“Zero Waste” is a big concept and undertaking. It can be very daunting and mysterious, especially at first. Luckily, there is an entire community of folks who have already trodden down the zero waste path and can share their expertise and wisdom with those who are newer to the idea.
Here are some lessons I have learned along the way that I wish I would have known before starting my zero waste journey:
- The system is set up for wasting, and that is not your fault. Attempting to reduce your waste or going for “zero waste” often requires going against the grain and is like swimming upstream. It can be very challenging at times! It also makes you stronger and more aware with every action you take. Reducing waste is incredibly rewarding and beneficial, but it is not always the most convenient or easy way to do things. Remember that there are many things out of your control, and many things about our system that you didn’t personally choose. Be patient and give yourself grace!
- You cannot control other people. Sometimes, people will buy you gifts packaged in outrageous amounts of plastic. People might serve you drinks with straws, even though you specified that you didn’t want one. The coffee shop might not accept your reusable travel mug. Etc. Just as you should give yourself grace, you should extend that grace to other people, as well. Not everything will go perfectly 100% of the time, and that’s okay! Use mistakes and mix-ups as learning experiences.
- In most cases, the most sustainable option is using what you already have and/or buying nothing at all. Consumerism and greenwashing is pervasive – even (ironically) in the zero waste sphere. Try not to start your zero waste journey by buying all the newest, fanciest “zero waste essentials.” First and foremost, unless you have a compelling reason not to (like that it was made out of toxic materials, it is broken and unfixable, etc.), use what you have. This is better for the planet AND your wallet!
- “Zero waste” does not literally mean “zero.” Being part of the zero waste movement does not have to mean fitting 4 years worth of personal waste into a 16 oz mason jar. In fact, there are some folks who prefer the term “low waste” because it feels more attainable than “zero waste.” If that works for you, great! I like “zero waste” because it helps reframe our concept of “waste.” An important goal of Home ReSource is to shift our relationship with materials so that we do not see them as “waste,” but as resources with value and potential. That is what “zero waste” means to me – rejecting the notion that waste is inevitable, and rediscovering the value of materials and resources.
- Zero waste is a journey, not a destination. There probably won’t be a day when you wake up and realize, “Oh! Now I’m zero waste!” There will be setbacks, stops and starts, and you will constantly be learning and evolving and changing. There will also be days when you have other things going on in your life and you don’t have the capacity to worry about avoiding that plastic-wrapped product or making your homemade deodorant. That’s okay! Don’t worry about being perfect. Think of zero waste more as a philosophy or practice rather than an absolute end point.
- Life is multi-faceted and complicated – the most ethical and sustainable option might not be the option that produces the least amount of trash. Low waste is a great priority, but it is not the only thing to consider when trying to make ethical and sustainable purchases. How, where, and by whom the item was produced; overall carbon footprint; its ingredients; who is selling it, etc., are all important considerations as well!
- Zero waste is not new, and it is not just for white people. The ideals behind the authentic concept of zero waste have existed for thousands of years across many cultures (check out this video to learn more) and models itself after the natural world, where there is no such thing as waste. The zero waste lifestyle trend often presents as very new, polished, expensive, white, and female – which is not an accurate or representative way of depicting this ancient concept. Understanding the intersection of race, economic status, and zero waste is essential in realizing a zero waste world. Read more about intersectional environmentalism and waste here, and watch this video for more.
- Equity and zero waste are intertwined. Resources and initial investment are required to make waste-reducing lifestyle changes, which not everyone has access to. Reusable water bottles, grocery bags, organic package-free produce, etc. all cost money – often they cost significantly more up-front than their disposable counterparts. That is why systemic change and community support are such important pieces of the zero waste picture. Additionally, there are many environmental justice concerns with the materials economy – the way we make, transport, and dispose of our consumer goods leaches toxins and harmful byproducts into our bodies, ecosystems, and communities. This problem disproportionately impacts low-income and minority communities. Addressing our waste problems means addressing racial and economic injustice, too.
- In order to realize a zero waste world, the entire system needs to change. Individual lifestyle changes raise awareness, create demand for sustainable options, are personally beneficial, and can be very empowering. However, we cannot achieve zero waste without systemic change. We need equitable, universal access to zero waste infrastructure and services; education of zero waste skills; manufacturer accountability; sharing, borrowing, and repair networks; product and packaging redesign; and a shift from a linear, materials-based economy to a circular economy. The zero waste movement is about more than getting a bunch of individuals to change their habits – it’s about pushing for infrastructure, policy, and economic changes. There are many levels to zero waste, and while the individual level is important, we cannot stop there!