Is It Possible To Be Truly Zero Waste?
Failing Zero Waste 101
Twice a week, without fail, I come home from the grocery store with fresh bundles of parsley, kale, cilantro, and romaine—for my house rabbit, aptly named Rosemary. In a perfect world, I mindfully wrap the greens in my reusable produce bags and apologize to the clerk for leaving little puddles of moisture on the checkout conveyor belt. But in the real world, I forget my bags more often than I remember them. And I have to—shudder—use the flimsy plastic bags to keep my produce clean.
It’s not just forgetting my bags though. I forget to save my veggie scraps in the freezer for making broth later, letting the rest go straight to the trash instead of compost. Or, I get an unexpected period and don’t feel comfortable quite yet with a menstrual cup—and look! Sixty tampons, complete with applicators, on sale at Target.
The zero waste conversation often centers on the shame we feel for not doing it properly or for not being zero waste enough. Did I drive a car today? Did I create trash? Did I buy shampoo in a plastic container? We focus on what we’re doing wrong because zero waste is inherently all or nothing, thanks to the absolute nature of the word “zero.” It’s a claim that instantly asks to have holes poked in it. But does that mean it’s not a goal worth setting?
“We need to let go of the idea that there is a right way and a wrong way to be zero waste,” says Megan McSherry, sustainability educator and creator of ACTEEVISM. McSherry, who experiences chronic illnesses, realizes the limitations of the zero waste movements from a personal perspective. But the goal doesn’t have to be absolute zero to make an impact.
“I have actually found that approaching individual sustainability in an imperfect way has resonated with far more people in my life than I expected—family members, friends, coworkers, etc.,” says McSherry. “When something feels more attainable, more people feel inspired to get involved. And expanding your impact outside of just yourself is key to the environmental movement.”
Zero waste—which isn’t a recent (or western) invention and has roots in Indigenous cultures all around the world—centers intentionality at every stage of a product or consumable, from its origins to its eventual recycling or re-use. Instead of asking us to manage our waste, zero waste living seeks another purpose for items at the end of their life. So instead of the cradle-to-grave cycles, this approach considers how everything can move from cradle to another cradle. Think about it as the difference between a plastic water bottle (that may not end up getting recycled) and a reusable metal water bottle that lasts for decades and can be passed along to new users again and again. That process of reusability is, at its simplest, cradle-to-cradle thinking.
It also can look different based on your resources and needs. Consider this: You want salsa for dinner, so you purchase it from the grocery store in a glass jar. One way to practice zero waste would be to keep the used glass as a drinking vessel instead of throwing it out. Or, perhaps you purchase the raw ingredients and make salsa— both approaches are creatively considering the leftover waste.
“Zero waste” doesn’t need to be all-or-nothing; instead, we can embrace a low waste mindset, develop thoughtful habits around our consumption, and advocate for causes at a scale that can make an impact across industries.
But, “Hearing ‘zero waste’ can be off-putting, scary, or overwhelming,” notes Addie Fisher, the Founding Editor & Content Creator of Old World New. “Diversifying the terminology that we use and always being honest about our efforts—our wins and fails—and the circumstances under which we achieve them, is very necessary.” Fisher suggests shifting to terms like low waste, low impact, and conscious consumerism, which can feel more honest and accessible.
A shift in our language can help remind us that the global waste problem is not only ours as individuals to solve. But, it’s also essential to balance our personal choices with using our voices to call for significant change. It’s like our daily nutritional intake, according to Fisher: “I think of my personal impact and civic duty and advocacy efforts as two necessary parts of the system.”
This means keeping a close eye on the EPA’s progress with environmental initiatives (here’s a list of actions to call your representatives about and to vote on!). We can also call on our companies to explore waste reduction strategies and certifications, like TRUE, in offices and manufacturing spaces. We can look to (and donate to) advocacy groups like Intersectional Environmentalist to amplify and educate voices that might often get overlooked in the sustainability conversation.
We must remember this movement is not exclusive—and it shouldn’t feel that way. Social media may make zero waste seem glamorous—moral, even. But an IG-worthy zero waster often feels more like the “norm” versus someone who instead practices the concept out of financial necessity.
“There are a number of factors that contribute to someone’s ability to live a low waste lifestyle, including access to zero waste goods, access to various modes of transportation, chronic illnesses and disabilities, and time,” explains McSherry.
We can’t all buy acreage and live outside of the city as homesteaders. As idyllic as that sounds, jobs, transportation, health care, and educational opportunities are concentrated in cities. Not to mention the socioeconomic factors that keep people from moving or purchasing a house with even the tiniest yard.
There are also the factors of access to environmental programs—not every city has access to a residential compost program like Portland, OR, or zero waste initiatives like Fort Collins, CO. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a lot of motivation to compost in a small one-bedroom apartment with no outdoor space.
At the end of the day, what we do in our personal lives creates a ripple effect. I particularly love the idea of keeping a dumpster diary, where you track the waste you’ve produced, so you can get a sense of which personal changes will be most effective for you. Other effective low waste habits include shopping secondhand, crafting homemade foods and beauty products, and opting to walk, bike, or take public transportation.
“Seeking perfection while on your sustainable living journey can lead to big disappointments,” reminds Fisher. “Applaud the changes you have already made, while remaining excited—not resentful or anxious—about the new ways that you learn to be more sustainable.”
Ultimately, reaching absolute zero isn’t going to be perfectly possible—nor should it be. The goal should always be to pay close attention to what we consume and how we consume it to make effective personal changes, and more importantly, apply political pressure to re-envision the system at scale.
I’m off to stow my reusable produce bags in my car, so I don’t forget them next time. What about you?
Emily Torres is the Managing Editor at The Good Trade. She’s a Los Angeles transplant who was born and raised in Indiana, where she studied Creative Writing and Business at Indiana University. You can usually find her reading or writing, caring for her rabbits, or practicing at the yoga studio. Say hi on Instagram!