When I first stumbled across the zero waste movement, I was stunned.
I was introduced to the concept via a viral video of a woman who could fit all of her trash into a sixteen-ounce mason jar. What an interesting accomplishment, I thought. I had always thought of myself as environmentally-minded, but I had never really thought about what I threw away on a regular basis or the impact my trash had on the planet.
The concept of zero waste caused some major paradigm shifts in my brain which has made sustainability much more than a list of things I can or cannot do in order to be kind to the planet. The more I practiced living a zero waste lifestyle, the more I realized zero waste was an incredibly simple concept. It invites us to be more intentional about the ways we consume our planet’s finite resources.
As the movement continues to gain momentum, I want to share four common misconceptions about zero waste. (Spoiler alert: The burden of zero waste is not meant for individuals. In addition to doing what we can, we need to focus on addressing the systems that create waste in the first place.)
Common Misconception #1: We need to do it all at once.
Zero waste isn’t something that happens overnight. We must practice it consistently while simultaneously acknowledging that we live within imperfect systems. We often let ourselves get overwhelmed by the “zero” in zero waste which leads to inaction and struggling with perfectionism. We need to be ambitious with our climate solutions, but we also need to balance that with what is a realistic burden to place upon an individual. So yes, zero waste is a pressing issue. But no, it does not need to happen all at once and you don’t need to be perfect at it. You can maintain forward momentum by pursuing zero waste with a calm sense of urgency.
Common Misconception #2: We need to align with a specific aesthetic.
Zero waste is much more than mason jars. You don’t need to be a minimalist. You don’t have to only wear neutrals and earth tones. You don’t even need to be plastic-free. Zero waste, at its heart, is a lens with which we can look at our consumption and production habits. If we think we need to look a certain way when we practice zero waste, we can get caught in analysis paralysis and feel too overwhelmed to take any action at all. There is not one single correct way to be zero waste. If you’re making an effort to shift your habits to reduce waste, then you’re doing it right.
Common Misconception #3: We need to buy all the popular zero waste products.
This might be the most common misconception of all. If you’re looking for a list of must-have zero waste products, you won’t find that here. Your zero waste journey will be personal to you and your needs. For example, I’m not a big coffee drinker so there’s no reason for me to include a reusable mug in my zero waste kit. If there’s an occasion where I would like to treat myself to a hot drink at the coffee shop, I already have an old travel mug that works just fine. It’s actually pretty easy to get tricked into unnecessary overconsumption through clever marketing targeted towards the sustainable consumer. When it’s especially clever, it can get you to click the “Add to Cart” button without a second thought. We don’t need to jump on every sustainable trend or product that comes our way. Consuming less is truly more.
Common Misconception #4: Zero waste distracts us from the real issue of our looming climate crisis.
If we keep our vision limited to unrealistic goals like fitting your trash into a mason jar, then, yes, zero waste seems like an unhelpful distraction from the greater climate crisis. However, if we approach it with the understanding that zero waste requires radical systems change, then it can actually be a helpful compass as we forge the path towards real climate solutions. Diverting organic waste away from the landfill to be composted directly reduces the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. When we find creative ways to keep usable products and materials in use for as long as possible, we can decouple economic growth from raw resource extraction. These are some of the basic goals of the zero waste movement. A zero waste mindset can radiate outwards to address the spaces where environmental, social, and economic injustices meet. Zero waste is a “yes and” solution, not a competing priority.
Personally, I only have two “rules” for going zero waste:
“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” That’s a quote by the legendary tennis player and activist Arthur Ashe.
“Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.” — in that order.
If you remember those two things, the rest can be left to experimentation to figure out what works best for you.
Zero waste can feel like an enormous task in both our personal and professional lives. To make progress, we need to see past these common misconceptions and create systems that allow us to reduce waste where you can. According to TRUE Zero Waste, a certified zero waste business will divert at least 90% of their waste from landfill, incineration, and the environment.
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