I really struggled with this blog post because…I wanted it to be perfect. The irony! As one of my creative writing teachers told us, just write “s&!%, s&!%, s&!%” over and over and over if that’s what you must do to get words onto the page (or screen).
Like perfection, the zero in zero waste can be paralyzing. It’s so absolute and unforgiving. But remember calculus class—you never actually reach zero. My calculus professor explained it this way: You walk toward a wall. If you cut your distance in half each time you walk toward the wall, the distance to the wall grows infinitesimally smaller and smaller. But it will never reach zero. The distance to the wall will only approach zero.
I hope these ideas help you both approach zero waste and retain your sanity.
1. Do start small
With a new diet, if you starve yourself, you set yourself up for failure—and weight gain. Eliminating your waste cold turkey can also lead to frustration and failure. You may feel overwhelmed with the new regimen or not start at all, and just give up and start eating fast food for breakfast, lunch and dinner (which also leads to weight gain).
Instead, start small. Take a reusable cup to the cafe, start shopping at the farmer’s market where you’ll likely find lots of produce without plastic packaging or try to make one meal a day plastic-free. Then, take another step. Here are some more ideas to get started.
2. Do something
For some, the goal of perfection—and our inherent inability to reach it—can serve as an argument for doing nothing. No, I can’t fix the plastic problem in our oceans but I can do my best to avoid worsening it by making different choices and avoiding consuming plastic. As a bonus, these alternatives almost always have other beneficial side-effects. Food that I cook myself tastes much better than processed food-like products packaged in plastic. I eat a healthier diet—because when you cut the plastic you eat real food—and I rarely get sick. Saving and freezing my vegetable scraps to make broth saves money.
3. Do experiment
We have abandoned many skills. Part of this comes from the fact that schools stopped teaching subjects like carpentry, gardening, cooking and sewing. This lack of skills has rendered us helpless and dependent on corporations to fulfill almost all of our desires and needs—and that convenience contributes to waste probably more than anything else. The maker movement is changing this situation though. Rather than passively consume, a growing number of people want to be active makers. So try stuff (if you want to), like making your own yogurt, mending a pair of pants or growing a tomato plant. What’s the worse that can happen? You might waste some milk, jab yourself with a sewing needle or get your hands dirty.
4. Don’t feel you have to do everything yourself
I happen to enjoy cooking from scratch—and eating the end result. That’s just how I am—completely obsessed with food. Everyone is different. You may not want to bake bread. And even if you do want to, you may not have time. You can just buy the bread. It’s okay. At many bakeries, you can bring your own cloth bag to buy loose, unpackaged bread. I do this sometimes for my younger daughter. She dislikes my “sourdough hippie bread.” A rebellious teenager, she has also taught herself how to make white bread using commercial yeast. Farming out the work to your family is a good option if you want to eat more food made from scratch.
I also enjoy making stuff. I have since I was a little kid. Again, that’s just me. Whenever I post pictures of my very basic cloth produce bags, people always ask where they can buy similar bags. Not everyone knows how to sew or wants to know how to sew or has the time to sew. Just buy the stuff. You can buy cloth produce bags from Life Without Plastic, from an Etsy shop or at some grocery stores. For my daughter’s summer job, she plans on making reusable cloth produce bags and embroidering the tare on them. I’ll sell them on here. That’s our plan anyway…summer is quickly approaching…
5. Don’t feel you have to give up activities you love
Speaking of makers, to create stuff, you usually have to own a bunch of stuff and many hobbies are inherently messy. You need tools or equipment or materials, and to create something such as pottery or paintings or sculpture, you first have to roll around in the chaos and get dirty. If you go zero waste, you don’t have to stop doing things you enjoy—within reason. If you love to make figurines out of rhinoceros horn, please stop.
6. Don’t feel you have to buy a bunch of stuff
You’ll need some equipment to get stared on the zero-waste path: glass jars, reusable shopping and produce bags, lunch containers, reusable water bottles, cloth napkins and so on. However, if you turn zero-waste living into another consumer lifestyle, you sort of defeat the purpose. We can’t shop our way out of global warming.
Try to make do with what you have on hand before you buy all new stuff. For example, instead of buying a new to-go fork, you could just take a fork out of the kitchen drawer. Who doesn’t have a fork? Matching jars look nice but they cost a fortune. I’ve found so many flip-top jars at thrift shops, I probably need a crazy jar lady intervention at this point. That is if it were possible to have too many jars…which it is not…
I still have some plastic items in my kitchen that I use—a large tupperware container, my food processor, and several glass pyrex dishes with plastic lids. I’m not going to toss them in the trash. My goal is to not buy any new plastic.
7. Do accept that sometimes you’ll have to compromise
If you live with other people who don’t share your zeal for reducing your waste, you’ll have to make compromises. Unless you actually enjoy conflict. In that case, fight with your husband over using bar shampoo if that’s your cup of tea.
My younger daughter feels much less enthusiastic about all of this than I (but she hardly complains either). No way will she wash her hair with baking soda (although she does like a vinegar rinse…so eventually maybe she will try the no-poo method). Choose your battles. I want my kids to require as little therapy as possible.
8. Don’t compare yourself to others
This has always been difficult for people and it has only intensified with social media. Like anything else, social media has its good and bad aspects. On the one hand, we can share information and organize like never before. On the other hand, we are constantly bombarded with stylized images of unobtainable perfection—bodies, families, vacation spots, food porn, minimalism.
Social media can become like an arms war of images—I see your spartan white backdrop with a loaf of homemade sourdough bread and raise you two sourdough loaves I made with my hand-ground home-grown wheat and baked in a solar oven that I built from reclaimed materials. Which brings me to the next point…
9. Do remember: zero waste isn’t a contest
Reducing your waste, cutting your carbon footprint, living more sustainably—they can become a grand you’re-not-doing-enough-look-at-me competition. If you have reduced your waste to zero, good for you. Try to inspire others rather than judge or preach. No one wants to listen to proselytizing. On the left, some of us attack each other over small differences—and give the right—which sticks together seemingly no matter what happens—ammunition with which to attack us. We all want the same thing—a better environment, the mitigation of climate chaos, a livable world. We have to work together.
10. Do what you can
I am not a huge consumer but I do need to eat so before I cut the trash, most of my waste came from the kitchen. Here in Northern California, I can shop at fantastic farmer’s markets year-round and buy my produce unpackaged, bulk bins abound and some grocery stores here actually encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable containers. I don’t find living zero waste all that difficult here. (Plus I can wear flip-flops almost every day…)
However, I regularly get comments from people who live in the UK (and elsewhere, but a disproportionate number from the UK…) saying that they don’t have bulk bins they can shop from. You have to eat. Just do your best. I wrote about some shopping strategies for areas with limited choices in a post “Good, Better, Best Zero-Waste Shopping.”
Even if you do have access to bulk olive oil and you choose to buy it in a bottle at the grocery store—maybe you like the flavor better, it costs less or you simply want it—don’t beat yourself up over it.
11. Confession is for Catholics
(I was raised a hardcore Catholic so I can say this…)
This goes back to the previous point. Do what you can. I get comments regularly from people who feel that they fall short because they don’t bake their own bread, they buy canned beans, or they recently ate a chocolate wrapped in a piece of plastic.
Not coincidentally, about 85 percent of my followers are women (you learn a lot about your followers’ demographics when you manage a Facebook page, something you might want to keep in mind before you go on there next…). We women (and society in general) are too hard on ourselves. I don’t want to add to that pressure. I’m glad we have consciences but if you aim for perfection, you might lose your mind. Or develop OCD. Or both.
Of course, if confessing makes you feel better, by all means do it. Break any of these “rules” as you like.