5 things nobody tells you about going zero waste

There are plenty of helpful things widely circulating about zero waste, like how to use a safety razor or DIY reusable cotton rounds for removing makeup. The zero waste community as I know it tries to show individual successes and failure, and there is a recent valuable shift to discussion of larger systematic problems and not just reusable cups. Still, with all of the media there is to choose from, outside of the zero waste community, coverage of zero waste living is incredibly topical and hyper-focused on reducing single-use plastic, even though most zero wasters these days are focused much more on resource use than just plastic waste.

So if you’re starting a zero waste lifestyle, here are some things you probably didn’t see in that Buzzfeed article:

  1. It’s not the most impactful thing to do for the environment

We know and have known that the most important thing we can do to reduce our impact on the earth is not living plastic free. While reducing our dependence on single use plastic can certainly reduce pollution and give less support to the fossil fuel industry (plastic is made from fossil fuels), even if we stopped using all plastic (not a good idea), climate change would continue barreling forward. The single biggest impact we can make is through our diet, and through eating fewer animals and animal products. Shop package-free when you can of course, but it’s more important that you buy vegetarian sausages than that you buy them package free.

2. It’s not all about personal changes

We’re in a system that doesn’t work.

There’s no finish line in zero waste, folks. While there are many improvements already, such as the wider availability of paper straws and more stores and brands reducing their food packaging (looking at you, Aldi USA), there is still a long way to go. The way you live zero waste looks different depending on what you have reasonable access to, and will change as improvements continue. I like to think we’re all in the same boat on the zero waste river of figuring things out as we go along the terrifyingly fast current of impending climate change and the refusal of otherwise reasonable people to stop buying things they don’t need and use fewer fossil fuels. I digress.

In Ireland, 60% of in-home food waste is avoidable, and each household is annually responsible for the waste of one ton of food, valued anywhere from 400-600 euro per household (x). Food waste in the home is a waste of resources we had direct control over reducing, and not a systematic problem, so this is much easier to affect personally. Systematically, however, there are larger problems. For example, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) estimates, “in 2010 food loss and waste at the retail and consumer levels was 31 percent of the food supply, equaling 133 billion pounds and almost $162 billion.” (x) Over 30% of food grown in the USA is wasted and never even makes it to our homes to be eaten; as an individual consumer, you’re not contributing to this directly.

3. You don’t need to buy anything

Have you read this blog before? We’re not big on buying things, period. There’s a whole six week shopping ban series to help you kick-off zero waste without spending a dime, and I am a firm believer that that you don’t need to buy anything to go zero waste. After all, buying things means diverting resources from someone else or encouraging the creation and use of new resources, which is wasteful when it’s unnecessary.Trying to make owning or buying certain things as a gateway to going zero waste is a contradiction because zero waste is, at the core, against unnecessary or excessive consumption.

4. The way you Impact people around you

I hate to make claims based only on anecdotes, but my lived experience has shown two things:

1.      People expect you to have a stainless steel straw up your a**

And what do I mean by that? I’ve heard from too many people that I’m not as uptight or judgmental of their non-zero waste choices as they expected. First things, ouch. I’ve never felt motivated to shame people for their wasteful choices, and as much as people seem to be on the offense to avoid these comments, I’ve never heard any made in real life or seen any online.

You get to disprove the idea that people passionate about living consciously are annoying. It’s a burden or a privilege, but being down-to-earth and zero waste is just as important for the image of the movement as the aesthetically pleasing Instagram posts we love to make.

2.      People often change without your pressure

One of my housemates recently said to me that she was going to stop buying bottled water once she found a filter; we never spoke about water or bottles. Once, I asked my father to bring mushrooms to dinner, and he showed up with a knitted hat full of mushrooms which the cashier had weighed and sold to him package free.

We are the change-makers for a better normal.

Living my example has impacted people immensely. Not to appear less than humble, but I’ve heard that a time or two. We should absolutely talk about zero waste and resource use, but people have often already heard and didn’t care to change their lifestyles. Worse, many of us often feel disinclined to so something once it’s been prescribed to us as necessary. In other words, don’t tell me what to do, eco-mom! I can do what I want! It's not your job to be super approachable and informed on everything, but chances are your family, friends, and peers identify with you on some level. Living zero waste exactly as who you are is the best way for more people to feel like they can live this way too, and living in front of them encourages change.

5. You’ll still have a normal life

Breaking news: zero waste living is totally normal, and if it’s not, then we are the change-makers for a better normal. It’s arguably abnormal not to partake in consumption for sport and hobby, to buy everything secondhand, and to occasionally not gratify our desires when the thing we want doesn’t align with our values. It’s arguably common and accepted that shopping is fun and a good way to pass time, that new is better, and that we shouldn’t have to say no to ourselves (treat yourself). Consumption is many parts of the world is not sustainable. If the whole world lived like in the USA (my country), we would use up our yearly resources on March 19th, and if the whole world lived like Ireland (where I live), we would use up our yearly resources on April 27th (x). Serious changes need to happen, including changes in our lifestyle and in legislation. There is no sustainable future where we continue consuming the way we currently are; zero waste, low waste, and conscious lifestyles absolutely need to be normal, and we have the power to determine the new normal.

Zero waste is gaining popularity, which is wonderful, but let’s be sure not to water down some of the best parts of zero waste: the lifestyle values finding and living a good life without dependence on consumption of material goods for entertainment, values the greater good over pursuing convenience, and that ultimately calls for cultural change. So maybe things are a little radical, but it shouldn’t. Let’s push for the changes we want in our world, and happy zero wasting!