exact way because zero waste looks different for every one.
That in mind, here are 7 common beginner zero waste mistakes:
With many pursuits, the first step is to consume. Want to start a new hobby? Get the gear.
Many people just beginning a zero waste lifestyle a lot of purchases at the start, which is a huge mistake and misunderstanding of what waste is. Zero waste isn’t just about the things you can throw away. It means using what you have before anything else, because buying anything new means supporting the use of new resources (water, energy, labor) to make it. There’s nothing you can buy that can make you zero waste. You can’t buy yourself to a lifestyle that is ultimately anti-consumeristic.
The best way to start zero waste? A shopping ban. To transition to zero waste without buying anything, the first thing to do is start living zero waste, with whatever you have, without buying anything. If there were a better answer, I’d give you one. I have a 6 week zero waste shopping ban series here and details of my 7 month shopping ban here. The shopping ban series has week by week steps to tackle reducing your waste in your kitchen, bathroom, wardrobe, and more, with tasks and tips. Of course, you will have to buy something eventually; your toothbrush will need to be replaced, and things will break, but those things come after.
Before you buy anything, assess what you already have. How many extra bottles of shampoo are under your sink? Use them before buying a shampoo bar. How much forgotten, uneaten food is in your cupboard? How much do you throw away each week because it went bad in the fridge? Learn to eat what you have (before it spoils) before you prioritize buying rice in reusable bulk bags. Look to what you have and put in the effort to make that work for zero waste, and even if you’re not interested in following the six week shopping ban, a month to six weeks is the perfect amount of time to consider if you need a purchase that doesn’t have to be made immediately, like home decorations, technology, or kitchen gadgets.
When I first started pursuing zero waste, it was exciting. I read blogs. I watched Youtube videos. It’s easy to try it all at once, washing your hair with baking soda, eating more vegan food, and bringing reusable cups or napkins everywhere you go, but be wary of making too many changes at once. It’s common wisdom that changes don’t stick if we try to change too quickly, so take the gradual approach. I found success going bit by bit through my life-starting with grooming and beauty, then taking care of and buying material things, and so on- to be manageable and easier to stick to. Pick one area of your life and work through what needs to change there; you don’t have to compartmentalize and entirely wait until your zero waste bathroom is finished to start ordering veggie burgers instead of beef, but you’ll avoid overwhelm if you try to understand and take care of smaller chunks rather than trying to overhaul every part of your life at once.
On the topic of overhaul, be careful in trying to overhaul your entire lifestyle when going zero waste. That might sound a bit counterintuitive since zero waste is a lifestyle, but think bigger picture. If you don’t exercise now, you don’t have to try and find ethical exercise gear. If you don’t cook now and eat out most meals, focusing on a zero waste kitchen doesn’t make much sense. Try and make the life you’re currently living as zero waste as possible, and consider the wasteful things you do that also should change, like shopping for fun or eating a lot of meat. There seems to be an online connection between natural living and zero waste, but you don’t have to buy into any of that or adopt that way of living. Being zero waste doesn’t mean you have to turn into a wellness guru, so just keep in mind that you can put zero waste into your life rather than trying to center your life on zero waste.
I love a good DIY, I love to cook from scratch and participate in making things I use, but don’t get caught up in making absolutely everything to be zero waste. I wrote about it at length here, but DIY isn’t a sustainable way for most of us to procure certain things we need, and the more factors we apply to it, like multi-person households, time constraints, lack of access to materials, and cost, the less possible constant DIY becomes for most of us. The better option is to have access to package-free and responsibly produced versions of the things we need, and DIY can be a good way to bridge that gap until we find those things, but for many of us there isn’t access at the moment.
I encourage you to be a skeptic when it comes to anything DIY and health related, and the last thing I’ll say on the topic is that dental work is a lot more expensive and can result in the waste of far more resources (money, disposable sterile instruments, plastic packaging, your time and energy) than a plastic tube of toothpaste if you opt for something like DIY toothpaste, and it’s not something I’m willing to risk.
The easiest way to derail your zero waste train is by deciding you can do it all, all at once and perfectly, which nobody can; don’t fall prey to an all-or-nothing attitude. There will be mistakes, misunderstandings, and learning along the way. You don’t have to be fully “in” to zero waste to make a difference or to be approaching zero waste. What each person is able to do depends on a variety of factors like location, local resources, income, and ability, to name a few.
That in mind, it’s worth knowing from the get-go that change will happen gradually, and you don’t have to feel ready or know how to make every change from the beginning. I was comfortable switching to reusable menstrual products like menstrual cups from early on in my zero waste journey, but I know some people who, despite knowing all of the great things about cups, just don’t feel like it’s a choice they want to make at the moment. On the contrary, I never thought I would give up makeup. Giving up makeup was the most mentally difficult part of living this lifestyle for me, and had a much larger mental load than eating a vegan diet, which required much less thought for me. I didn’t think I could or ever would want to give up makeup, but it could and I feel so proud I did it. On the other hand, I was sure I could keep up with 100% plastic free groceries and make my own bread and pasta, but that’s not a change I have kept for the long term.
All these anecdotes to say this: use a bamboo toothbrush and commercially made toothpaste in plastic tubes. Bring your reusable cup to the coffee shop and get half & half instead of almond milk, but maybe try to learn to drink your coffee black at home because non-dairy milk just doesn’t work for you in coffee. Above all, keep an open mind. You might not stick with every change you make, and you shouldn’t write off parts of lighter impact living too soon. Remember there is no zero waste police, only community. Do what works for you.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt personally victimized by others not understanding that you want something in your own container.
The first time I bought package free coffee, I walked out of the grocery store with adrenaline pumping through my veins, like I had just reached the peak of a mountain or did something scary and rewarding instead of just buying coffee. That fear and excitement went away the longer I lived zero waste, and I happily pushed my cloth bags and reusable containers in every situation I found, from stubbornly explaining myself in Italian to fruit sellers, to holding strong eye contact with Parisian boulangerie staff who knew exactly what I was saying but were 90% sure this foreigner didn’t speak French well enough to know what she was asking for.
Don’t let worry or fear stop you from doing something so arbitrary as asking for a product in your own container. If you ask, you will almost always get things in your own bag or package free. I’ve rarely had to push and most of the time people are simply confused by your request, not unwilling to help. If you pretend like its normal, you’ll be surprised how easily other people follow along. My main tip for feeling more confident about asking is to always have clean containers. For some places, the concern is about cleanliness, so don’t ask someone else to fill your cloth bag with bread if it hasn’t been laundered or is full of crumbs. Other than that, just be sure you know the size of your containers when ordering drinks in your own cups, ie., how many ounces or ML.
Working for aesthetic
We love a good flat lay, a pretty shot of package free produce, and a mason jar with iced coffee, but don’t mix up beautiful possessions that some zero wasters have and use with necessary parts of zero waste. Zero waste isn’t only pretty white kitchens and linen produce bags; zero waste is a freezer full of compost-stuffed coffee cans because you haven’t had the chance to drop of your compost lately. It’s Cool-whip containers full of dried beans and wrapping your leftover French fries in a cloth napkin because your forgot to bring your tiffin to the restaurant for leftovers or you don’t even have tiffins because literally nobody needs them. Everybody loves a good Instagram (and boy, am I guilty of that) but zero waste isn’t an aesthetic. It’s a radical way to live by your values for the good of everyone.
When I first learned about zero waste and was introduced to buying package free, I saw the world with new eyes, and everything those eyes saw was covered in plastic. Just about anything only available in plastic packaging slowly exited from my life…and then some of it slowly re-entered a year later. Don’t let a packaging fixation reduce your understanding of zero waste.
Overuse of ever-lasting plastic packaging is not good, and I certainly avoid all unnecessary packaging, but let’s not forget that waste is more than what ends up in the trash can. Waste can be wasting resources to drive much further to a bulk store or wasting resources like water as inputs to animal agriculture. While bringing your own container and using reusable bags, etc. is usually the best way to avoid disposable plastic in food packaging, it’s not always the best way to avoid waste of resources. Hear me out: going to the butcher with a glass container to buy sausages made from animals has a larger carbon footprint than just buying the vegan sausages in a plastic bag at your grocery store. All of the emissions from animal agriculture and land-clearing to grow feed and make space to keep animals absolutely combine to have a significantly larger negative environmental impact than a single piece of plastic packaging. In 2006, Steinfeld et al. for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, as cited here, claim that deforestation may release as much as 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year because woodland like forests absorb and store more than 2x the carbon dioxide of vegetation. Nowadays, the figures probably aren’t as bleak, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has estimated that, “total carbon emissions from forests decreased by more than 25 percent between 2001 and 2015, mainly due to a slowdown in global deforestation rates”. By contrast with the 2007 figure or a lower 2015 figure, this 2019 article from the University of California-Santa Barbara found that, “the emissions from plastics in 2015 were equivalent to nearly 1.8 billion metric tons of CO2”, which is much less than the impact of deforestation for animal agriculture. All of this to say, buying vegan meat-substitutes in plastic packaging is more zero waste and can certainly have a lower impact on the earth than buying package free animal products. Plastic is overused, but it’s not the only area of concern.
Finally, the last beginner mistake is setting a finish line for zero waste. While a clear goal is a great way to give any change a direction, it’s a little reductionist to understand the end goal of your waste-reduction to be something as arbitrary as a mason jar.
I’m not outspoken against the trash jar like many zero wasters. There are many valid criticisms of the trash jar, like that it isn’t attainable for most people, that it’s an unrealistic standard, and that it doesn’t address many of the great issues of zero waste, like the waste of non-renewable resources or waste in the upstream. I wasn’t of the opinion that the jar was intimidating pre-zero waste; I didn’t ever imagine being able to do it and still understood zero waste to be interesting and valuable to pursue. And that it creates an unrealistic standard is an assertion I don’t agree with; I think most zero wasters with a jar a few years ago were well-understood to be outliers of the already uncommon lifestyle. Nowadays with zero waste becoming so popular and so many zero wasters openly criticizing the trash jar and its faults, I don’t think it’s perceived to be a standard, since it’s not a staple part of most zero waster’s lives the way that a reusable water bottle is. I’ve been doing the trash jar experiment for a year and a half now, and if you’re interested in my approach and thoughts, I was interviewed here for the Love Zero Waste podcast.
Back to the idea of an end goal, there is no finish line for zero waste. There isn’t a perfect end, like fitting weeks, months, or years of trash in a tiny glass jar, where you receive your zero waste badge and can retire. As our lives change, our approach to zero waste changes. As the system changes, our approach to zero waste will change. Living with a lighter impact on the earth looks different for every one and in the present day where living with a lighter impact requires conscious action because so many products and other lifestyle factors are wasteful, zero waste needs to be dynamic and continuous. It won’t be over when you hit a certain milestone.
So, try the trash jar or don’t, but know that it is not a stopping point or finish line.
Good luck on your zero waste journey! Learn from people who have been pursuing the lifestyle, partake in the community online or in-person, and stay open. Happy zero wasting!