Every day, companies contact me about a “fantastic opportunity to collaborate” and peddle their wares for them on here, wares that apparently no zero waster can live without. I can’t possibly respond to all the messages I get, so I generally ignore these pitches—even for products and services I might like. But when I do read some of them—like one from a dumpster rental company—I wonder to myself, have you read my blog at all?
Zero waste is a not a consumer lifestyle. It’s a conserver lifestyle.
So just how do I define zero-waste living?
As with anything I write on my blog, there are no rules. Except for maybe number 1…The Church of Zero Waste is pretty dogmatic about number 1…
1. Buying less stuff
This seems obvious.
When I do buy stuff, I consider secondhand first. I have piles of you’d-never-tell-by-looking-at-it secondhand goods, some of which I found by the side of the road. (I live in the alternate universe of Silicon Valley, where people toss expensive stuff constantly.) When I buy new, I buy the best quality I can afford. And if I will need to use an item only occasionally, I try to borrow it. Does each of us need our own tools? Our own lawnmower? Our own car? Sometimes yes, often no. (I do still have a car but I hope to go car free after it dies.)
If you have recently set upon the zero-waste path, you likely want to purge all of your plastic and replace it with reusable items made of glass, ceramic, metal, wood, natural fibers and so on. I’d avoid doing this all at once and spending a fortune. You likely already have a lot of what you need for a zero-waste kit—the bags and jars for shopping, and the utensils and containers and mugs for when you go out and about. Expensive zero-waste kits are, well, expensive. (Click here for putting together a zero-waste kit for zero dollars.)
Tackling climate change, pollution, water scarcity and other environmental problems requires the rejection of unhinged consumer culture, not a greener version of it. Teslas are nice. Good public transportation and bike-able cities are better.
2. Sending nothing to landfill
I compost food scraps and generate little trash to speak of. That doesn’t mean I stuff my recycling bin with bottles, cans and containers. I don’t need or buy most of the products that come in recyclable (usually plastic) packaging—junk food, highly processed food, soda, consumer products like K-cups, personal care concoctions filled with toxic ingredients—so I have little to recycle. Plastic can be recycled a limited number of times before the material goes to landfill. So recycling delays plastic going to landfill, it doesn’t prevent it. Not buying the stuff does. And with China no longer accepting our trash, an estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic will need to go somewhere by 2030. We can’t recycle our way out of this. Corporations must stop producing so much junk.
3. Slowing down
Which came first? Throw-away culture or to-go culture? The former makes the latter possible. Starbucks’ success relies in part on the ubiquitous throwaway cup people grab on their way to someplace else. How about staying in the café and enjoying your coffee in a real cup you bring yourself? Or making it at home in a French press? Do these scenarios really sound so horrible?
The constraints I’ve happily put in place in my life—to create no waste—have forced me to slow down. I make slow bread, slow kimchi, slow ginger beer, slow food. This food all tastes so delicious, I can’t live any other way. In other aspects of my life, cutting my waste has freed up time. I spend less time working to buy stuff I don’t need, less time shopping for stuff and less time maintaining stuff.
4. Becoming more self-reliant
For me, one of the many joys of eliminating waste comes from learning to do more things for myself and depending less on corporations to fulfill my every need and desire. Becoming more self-reliant doesn’t require you to drop out of society, move to a yurt, live off the grid, grow your own food and raise goats (but if you do do that, may I please visit?).
I do a bit of sewing, a bit of knitting and a lot of cooking. I would like to grow my own fruit and vegetables but I don’t. I buy them at the farmers’ market. I can’t possibly do everything myself but I do what I can and enjoy. Even the most self-sufficient monk relies on others. Thoreau’s mother did his laundry when he lived at Walden Pond.
5. Mending our throwaway culture
Back to number 1… When I buy, I buy quality stuff that lasts. When it does start to show wear and tear, I try to repair it or pay someone to repair it for me. We regularly drop off clothing at our tailor, a small, local independent business. Yes, I could mend the clothes myself but I would rather farm out some tasks (see number 4). Shoes wearing out? Cobblers still exist here and there. I’ve had my current pair of Birkenstocks repaired twice so far (and yes of course I wear Birkenstocks…and eat granola…). The libraries where I live also regularly host extremely popular repair cafés.
6. Living more consciously
I found this happened naturally when we reduced our waste. Because so many aspects of our consumer economy rely upon the use and disposal of plastic—from brushing your teeth in the morning, to packing your kids’ lunches, to buying, well, anything—cutting the stuff requires some forethought, some self-examination, some planning. But for me, this kind of reflection brings joy. I no longer buy and consume stuff mindlessly. I think through my actions and choices rather than going about my day on auto-pilot.
7. Harnessing the community
Back to that whole I-can’t-do-it-all-myself idea, we accomplish more working together in communities. You could go all out and move to a commune, or simply form a buying club with friends to reduce your packaging waste and expenses, or join a cooking club to save time cooking real food. (Here are some more ideas.)
As the gap between the haves and the have-nots widens—one percent of the US population now controls an historically high and socially destabilizing 38 percent of the nation’s wealth—we can’t possibly all afford to live in single-family homes, buy our own lawn mowers and wheelbarrows, pay for our own Internet service and so on. Co-op housing, intergenerational housing and communes aren’t just for hippies anymore. I live in an intentional community and I love it.
I doubt any of the ideas I’ve listed here will expose you as the subversive type that you may be. Today, living this way makes you a quiet rebel. Several decades ago, you would have been regarded as, well, normal.