How to Cope With Environmental Guilt Syndrome (EGS)

A strict Catholic upbringing makes me highly qualified to write this post.

My daughter Charlotte told me tonight that she suffers from EGS. She says she analyzes every little thing she does to avoid plastic—and other environmental ills—and that sometimes she just wants to throw her hands up in the air, live like a “normal” person and buy all the plastic junk, eat a bunch of meat and fly all over the place. But she can’t bring herself to do it. I told her that she would make a good Catholic.

I didn’t raise my kids within a major religion, just environmentalism (that is my religion), although they did attend a spiritual school with an Eastern bent. Yet Charlotte sounds just like me at her age and I’ve turned into my mother.

The Awakening

Soon after I went plastic-free, I began to feel as though I had swallowed the red pill in The Matrix. The veil had been lifted on our artificial reality—not created by machines as in the movie, but by corporations that have lulled us into believing that unhinged consumerism is a normal way to live. For most of my life, I had been sleeping in a pod with a myriad of umbilical cords pumping in Coca-Cola.

I began to see plastic everywhere—because it is everywhere. Every decision we make all day long—how to bathe, what to eat, what to wear—involves plastic. You start to think like a scrupulous Catholic. Is this a sin? Is that? How about this?

Well, I have news. You will never reach zero waste just as a Catholic will never be without something to talk about in the confessional. Although I do wonder about my 86-year-old mother who delivers her homemade cookies from the basket of her walker to homeless people. What does she confess in there, that she doesn’t buy organic ingredients?

I recently read a comment from a woman who had just started cutting her waste. She had not realized initially that zero waste represented merely a goal, something to strive for. She said she felt relief upon this realization. Then I felt guilty that zero-waste bloggers like myself may have made this woman feel guilty. Where will the madness end?!

In my 20s, I felt guilty all the time and for everything. Had I started my zero-waste journey back then, I probably would have been racked with guilt. But as the years passed, I found guilt—and worry—too exhausting. Essentially, I am too tired to feel guilty.

We environmentalists have too much work to do to let perfection and guilt stand in the way of progress. Push those abstractions aside and do what you can. When you do feel guilty for well, basically, being alive:

Celebrate your accomplishments rather than focusing on your shortcomings

You’ve gone plastic-free and fail 90 percent of the time? Congratulations on your 10 percent success rate.

Change the terms

If the term “zero-waste” sounds too absolute and causes you enormous anxiety, call your lifestyle low-waste or low-impact or whatever you want to call it.

Remind yourself that you didn’t create this reality

You do the best you can in our off-the-rails consumer-driven society, where we can’t escape from marketing but only during waking hours because corporations have not yet figured out how to infiltrate our dreams.

Don’t feel guilty if your trash doesn’t fit into a mason jar

Zero waste has a bit of a NIMBY (not in my backyard) aspect to it. Just because you don’t see the waste doesn’t mean you didn’t create any. Take bulk bins. I love bulk bins and I shop at them religiously but the food in the bins arrives at the store in large packages—the store staff doesn’t grow the rice out in the parking lot. So, I do contribute to waste when I buy my rice from the bulk bins—but much less waste than if I were to buy, over time, many many small packages of rice.

Cut yourself some slack and move on

Maybe after a 10-hour day at work you didn’t have the energy for your usual zero-waste routine and you bought take-out for dinner with a bunch of packaging. Or you didn’t feel well. Or were depressed. Keep doing your best, don’t worry and let it go.

Reassess your ideals

Perhaps you need to adjust your goals. If you live in a city that lacks bulk bins, the farmers’ market runs only in the summer, the grocery store wraps all its produce in plastic and you live in an apartment without so much as a patch of dirt to grow a few potatoes, you’ll bring home some trash.

Avoid people who make you feel guilty

“Do I see a plastic baggie in your lunch?” or “You know, those synthetic pants you’re wearing shed plastic microfibers into the ocean” or “You had kids?!” Why are you friends with this person?

Feel proud that you have a conscience

Imagine if everyone cared as much as you do. People who feel guilty—or worry—make better “friends, lovers and employees” according to researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of North Carolina. Their consciences prevent them from behaving badly. So, if you feel guilty, you have a conscience because you are a good human being. Bravo.

Remember that perfect is not option

Not only will you never reach perfection, that goal will impede your progress. You may worry so much about getting everything perfect that you feel too paralyzed to ever start. We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.

Please do not feel guilty. You have swallowed the red pill and have awoken to a world you did not create. Well okay, feel guilty if you are the CEO of a fossil fuel company. The rest of us need to keep in mind that swimming upstream as we do is not easy. Give yourself a pat on the back—not a hair shirt—for all you’ve accomplished.

31 Replies to “How to Cope With Environmental Guilt Syndrome (EGS)”

  1. Love your posts!! Always 😀 thank you…

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you Jule 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  2. I love this. Guilt can get WAY out of hand. I have a home daycare and waste eons less than most of my counterparts, but there is a lot of waste involved in a business and a LOT of waste invovled in caring for children. Children will still be cared for, so I need to remember to be proud of how much waste I cut out and focus on that. If I have to copy a ream of paper for my required paperwork, that’s not my fault, it’s the system I live in and I need to be proud that I keep it as minimum as I can and focus on that. Nothing is perfect, thank you for reminding me of that. 🙂

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      I’m glad you liked the post Christina. We are trapped in this system. That perspective helps keep me sane. ~ Anne Marie

  3. Thanks for this post Anne Marie! We all need that gentle reminder that perfection is just a goal – not a reality. Happy Valentine’s Day.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks Maureen. Happy Valentine’s Day to you too! ~ Anne Marie

    2. Thank you for this post, it came my way right on time. I have only started the low waste journey but already feel guilty for every plastic packaged item I buy. And I live EXACTLY as you write: in a town where all the chain wrap EVERYTHING in plastic, without a bulk store, with farmer’s market running twice a year and in a small apartment. After reading your post I realized that total, zero waste living is impossible right now but it’s okay if I just try to do my best. Thank you!!

  4. “Low impact” works perfectly as a goal and mindset for me.

    I live in the place with fewer options (no farmers market in winter and so on), but I go shopping with the thought that I will choose the items with the least amount of packaging. Sometimes this means none, sometimes a plastic bag rather than a foam tray shrink wrapped in plastic. And anything plastic that comes into my house has to serve double duty.

    I’m inspired by your blog! I learn new ways to be low impact, and put Into practice what I can. What’s not possible now gets filed away for the future

    Thank you!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Sarah,
      Low impact sounds good to me too. I’m glad you’ve found my posts helpful 🙂
      ~ Anne Marie

  5. Thanks. I have that EGS and sometimes is very hevy. 🙂

  6. Guilt, depression, anger are all my constant feelings to the world we live in. I can lower my impact but I’m faced with plastic every day. Nevertheless, I can do a lot for myself and our home but I can’t change other people or I become a negative harpy about their lifestyles. And it’s frustrating because my friends would all consider themselves nature lovers and environmentalists. I could give up a lot more and try to live a completely spartan life but then there would be no joy. So yes, every day is a compromise. I look back on my previous self with amazement – who didn’t realize all the dirty truths and how simple life was back then. It was just not so long ago. I’m glad your blog is reaching lots of people.

  7. This post is very timely for me. Thank you! I’m working hard to reduce my plastic and am making a few choices that are more costly but use less plastic. Lately I’m feeling frustrated with the people around me who constantly drink soft drinks, throw recyclables in the trash, use a gazillion plastic bags etc etc. I’m trying to remind myself that I can spread the word and try to make others more conscious of their choices but that I can’t change the world. Even this is a constant internal battle. Thanks for the words of wisdom!

  8. Madeleine Lawrence says: Reply

    Oh how I can relate to this post! Even after a major house fire in 2016 (ie I suddenly had nowhere to live!) I felt guilty when I went to a supermarket and bought fruit and veg in plastic bags (as my cloth bags were all destroyed!!) I reused a small polythene bag for 6 weeks to hold my soap as I couldn’t bring myself to purchase a plastic-lined toiletries bag!

    However, I have come to a new realisation, and that is that we really need to tackle the waste issue at the source which is where the bigger problem is. Yes, I can spend hours every week tracking down what I need in the most diligent way possible, but if corporations are still producing all of this plastic and passing it on to us we need to let them know that we are not happy about it and want more sustainable options. Not a week goes by when I do not write letters to companies about their packaging and I do believe that this is a crucial part of our efforts, otherwise we are just putting bandaids on a haemorrhage with our zero waste efforts.

    Let’s face it, not everyone cares or wants to make an effort or the environment – take a look around at the supermarket checkout, the complaints when they tried to phase out plastic carrier bags here were OTT. So it is up to those of us who do care to stem the flow of plastic at the source.

    Madeleine

  9. Margaret Bloom says: Reply

    I love this post. Thank you for writing it (and thank you for all your other wonderful posts, too).

  10. Excellently put, it took me a while to understand what the term “Zero Waste” was, then realize id been doing some of it for many years, I also worry people get put off doing what they can by it feeling overwhelming.

  11. I discovered your blog a few weeks ago and read literally every post… Thank you so much for your candor and for the encouraging, step-by-step goals you introduce! I initially wrote off the “Zero Waste” movement because my introduction to it was a upper-middle-class woman who didn’t seem to think trash existed outside of her mason jar— but I’ve been so encouraged to discover your blog and others like it which take the big picture approach (and acknowledge that not everyone has access to resources that make it easy to cut waste). I’m moving to the west coast soon (from the midwest), where I’ll have easier access to year-round farmers markets and bulk grocery, so I’m hoping to make some big habit changes over the next few weeks. Thanks for your inspiration, and for creating a wonderful nook of the internet where guilt has no place. 🙂

  12. I’m so glad you wrote this post. I have just started my minimal waste journey. What you said about guilt is comforting—I’ve been feeling so much guilt and think that my efforts (constantly) aren’t enough. But at least I’m trying to do something and maybe I should celebrate that part of me more.

  13. Kate in Florida says: Reply

    Thank you for this. I’m always grateful for how helpful your Instagram and blog posts are—you’re a go to for inspiration when I need it! I have integrated so many ZW practices into my work life (like religiously packing my work lunch, resuable bags, and only drinking from reusable cups) and it’s something I’m proud of. Staying positive can be rough at times, because many of my coworkers eat takeout—yikes, styrofoam and plastic overload. But! This kick-ass virtual community and the work of yourself and other environmentalists is my (clean) fuel to keep at it! Much gratitude to you for sharing accessible and “real world” hacks.

  14. Insightful as always! So true that none of us created this reality and many of us making reasonable efforts every day will make a difference. Even if just connected by a blog and shared ideals, you’re building an amazing team of people through the education and awareness you provide.

  15. Love this post! I would like to add that yes, we didn’t create this system, but we can actually dismantle it and create a new one: economics are not a force of nature, but a human invention, so we can change them using our amazing human abilities! And anyone who tries, is indeed creating a road where there is none, to get us all to a better place. Use that red pill wisely, and thanks for eating it <3

  16. I fail and fail and fail while admiring your Resolve with a halo beaming from your blog and still keep on trying ..because it is what it is and we are what we create ourselves to be and the red pill – we wouldn’t have it any other way because we CARE about this earth this life .

  17. […] know it’s not a new idea. I came across it in a blog post on The Zero-Waste Chef and it’s stuck with me and really helped me stay motivated […]

  18. I came for kimchi but needed this one so much more. My zodiac screams for perfection and I battle the guilt. I’m hopefully moving toward the “too tired for it”, even though I would much prefer the “too tired of it”. I realized after reading the impact I have had on things which should be celebrated and wash the guilt. We ditched paper towels as a family almost a year ago and I didn’t even notice because I had ditched them long before that. My partner just found us a plant based, no waste laundry detergent which is not always his first thought. He sees the plastic and the waste now which is half the battle. It’s exciting to see changes when you aren’t even trying, when you’re just trying to be your best version. Thanks for the reminder that every effort matters. And for all of your awesome shares. I have been engaged and appreciative for some time just wanted to say so. ☺️☺️☺️

  19. Thank you, I really needed to read that 🙂

  20. I confess that I perpetuate the Environmental Guilt Syndrome. I scold my grandchildren for drinking all their water out of disposable last bottles. I nag about straws. When I’m with them in a restaurant I make a big deal of styrofoam leftover containers. I walk around their house turning out all the unnecessary lights. Do you have any advice?

  21. […] I came across this beautiful quote from Zero Waste Chef recently: […]

  22. […] really great reminder, by the Zero-Waste Chef,  for those of us who are trying to make the world a better place, but […]

  23. […] “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” – Anne-Marie Bonneau of Zero Waste Chef […]

  24. […] 5. The Zero-Waste Chef: zerowastechef.com/2019/02/14/how-to-cope-with-environmental-guilt-syndrome-egs/?platform=hootsuite […]

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