The zero waste movement, in which practitioners strive to send close to nothing to the landfill, is having a moment. There are 3.9 million posts on Instagram bearing that hashtag, and in September, the Package Free Store in Brooklyn, founded by an influencer who claims to have produced only one jar of trash since 2014, received $4.5 million in seed funding.
Is producing one jar of trash a year really feasible? Is it even worth trying?
When we’re told there will be more plastic than fish by weight in the ocean by 2050, it’s not surprising that so many are drawn to the zero waste movement.
But is producing only one jar of trash in a year really feasible? Is it even worth trying? I’m going to explain how living zero waste works, and whether it’s worth the effort — or whether you should focus on other environmental priorities with larger impacts.
How can you achieve zero waste?
First things first, many practitioners have abandoned the term “zero waste” for “low waste” or other similar terms. As you can see above, nobody has gotten their waste down to zero. But if you feel uncomfortable with the size of the trash bags you’re putting on the curb, there are things you can do to get that down to a less, ahem, embarrassing amount.
I’m nothing if not honest, so in the following zero waste steps, I’m going to point out some sticking points you might encounter.
1. Invest in long-term, reusable items you love. Disposable packaging and throwaway items are cheap. But you’ll need to invest in more expensive reusable containers and stuff that will last a long time, that is repairable and comes with warranties. Over the longterm, you’ll realize money savings because you’re not repurchasing boxes of Ziploc bags or new shoes to replace ones that fell apart, but this might feel expensive at first.
Your zero waste checklist
2. Don’t buy new products. New products, like electronics, toys, and clothing, come with packaging that is rarely recyclable. First, see if you can live happily without it, which is often the case. If you do need it — like a replacement power cord for your laptop or a winter coat — head to Craigslist, a local Freecycle Facebook group, a thrift store or online resale sites like ThredUp, or use an app like LetGo to snag what you need secondhand. This is a little bit easier in large cities, because you’re more likely to find someone with the exact thing you need. If you order online to your small town, it will likely come in disposable packaging.
3. Recycle and compost. This is obvious, but what is not obvious is that you need to research what your municipality can recycle. Most only take full containers for recycling (not little bits of plastic or metal), don’t take mixed-material items (orange juice containers, which are cardboard lined with plastic, or coffee cups, which are paper lined with plastic), and definitely don’t take any stretchy plastic. Wishcycling, as it’s called when you put things that aren’t recyclable in the recycling bin, can ruin a whole batch of recyclables. So don’t use that as a strategy to get your garbage to zero! You can also start a compost in your backyard, or bring yours to a local community garden or farmer’s market. Yes, composting is sometimes easier said than done.
4. Shop at bulk and specialty stores with reusable containers. Reusable bags are just the beginning. You’ll want to bring mesh bags for produce, jars for beans and nuts from the bulk bins, and containers for unwrapped cheese and meat (if you eat it) from the cheese and butcher counters. Now, this step might present some problems. It certainly did to me! Many grocery stores, for hygiene reasons, will refuse to give you your cheese and meat unwrapped. Or, your local grocery store might not have bulk items, or what you need in a recyclable container. The one that does (Whole Foods) might be more expensive than the one that doesn’t (Trader Joe’s).
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5. Make time for DIYing and cooking. To get some of your favorite things package-free, you’ll just have to make them yourself from scratch, including toothpaste, personal care products, meals, snacks, and desserts. If you have more money than time, there are some eco-friendly companies making alternatives in recyclable and reusable packaging, but they definitely tend to be on the pricey side. If you have neither time nor money? Well…
6. Be prepared. To cut down on your disposables while you’re out and about, you’ll need to have some tricks in your bag: a reusable water bottle, a reusable insulated coffee mug, a reusable baggie or metal tiffin for snacks or things to responsibly dispose of later, a reusable straw and utensils, and a reusable handkerchief. Yes, you’ll need a larger bag.
7. Get comfortable with saying “no” or opting out. You will have to let go of some things, say no, and opt-out of a lot of activities in order to go low waste. You’ll have to have some uncomfortable conversations with well-meaning waiters, and with your friends and family about why you don’t want physical gifts or you’re not joining them at that BBQ restaurant with the styrofoam plates. You’re going to be seen as a weirdo, especially if you’re not surrounded by like-minded people who are on the same journey. But some people will admire your fortitude and might be convinced to join you. Eventually.
Progress over perfection
As you can see, there are some easy swaps and lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your trash. But you might run up against some obstacles: time, money, and social pressure all conspire to make this difficult. As I’ve written before, zero waste living also tends to be one more household chore that women have to take on. So please don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself failing to live up to the Instagram ideal.
The trash that fills your trash can isn’t really a personal moral failing. It’s caused by a culture of efficiency and convenience at all costs.
The very first people who tried to shrink their garbage footprint, like Elizabeth Royte, author of Garbage Land, didn’t pursue it as a moral imperative, but as a thought experiment to illuminate where we are as a society. You can bring to your own journey a similar feeling of curiosity and openness. The sticking points for you are likely sticking points for a lot of people in your community and point to larger issues that we will need to address on a large scale.
The trash that fills your trash can isn’t really a personal moral failing. It’s caused by a culture of efficiency and convenience at all costs, constant product advertisements that play on our psychology, and relentless focus by the government on growing our GDP. And sometimes packaging does amazing things! Like, keep food fresh over long distances and long periods of time. Would you rather produce some packaging trash and eat all the food you bought? Or produce no plastic packaging but put a bunch of uneaten food (homemade almond milk goes bad in just a few days, FYI) in the compost bin?
What zero waste living can do… and what it can’t
Going zero waste does have some benefits, especially to you personally. By shopping less, you’ll save money. By cooking more and DIYing your products (or buying sustainable products) you’ll become healthier, as you eat fresher meals and expose yourself to fewer toxic chemicals that can come in conventional products and their packaging. By slowing down and giving more consideration to how you shop, gift, and entertain yourself, you’ll improve your mental health.
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But in terms of saving the world? The jury is out on that front. The U.S. does produce more waste per capita than India, for example. But we don’t contribute much plastic waste to the world’s oceans, because we have door-to-door trash and recycling pick-up in most places. Experts agree the best way to prevent trash from going in the oceans is to set up trash and recycling collection in developing countries in Asia and Africa, and force companies to create better packaging for products worldwide — packaging that is reusable, recyclable, and compostable. In other words, living zero waste should be the easiest, most affordable way to live. It shouldn’t be a hobby or challenge that only the most dedicated can afford to opt-in to.
Many countries and cities have proposed and implemented bans and taxes on plastic bags and disposable plastics in general, which are way more effective than educating consumers in isolation. It’s a heartening development. One could argue that the zero waste movement has some responsibility for pushing this forward. Or, one could argue that plastic bag bans are not a response to Instagram hashtags and blogs with “easy zero waste swaps,” but are a different response to seeing videos of divers swimming through a coral reef filled with plastic. That instead of seeing these facts and figures and photos of plastic and thinking, “I need to recycle more,” activists are saying, “We need to pressure our lawmakers to do something!”
So, yes, go zero waste for your health, for your family, for your peace of mind. But when you reach the limit of what you can achieve personally, then it’s time to think about becoming active in your community, and supporting policy that helps solve this problem for everyone.