Why I’m Not Zero Waste

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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?



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14 Responses

  1. Sophie Sapienza
    | Reply

    That is so true! Thanks for a well written post and also reflecting what I’ve felt whilst trying to go zero waste – guilt every time I want something that is packaged and look at my trash can.
    On the plus side trying to reduce my waste production has been an eye-opener on where I can easily reduce my consumption with no side effects – the usual bring my own grocery bags, carry a reusable bottle or coffee cup when on the go, use soaps instead of shower gels etc. It has pushed me to question whether I really need something before buying, take better care of what I own already, find alternative for lots of disposable stuff, buy more fresh food instead of packaged foods (which is often packaged), and eventually reduce the amount of ‘stuff’ I own and look into simplifying my routine – which is amazing!
    However I also found it very guilt-inducing every time I crave a packaged snack or forget my reusable water bottle. And initially it stopped me from buying ethical products that came with packaging.
    Interestingly, in many cases, the packaging is the tip of the iceberg of a goods’ impacts. Your example of vegan burgers is a particularly good one – most of the lifecycle impacts of a piece of meat is in growing the feed (usually requiring fertilisers, water etc.) and on the farm (because of cows’ emissions, pollution from the manure treatment etc.). So switching from an unpackaged beef burger to a packaged vegan burger still drastically reduces the overall environmental impacts of your meal.
    That also applies to clothes as most of the environmental and social impacts are in their production, as well as during their use because of washing/drying/ironing.
    So if I need a product and I find one ethically produced AND unpackaged, fantastic! But if not and the choice is ethical/packaged, or unpackaged/not partically ethical, I try and go for the former. Ideally I should then contact the brand and ask them to reduce their packaging 🙂

  2. Sophia
    | Reply

    Thank you for addressing this issue, Erin! I remember watching your video that addressed this a while ago, and I completely agree that we should be focusing on the positives that we can do in the world. I think the zero waste movement requires such a high standard of perfection that no one can hope to achieve it! There is no such thing as absolutely zero waste, do people not realize this? We can only hope to do our best, and to not be so hard on ourselves when we don’t achieve the impossible standard. I really hope that high bar doesn’t discourage too many people from trying to live more sustainably, because it really is a great cause.

  3. Jailyn Dyer
    | Reply

    I agree. It’s the same issue I’ve run into with other ethical movements. I can only do my best, as Ky put it, and try to balance my priorities. I also know that even the big bulk stores have to deal with plastic in the products they buy, so the zero waste is just passed up the chain (just as it is buying clothes locally).

    Being conscious of waste is important and it is good to push businesses to reduce waste where they can. I love when companies offer end of life options to their products, but I have only found a few so far. Hopefully, this kind of thinking will become the norm as time goes on.

  4. Ky
    | Reply

    To me, no matter what the discussion—waste reduction, ethical shopping, clean cosmetics, sustainable living, it all boils down to being CONSCIOUS and DOING YOUR BEST. Making choices because they are thoughtful and intentional, and not because you are on autopilot or being complacent. Being aware of your waste and doing what you can to reduce it. Being aware of the shopping options and making the best choice you can based on availability, finances, etc. Realizing that there will never be a “net zero” in any resource exchange but making the best, most thoughtful choice that you can based on your unique circumstances. Can you imagine the global changes if even 90% of our everyday choices were made consciously, no matter what our unique circumstances?! Every person being thoughtful and doing their best. Perfection is an invisible dangling carrot, so we should just relinquish that ideal and simply focus on being aware and doing the best we can. Always striving, always looking for the better option, but also giving ourselves grace and patience. I personally describe myself as “low waste and striving to live more consciously and ethically in every aspect of life.” Great post Erin!

    • Verena Erin
      | Reply

      Well said! 🙂

  5. Noémie
    | Reply

    I live a zéro waste lifestyle for 2 years now. I got around 150 to 180g of trash wich go to the incenerator per year. I live in France. The options to live this lifestyle are quite easy to find : Farmer’s markets every 2 days around my place or my work place, 4 organic bulk stores in my city for food and cleaning products. Once a year I go the city next to mine to buy beauty products that could refill. And for cosmetic products, I’ll buy what I need for a year on web site that sells french products in recyclable packagings and those products are sent in a reused paper packaging. I also some of my cleaning and beauty products, only when it’s take less then 5 min to be done! For me this lifestyle is really easy to live it and I don’t have to sacrifice other important things like buying local or ethical. I have to admit that I’m lucky because everything that I need is easy to get. I know that’s not the case for everyone.

    • Verena Erin
      | Reply

      That’s awesome! It’s wonderful you have so many great options available!

  6. Nicole
    | Reply

    This is EXACTLY how I’ve been feeling. I discovered zero waste before the wider conscious movement and your channel and I ran up against the same issues of guilt and restriction being the priority rather than doing good. I’ve recently realised that there *really* is no perfect and there will likely *always* be compromise AND I do think the priorities can change depending on your region and it’s main issues and available options. And, as I’m now considering going vegan, i totally agree that I’ve noticed regular conflict between eating vegan (in particular as opposed to other vegan aspects) and trying to be plastic free. I also would like to show these better choices as being easy and accessible as a priority and while some plastic-free choices are easy and economical (carrying a cotton totebag;especially now that the UK charges for plastic bags anyway!) other choices like going for organic food often means going for plastic (because that’s how they’re separated from the non-organic food) or plant milks which won’t be delivered by a milkman in glass bottles like non-vegan milk could be.
    Anyway, not to ramble, I just find this really relatable and I’m still working on defining my priorities to help make my choices easier to make. I think I remember you posting s video about stuff to think about on this point, but do you have a blog post of any recommended reading or watching that has helped you or that might help someone else to continue to define their priorities?

    • Verena Erin
      | Reply

      It can be really difficult to figure out your priorities and where you’re willing to compromise. I set up a few activities about this for people who participated in the “fast-fashion fast” this summer (which I’m hoping I’ll also have available as an e-book soon!).
      I think it’s important to learn about the issues in different areas- labour, environment, animals, etc. and first see if there’s one thing that resonates with you more, that’s often a good starting point and most people have something that started them thinking more about the products they buy.

      If you want to refine it more start creating a hierarchy (and remember this doesn’t mean it’s set in stone). First list all the qualities you can think of that your “perfect” item would have (maybe it’s fair trade, from a natural, sustainable material, supports small businesses, etc.) and then slowly start removing one at a time- if you can’t have all of those things which one are you willing to let go of or comprise on. As you go you should see which things are top priorities for you.

      Another way to think about this is comparing them to each other- if you have choices of the same product with different qualities which would you choose? For example I ran into this recently when purchasing running shoes, there was an option made from sustainable/recycled materials but from an ethically questionable brand, or shoes from a brand than was pretty transparent and manufactured locally but using not very sustainable materials. I personally value the ethical manufacturing over the recycled materials.

      • Nicole
        | Reply

        Oh I like that exercise of taking away issues to see which are non-negotiable. I suppose we do that naturally while buying things but the comparisons would probably help make it clearer and refine what really are top priorities.
        Really looking forward to that e-book!! Sounds like it’d be really handy 😀
        In the meantime, I’m going to keep gathering information and find out more about some of the areas you mentioned.

  7. Melody
    | Reply

    I agree. I think ‘Zero waste’ is catchy but kind of unhelpful because it sets the goal as perfection, which is pretty much impossible in the modern world even if you devote a lot of time and effort to it. I also think other goals are important. Just now I ordered a good quality wool top for my daughter from a secondhand website. I know it will be posted to me in a plastic courier bag but I think overall it’s an ethical choice. I want to support a thriving secondhand market rather than having perfectly good clothes being thrown away. I’m also trying to move towards eating a more plant based diet and I’m choosing to relax a little on packaging while I adjust to a new area of life (e.g. almond milk in terra cartons). You can’t do everything all at once, I know with two small children I just don’t have the time or energy and I have to focus on the biggest areas. Using reusable nappies as much as I can eliminates more than the rest of all of our waste combined so I work hard on that.

    • Verena Erin
      | Reply

      I totally agree, the “zero” is very marketable but set a goal which just isn’t realistic for many people. I think it can cause a lot of guilt and also turn people off from the movement, which is unfortunate because reducing/lowering waste is something we can all work on without trying to achieve “zero waste”.

  8. Julia
    | Reply

    Thank you for this very interesting post!
    I try to avoid plastic as much as possible especially when buying groceries, although I also struggle constantly by having to choose between food that is unpackaged or packaged in recyclable material as cardboard vs. organic or fair trade products, which are packaged in plastics.
    Although there are several unpackaged/bulk stores in my city, I don’t frequent them regularly. What irritates me most about them is that things like dry goods such as beans, corn, pasta or lentils are a lot more expensive at these package-free stores than at the regular supermarkets, even if the bulk option is conventional and the packaged supermarket option is organic and/or fair trade. 🙁
    For me it turned out as the most convenient option to buy a lot of fresh produce at the weekly farmers market and stock up on dry goods in large packages. I just finished the 5kg bag of oats I bought in January and I’m very much looking forward to buying the next one soon and not having to worry about buying oats for the next 10 months 😀
    Things that I think everyone can and should do are little improvements like bringing your own bag, use a cloth napkin for wrapping your sandwich or swapping paper handkerchiefs for cloth handkerchiefs (although I can understand that this is not for everyone ;)) – you just do you! Every little step taken is good for our planet 🙂

    • Verena Erin
      | Reply

      Thanks Julia! Food can be so difficult, I think it’s great what you’re doing. Farmer’s markets especially are really wonderful to support, I wish we had better farmer’s markets near where I live, I really miss them! Like you said, there are so many little improvements we can make and I think those should be the focus instead of getting frustrated about trying to adopt a totally new lifestyle. 🙂

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