I’m all for reducing waste, and I think that lowering your impact and waste is an important part of living sustainably. I also make a habit of sharing low/zero waste products and solutions. However, I can’t see myself adopting a zero waste/plastic-free lifestyle with the way things currently are. Here’s why:
Garbage is not my top priority
Focusing on “zero waste” means prioritizing waste, but sustainability-wise I think other things are more important. I try my best to find products and brands that have a sustainable and ethical focus throughout their supply chain, production and use. Things like sustainable materials, quality/longevity, ethical manufacturing, low impact production, versatile styles, and supporting small, conscious businesses all come before waste for me.
For example, given the choice between an ethically-made garment from organic, fair-trade cotton shipped in a polybag or a regular cotton garment from a non-transparent brand that I can buy without the bag, I will always choose the first option. This is because I feel that supporting the first company has a much greater impact throughout the supply chain, than the impact of saving a plastic bag. Also it’s important to note that most clothes are shipped in plastic bags; even if you buy the item in store, it still likely came to the store in a bag, and therefore generated the same waste. Of course; sustainable brands should be trying to reduce their waste and use sustainable packaging, and most do a very good job. However, as People Tree explains in their post, things like the use of polybags can be very difficult, and brands often have to weigh the importance of a lot of different areas to decide on the best packaging to use.
Beauty products are another example. For me, supporting a cruelty-free brand that uses high-quality, natural, non-toxic ingredients, and makes effective products is the most important. There aren’t a lot of plastic-free options with makeup or care products; even glass containers almost always have plastic lids. If there are comparable products, I will choose the one with less packaging, but I prioritize ingredients and responsible brands over less plastic.
The guilt is real
I don’t think sustainability movements should be motivated by guilt, and I talked about this in my video on guilt and judgement. When I tried out Plastic Free July, my motivation shifted from wanting to do something positive to trying to avoid the guilt. A garment with plastic on the tag; forgetting to ask for no straw; having to buy certain groceries that aren’t available package free; the plastic packaging for medication; these things all made me feel bad. And this was only something I had to consider for a short time; I didn’t have to replace my makeup or beauty products during that month.
What keeps me motivated to live greener is knowing that I’m trying to work towards positive change, and that I’m learning, growing and improving. While I did learn a lot from trying a month of plastic-free living, instead of feeling like I was doing something good, I always felt like I was messing up, having to weigh difficult decisions, or being reminded of my “failures” by holding onto a jar of my plastic trash. Maybe over a longer period of time living this lifestyle, the feelings would’ve changed, but I definitely didn’t feel very good or motivated.
I believe in a “do good” approach instead of a “do no harm” approach; I find this positive perspective to be more effective. Usually when I talk with people who are struggling, or feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, they’re focusing on all the negative and harmful aspects of their lifestyle instead of looking at where they can make changes and have a positive impact.
Zero waste living is very dependent on access/specialty stores and also time
Some cities are amazing and have lots of bulk options and easy access to zero waste products. We were lucky enough to have a package free store (now two!) open up in our city about a year ago, but before, there was no way to buy things like rice, dried beans/lentils, pasta, and other staple foods without plastic. Now, even though the zero waste stores are pretty great, they still have a limited selection of items and we can’t find everything. While one is luckily not too far from me, it’s still a 30ish min walk with heavy glass containers and limits how much I can buy. If you don’t have one in your neighborhood it mean carrying tons of glass jars and big bags on the bus and train which isn’t possible for everyone, or driving which of course has other sustainability issues.
Also, while traveling, we’ll often try to save money and cook where we’re staying, but unfortunately at most grocery stories you can’t find foods plastic-free. If you don’t have access to stores that sell bulk, it’s just not a realistic lifestyle.
Additionally it often requires more time. A lot of things need to be DIY’d and it basically means the majority of pre-made, packaged foods are off the table. I really enjoy making things myself and cooking, and things like my DIY deodorant are definitely doable for me, but the reality is that making everything can take a lot of time that I (and most people) don’t always have.
It can conflict with eating vegan
I have been vegetarian for over 10 years now and eating vegan/plant-based is important to me. Now that we have a package-free store we’ve been able to reduce the amount of plastic that comes with our groceries, but for some items, this is still unavoidable. For example, plant and nut milks are a staple in our fridge and we have no plastic-free options or time to DIY them. Another big one for me is vegan faux meats. Especially in the summer, when we’re barbecuing with friends, I want eating vegan to seem “normal” – i.e., I want to show that you can eat the same foods and they can be really delicious! For a lot of meat-eaters, realizing that they can still eat the foods they like and are used to, is a big part of being open to and incorporating more plant-based meals into their diet. Introducing my friends and family to meat-free options is much more important to me than avoiding plastic and giving the impression that plant-based diets are very difficult and restrictive when they don’t have to be.
So while zero waste is not where I choose to primarily focus my attention, I’d love to hear if you live zero waste or have tried it! Have you encountered similar issues or conflicts?