Welcome to the Church of Zero Waste

I was raised in a devout Catholic household, although we kids could skip mass if we felt sick enough to warrant a trip to the ER. I attended Catholic school from kindergarten all the way through the end of high school (I did love my kilt). We knelt around the living room regularly to say the rosary together. (My 85-year old slacker mother still says it daily but today sits to pray.) We wore scapulars

Today, environmentalism is my religion. My version has a bit of the strict Catholic OCD strain to it that I find doable and familiar, and also the Buddhist idea of non-attachment, which appeals to me. Do I really need all of this stuff? That’s really simplifying the philosophy of non-attachment, and I don’t feel like I deny myself anything, but I have renounced a lot of stuff—and am much happier for it. (Read more about how I’m not missing out on anything here.)

The 10 Suggestions

All religions have some sort of rules or guidelines to help steer the flock along the path. I’ve come up with some for zero waste. Break any of these as you see fit. You won’t burn in the fires of hell for all eternity. My religion has no need for hell because, well, just read the news on any given day lately.

1. You will start small

Don’t feel you should—or necessarily can if you wanted to—go plastic-free and zero-waste all at once. In fact, I would recommend against that. If you try to rid your life of plastic overnight and you go cold turkey, you may soon feel overwhelmed and quit. You’ll need some time to adjust to your new routine—where to shop, what to buy, what to eat, where to find bathroom tissue not wrapped in plastic…

Think or your new routine like starting a diet. If you restrict yourself to 500 calories a day, you set yourself up for failure. You’ll sneak out in the middle of the night for the McDonald’s drive thru and scarf down two Big Macs, one large fry and a Coke, all the while riddled with guilt. I have written a few posts on getting started here, here and here.

2. You will ask yourself if you really need something before you buy it

I read some great advice in this recent article by Ann Patchett in the New York Times on her year of buying nothing:

If you want something, wait awhile. Chances are the feeling will pass.

And if the feeling doesn’t pass, often what you need simply turns up. It’s that whole ask the Universe thing. Just last week, I needed a crate. The restaurant my daughter worked in last summer has no use for the beautiful, giant jars they go through so they generously agreed to save them for me. I told the owner I would bring a crate to the restaurant for collecting them in. Now I needed a crate.

I really didn’t want to buy a crate—especially a new plastic crate. I avoid buying new plastic. I didn’t have time to check the thrift shop before I needed to drop off said crate. I mentioned my dilemma to my neighbor. She immediately pulled a crate out of her storage shed and handed it to me. It probably helped that I was dropping off half a loaf of sourdough bread, still warm from the oven.

3. You will refuse single-use plastics whenever possible

These are the worst offenders. Single-use plastic means you use the plastic only once before tossing it, after which it ends up in recycling (which delays, rather than prevents, its eventual final trip to a landfill), landfill or worse, the ocean. These items include plastic packaging for junk food, plastic shopping bags, plastic straws and stir sticks, plastic utensils, plastic plates and cups and other disposable plastic items.

4. You will use your head

As with any religion, think critically about your choices and question everything. If you buy a pound of beef in your own container instead of the pound of pinto beans with some packaging, technically you have bought your food zero waste but come on. The beans—even in plastic packaging—have a much smaller footprint than the beef.

5. You will not judge others

On the other hand, if someone does buy that beef instead of the beans, don’t judge them, lecture them or berate them on social media. How does that help the situation? I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of the negativity and downright meanness that currently pervades our culture. My religion strives to be not only plastic-free, but also dogma-free. #liveandletlive

6. You will meet with a congregation of like-minded people occasionally

You may want to find outside support, especially if your family pooh-poohs your efforts. I have attended a few zero-waste meetups here in Northern California. Before the first one, I thought to myself about these, “What will we do? Sit around and drink out of our stainless steel water bottles and kvetch about garbage?” But we’ve done a litter cleanup, I taught a short kombucha class, we went shopping at Rainbow Grocery (a.k.a., bulk Mecca) and next month, we’ll meet for a swap of our gently used stuff. And I’ve met the nicest people at these. Plus you’ll feel normal!

7. You will not covet your neighbor’s zero-waste lifestyle

Looking on Instagram at the beautiful spartan interiors and kitchens of some zero wasters can lead to feelings of inadequacy. I have started using Instagram Stories lately. I really like them. You get more of an authentic, behind-the-scenes view.

8. You will not covet your neighbor’s jars

Jar envy is real.

Some of my upcycled jars

9. You will not feel guilty when you mess up

Bless me Zero-Waste Chef, for I have sinned…

I am always a little taken aback by the guilt some people feel about not perfectly executing zero waste. They confess to me “sins” like buying olive oil in a glass bottle that costs a quarter of what the same amount costs in bulk. Like my daughter MK says, you can’t bankrupt yourself doing this. You just do your best. But if it makes you feel better, after a transgression, go out for a walk. Pick up two plastic water bottles, three plastic bags and five straws littering the ground, and dispose of them properly.   

The majority of my followers are female (89 percent on Instagram and Facebook) and we women tend to have guilt buttons the size of a Chevy Suburban SUV. Two if we drive a Chevy Suburban SUV… I’m not out to make people feel guilty about their choices. I post on here stuff I do in my own life. If you like it, great. Want to try filling up a jar with peanuts at the bulk bins? Awesome. Your sourdough bread turns out like a brick? You have no desire whatsoever to bake sourdough? All good.

I used to have Catholic guilt syndrome (CGS) but that has morphed into environmental guilt syndrome (EGS). It has lessened over the years. I do what I can.

10. You will not give up

We need everyone on board. Here’s some good news: Everyone in the U.K. is basically freaking out over plastic pollution after watching David Attenborough’s documentary about the oceans, Blue Planet II. Environmentalists have criticized the British PM’s plan for cutting plastic consumption but the British PM has presented a plan for cutting plastic consumption. If you live in the U.S., you may find this remarkable, given the assault our government has unleashed on the environment here.

So, if I start the Church of Zero Waste, does that mean I get tax-exempt status?

All religions need a text or two, or nine

44 Replies to “Welcome to the Church of Zero Waste”

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      I know it! I covet Weck jars!

  1. I know this is a serious subject, but I always enjoy the light-hearted manner in which you approach things. Wish I lived in an area where people cared abuot this. We’re in a rural area where there is no recycling around and no bulk shopping within an hours drive. I keep doing what I can…have my grocery and produce bags and try not to buy things that are packaged in plastic. I do use some plastic storage containers that I had before reducing plastic. I figure if I don’t use them, they will be put in the trash…isn’t that the whole point of this? Please keep posting! Always look forward to it!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you Tammie. If we all did what we can like you are, we’d be in good shape! I am with you on the pre-existing plastic. I’m not about to throw out the plastic lids to my glass pyrex dishes, utensils with plastic handles and so on… Thanks for reading. I’ll keep posting 😉 ~ Anne Marie

      1. We have lived in a rural area for a very long time. Before we moved into town, we used to truck our recycling 50 miles to recycling center (on shopping days so there was no wasted gas).
        However, that is not why I am responding. We still are fairly rural and I have to say internet shopping has changed my life. We have two wonderful bulk resources – Azure Standard and Costco. We buy our Costco item (nothing refrigerated or frozen though) through either google express or costco online depending on which site has what we need. I love that it saves us money because we don’t impulse buy nor do we have to travel the 30+ miles to our nearest Costco.

      2. The Zero-Waste Chef says:

        Hi Sara, I just saw this comment now… This is a good example of suggestion #4 “You will use your head.” 😉 ~ Anne Marie

  2. As someone finally dealing with her CGS and easing into zero waste this article was super relevant. Thank you for sharing. Also, I agree with the first commenter: jar envy is too real 😀

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Kate. I’m glad it helped. CGS–like jar envy–is also real! 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  3. Madeleine Lawrence says: Reply

    I got a bit of a thrill when I clicked on the link to the scapular pic – soooo long since I wore one of those! I had never thought about my CGS morphing into EGS but there you have it, I think that is exactly what happened. Though these days I would consider myself ‘recovering’ and taking the middle path 😉


    PS I really liked seeing some of your books. Maybe sometime you/other people could share current favourite zero waste/sustainable living films…

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Madeleine, Heehee. I remember one of my best friends used to pin the little squares on her kilt pin after the ribbons broke. I too am recovering, maybe almost recovered at this point. I will add favorite films to my to-blog list, although it won’t be a comprehensive live but maybe I could get the conversation started. The Story of Stuff–not a feature film, but something you can watch online (it’s about 20 minutes) is a must watch: https://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-stuff/ Bag It was very good: http://bagitmovie.com/ Oh and the recently Anthony Bourdain documentary Wasted: The Story of Food Waste is also great: https://zerowastechef.com/2017/10/21/documentary-review-wasted-the-story-of-food-waste/ Thanks for the suggestion 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  4. D'Arcy Furness says: Reply

    Amen! Thanks for your delightful work!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you for checking it out, D’Arcy 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  5. I can confirm the UK is suddenly waking up! When I went plastic-free 2 years ago I was an extra-terrestrial. Now I’m mainstream, or at least, everything is moving in that direction with a momentum that I don’t think can be stopped anymore (and the EU’s getting deadly serious about it too).

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      That’s such good news, Joumana. We need good news! Thanks for confirming as someone on the ground there 😉 ~ Anne Marie

  6. Ive been having a mix of emotions, relief and hope that so many more people are trying to reduce the impact on the environment, mixed with doom that its taken so long and been getting worse over the last 30 years. Reading this I feel better as I’ve been beating myself up over the things we have still to change in our home and the compromises we have to make.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      I’m glad my post helped and I hope you stop beating yourself up 🙂 My daughter is getting her degree in environmental studies, and when I get despondent, she tells me that when it gets bad enough, people will suddenly wake up. It’s getting bad enough now, I’d say, and I think people are waking up. When we have MPs talking about getting plastic-free aisles in grocery stores, I think we’re witnessing a sea change. ~ Anne Marie

      1. I see more of a change now than I’ve seen in years I hope it continues. I did my environmental degree 30 years ago! we knew so much then, its sad its taken everyone else as long to catch up, hope your daughter is enjoying it as much as I did I made so many friends many of whom I’m still in regular contact with.

      2. The Zero-Waste Chef says:

        I hope it doesn’t take another 30 years. We don’t have it! Thank you, MK enjoys her classes but finds some very depressing. She is taking a bee class right now! She loves that one. A friend just gave us a beehive frame so we’ll so how that goes.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you so much 🙂

  7. I am working on this and making progress, though it’s not as fast and transformative as I wish it could be. But I agree that incremental changes are the most manageable. I’ve gotten plastic utensils, straws, and iced coffee cups out of my life. But I do still find myself picking up nuts or berries encased in plastic on my way home from work when I don’t have a lot of options and am desperate. I love all your advice and I love this site! The comments here inspired me to buy a pressure canner… against all odds, I have canned my own chick peas. My homemade veggie broth is next. Thank goodness because my freezer looks like one big Minecraft wall made out of broth blocks.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hahaha! My freezer looks like that too. I always think Tetris when I try to arrange everything. That’s very exciting about your pressure canner. I’ve never tried it. I’ve only used a pressure cooker. But I love it. Good luck with your broth, although you have probably made it by now. Enjoy your journey on the path 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  8. With you on Animal Vegetable Miracle. Love Kingsolver in general but this book transformed the way I think about food! Love the tone of this post, thank you!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Emma, Kingsolver is brilliant and I too loved that one. Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  9. I’ll echo the others with the CGS turning to EGS – and I’m an environmental teacher so I also feel like I’m not getting through to the students enough. Like huge EGS!

    This is the year I’m seriously going to try and get plastic free. I’ve brought the bags and said no to straws (really though wait staff, can you remember???? lol) but now I’m moving towards the bulk buying. And while it’s slow going, I’m finding that some things are just happening – like my local farm store is now making their own tomato sauce – in great jars!!!

    Although….I’m trying to find sour cream and cream cheese in a glass. Any suggestions? (Some things I just can’t give up!)

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Liz. EGS is real! (So is CGS.) It will sink in with your students. That’s what people keep telling me about my daughter. She doesn’t complain very much about my habits but she hasn’t been super excited either. She is starting to warm up though and is taking two environmental science classes next year. That’s awesome about the tomato sauce. I used to buy SO MANY cans of tomatoes. They were one of my first replacements/challenges. I can buy milk and cream in returnable glass bottles. Can you buy half and half in glass? You can make sour cream very easily. You’ll need real buttermilk (with live cultures) and that’s in cartons here, but once you have it, you can make more. https://zerowastechef.com/2014/12/10/5-two-ingredient-recipes-for-dairy-staples/ ~ Anne Marie

      1. Thanks for the tips. I have to check on the half and half. I get my milk in glass bottles, so there must be half and half. I’m on the hunt for live cultured foods – I want to make my own yogurt as well but live seems to be hard to find here.

  10. […] love the Zero-Waste Chef and her post on The Church of Zero Waste was perfect for this morning.  My favorite points were that we are not to judge others and not to […]

  11. Thanks for reviving the word scapular! Don’t think I’ve heard mention of this in a long time. Great blog. Thanks.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you Niamh. I don’t think most people know what it is. I’m not sure if even my devout, rosary-praying mother wears one these days or not. ~ Anne Marie

  12. Marita Peters says: Reply

    Anne-Marie you are truly the best! We’re rolling into the weekend here in the desert and this has made for a great read. Love your honesty, humor and style. Happy weekend everybody!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Marita, I am trying to catch up on comments and am finally doing it now, a few weekends later. Thanks so much for the kind words and have a great weekend this weekend 😉 ~ Anne Marie

  13. So I loved this post. I have been following you for a little while and have not commented in the past even though I’ve wanted to do so. This post has sparked me to do so. It was the perfect storm of things:

    1) The Catholic reference at the beginning. I am Catholic. In fact, I have advanced degrees in theology, have started and run a small catholic non-profit that focuses on silent prayer and social justice work. So that was interesting to hear of your background.

    2) My call to zero waste is influenced by many persons and things and is also informed by Pope Francis and his environmental encyclical Laudato Si where he argues that it is a major teaching for Catholics to be environmentalists. He pushes from less meat consumption, less waste etc — so your blog is very much a resource for Catholics who may be interested in all of that.

    3) My theological background is Comparative Theology — inter-religious dialogue and cooperation with other religious traditions to understand theology better. My area of specific expertise is Buddhism with years studying and practicing Buddhist aspects to understand it so you spoke to me there to in your reference.

    4) Finally, my focus ultimately is about how silence is an essential aspect of the human experience. I point out how many Christians don’t realize there is a strong assumption of silent prayer as fundamental in that tradition and that it is only the last 500 years that we have moved away from that religiously and culturally. I am interested in recovering that and blog and teach online etc from that space. I also am on a podcast called Encountering Silence with two other friends that speaks about silence broadly to a wide audience (we don’t assume our audience is of any particular tradition). The Buddhism interaction I have also brings out the silence things.

    I mention this last peace because it feeds into the slowing down of consumption, scaling back the pace of life, not wasting anything and holding life and living precious. I think Silence is the foundation for all you blog about and out of that silence comes forth this deep mindful living that shows respect to life and wastes less and less.

    So I just want to thank you for your great work, your tone, and all things on this blog. I learn so much and I refer people to this blog all the time.

    Rock on!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Kevin,

      Thank you so much for this reply. I’m so honored to have such intelligent, eloquent readers 🙂

      I think being raised Catholic has a lot to do with my environmentalism. My mother is very scrupulous (she says overly scrupulous) and that rubbed off on me (although I don’t think I’m overly environmentally scrupulous). I also am a big fan of Pope Francis. I have read parts of his encyclical and was very excited when that was published. Think of the millions he has inspired! My daughters attended a religious school that didn’t focus on one particular religion, but rather, discussed several. Every year, they performed in a school play about a great soul. One year, it was Joan of Arc (my younger daughter played the executioner :/), another year Buddha, later the Dalai Lama (the Buddhist center in San Jose invited the very small school to perform part of the play for the Dalai Lama when he visited and spoke here!), and another, Martin Luther King, Jr. Thank you for the info about your podcast. I have looked it up. (I need more silence in my life.) Thank you for pointing this connection out to me and thank you for reading and sharing my blog. I really appreciate it.

      ~ Anne Marie

  14. Ugh. I realize so many misspellings in my reply. Shows I should slow down and re-read before clicking submit. 🙁

  15. Thanks for sharing! Stay gentle xx

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks for reading Sophie 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  16. I LOVE this list! Jar envy is so real! My upcycled mismatched jars hold dry goods just as well as fancy French canning jars… *continues to repeat this to self*

  17. Here in The Netherlands, some followers are suing the government for recognition and acknowledgement of their religion; they believe in Pastafarism and their God is The Flying Spaghetti Monster. I think this religion originated in the USA. There was a lady in the news that demanded she can take her passport photo wearing a colander on her head as their religion prescribes them to wear this apart from a pirate costume.

    I’ve joined your religion, The Church of Zero Waste instead.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hahaha! Did she win? Thank you for joining the Church of Zero Waste 😀 ~ Anne Marie

      1. I just looked them up and I need to add that they ARE an acknowledged denomination. I actually like some of their beliefs.

        No, I think she lost the appeal.

  18. Thanks for this. I’m a lapsed Lutheran (aka Catholic-lite) who grew up in the church, and I still value faith in general. But for me, zero waste and other grassroots activism seem to bring people closer to God than many churches do. I don’t think people talk about that, but there is a huge part of the zero waste movement (and others as well) that speak to the goals and values of religion. All this to say I absolutely love this post! Thanks!!

  19. […] qualquer coisa que eu escreva no meu blog, não há regras. Exceto talvez pelo número 1… A Igreja do Lixo Zero é bastante dogmática sobre o número […]

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