Please Do not Turn Zero Waste into Another Consumer Lifestyle

Every week, at least a few 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? 

Apart from my cooking workshops, I don’t hawk stuff on here. I do understand why blogs post affiliate links, ads and sponsored content. Maintaining a blog even part-time as I do, while trying to pay the bills, is not easy! Everyone has to pay the mortgage. But selling stuff doesn’t go with my—gulp—brand (apparently I have one). 

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, processed food, soda, consumer products like K-cups, personal care concoctions filled with nasty 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 step up and 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 once 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 potentially 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.

Peaches growing in our community

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.

45 Replies to “Please Do not Turn Zero Waste into Another Consumer Lifestyle”

  1. My number one peeve is “greenwash”- the selling of the idea that to be “green” you absolutely MUST buy this, that or the other.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Oh I know. There’s so much of it. That’s an entire blog post right there. Or book!

    2. The ‘use it up’ image is my screen saver now. To keep reminding me 😉

  2. Great post! But I have to say that I think Teslas are a symbol of what’s wrong with our culture. An electric luxury vehicle so rich people can feel they’re doing something environmental but which has tons of embedded fossil fuel in it? Bah! I have great disgust for Musk putting his money towards reaching Mars instead of towards our planet.

    I love how much you do and you’ll be an inspiration as long as you chose to blog. Those companies that want us to buy things to make us feel we’re doing something for the environment have to be resisted. Resist the manipulation!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks Linda. I agree with you on Teslas. I was trying to get at the idea that we can’t just buy electric cars and assume that will solve our problems. We have to change our lifestyles. The Mars thing bothers me too. How can building the infrastructure to make a barren planet livable (this is assuming that would even work) be simpler than not trashing this one? But Mars is sexy. Taking the bus, eating more vegetables, consuming less and so on are not. ~ Anne Marie

    2. I love the conversation between you and Anne Marie. I get into heated (positive!) conversations with friends about this- particularly the piece about exploring other living options for human life. Ooof.

      1. The Zero-Waste Chef says:

        I have had the Mars conversation a few times lately also. Let’s not give up on Earth!

  3. ❤️👏🏼❤️👏🏼❤️👏🏼❤️ thank you!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks for reading Mani 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  4. JAMIE BRADY says: Reply

    laugh out loud

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks James ;p ~ Anne Marie

  5. Well said! I’d rather shop second hand for a variety of reasons. Buying expensive kits so you can produce zero waste…seems counter-intuitive!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you Juli 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  6. I catch myself falling into this trap so many times…However, just as often, a rummage through the garage will turn up a perfectly acceptable alternative to what I need. Thanks for the reminder!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      This happens to me too Sarah! Stuff I want or need, or something that will do, often just magically appears! ~ Anne Marie

  7. Here in Woodstock NY there are some really good things: a free store where you bring clothing etc. to give away and people can take what they want; a little free library for the same with books; a free community drum circle where people can play the drums that the group brings, or bring their own, a soup kitchen, lots of stuff. There are also countless tourists who spend bucks to get here and take selfies with the flowers they steal from the downtown plants, and many of them wear expensive designer ripoffs of old clothes. It’d be funny if it weren’t a sign of cultural pathology…

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Wow, Donnalee, that all sounds awesome. Well, maybe not the selfies so much… ;p This is the real sharing economy! Thanks for sharing the info. ~ Anne Marie

      1. I think a lot of the people aroun dhere have genuinely been trying to be hippies or community-oriented for decades and the results are decent. I love when I go to the drum circle and see people clearly senior in age dancing and drumming and getting along. To me, that is really worthwhile.

  8. ZOE PENNINGTON says: Reply

    ♥️♥️♥️ FABULOUS Blog.. thank you.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you so much Zoe 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  9. Well said! Something a lot of people struggle with (myself included) is feeling like if we’re switching to a minimalist or zero waste lifestyle that we have to purchase products to reflect that and toss any products that don’t fit the bill but I’m quickly learning that’s not the case and we “make it do” with what we have and make it work!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you Belinda. I remember saying to my kids when we started this “We can’t shop our way out of global warming.” I still have my food processor with its plastic bowl. It’s not ideal for food prep (at least nothing hot goes in there) but I can’t just toss it. I also happen to be very frugal/cheap ;p ~ Anne Marie

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you! ~ Anne Marie

  10. Love this! Thanks for remaining genuine and not advertising products that you don’t believe in!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you 😀 ~ Anne Marie

  11. Thank you for sharing this post.

    I absolutely fell into the trap of buying cute jars at first. Had a moment where I was, like, wtf am I doing.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hahaha! Thanks for making me laugh Rikki 🙂 But in your defense, cute jars are hard to resist 😉 ~ Anne Marie

  12. Thank you for this post. I have lived the “make do and mend” philosophy all my life, I guess I am now in style but I hate words like ECO Friendly…. I don’t know what it means but I’ll bet it has something to do with buying stuff.

    Your community sounds wonderful, I have yet to find like minded friends, thank goodness for online companions

    Marieann

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks for reading it Marieann. Yup, wait long enough and you’re hip and cool. I think you’re right, eco friendly applies almost always to products and services for sale. Thank goodness for social media! It’s so great for finding like-minded people. I’m almost normal on there ;p ~ Anne Marie

  13. Love the post! I started noticing all the cool junk people throw out around my neighborhood. I even get excited to rummage through and see what neat stuff there is or what materials I can use to make my own items. Yes but it’s definitely not just a cool trendy slogan.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks Roxanna. I find such good stuff in my neighborhood or in my partner Chandra’s! In just THE LAST FEW DAYS ALONE, we have found a vintage cast iron popover/muffin pan, a $60 bright yellow cycling vest, a couple of flip-top glass jars (one is a Fido!), a dogeared copy of The Enchanted Broccoli Forest cookbook, a couple of very nice mugs (one hand-thrown!), a Turkish coffee pot, oh and I almost forgot a leaded glass window that will go in Chandra’s bathroom :O ~ Anne Marie

  14. A great practical list – thanks for being an inspiration to me!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you for the kind words 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

      1. Thank you for a great blog!

  15. Exactly how I feel especially the coffee, if I’m going to pay for a coffee out at least I want to sit and enjoy the whole experience and drink it out of a proper cup, if we have to have one one route I’d much rather take one we have made in a travel mug. Plus you have made me feel better that I’m not yet making sour dough and growing as much in our garden as I would like. Thank you.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      I don’t want to pay $5, gulp my drink down in traffic and not really taste it! Oh I can’t possibly do all that I want to do. It’s not possible. I pick and choose. Thank you for reading 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  16. You have made a lot of excellent points here.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you Pauline 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  17. Jacqueline Galleymore says: Reply

    Excellent post. Enjoy the weekend.

  18. Really great post – lots of food for thought! 🙂

  19. Wonderful post, thank you! I especially love the bit about zero-waste kits.

    I recently was at a very popular trendy, “eco”, handmade sort of market in Australia and stumbled upon a woman selling expensive stainless steel lunch boxes/food containers etc. People were standing by in awe all lining up ready to fork out $50-60 for one small lunchbox. Turns out the containers are made in China from non-recycled materials. Doubt the production and transport of the product was very environmentally-friendly, and the workers who made it were likely paid a pittance! And yet despite this and the price it was extremely popular because it’s the product du jour/must-have item in a ZW kitchen here at the moment.

    The whole industry makes me so frustrated! Glad others agree that a lot of the stuff you see people trying to push and sell is a scam. Can find plenty of reusable second hand steel/glass/ceramic/wooden containers in op-shops and on apps like Gumtree (Aus version of Craigslist maybe?)

    Thanks Anne Marie for your contribution and inspiration in the ZW world! 🙂

  20. Ever since I heard about zero waste and got more and more into it I started noticing how while most bloggers were trying to preach about consuming less, pretty much every post I stumbled upon was trying to pitch 10 different new products at me. Thank you for being the exception. To me, the only zero waste items which can not be acquired second hand are the perdonap hygiene products such as menstrual cup and pads, make up remover pads and actual cosmetics. In fact even diapers could be bought second hand

  21. Thanks, I needed that!

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