When we were kids, we had the three R’s hammered into our minds repeatedly: reduce, reuse, recycle.
But things have changed. We now know that “recycle” is still an inefficient and unideal solution to how we dispose of our waste, and it can’t be left up to individual consumers. As people become more aware of the impact of plastic, especially single-use plastic, the zero-waste trend has been thrust into the spotlight, rising from a niche (reserved mainly for hippies living in tents) to something that is as attractive as it is necessary.
It’s huge on social media, which means that it’s also attracting increased scrutiny for being potentially problematic. And there’s a good reason for it. Although I am, myself, on a personal mission to reduce my own carbon footprint, I agree with almost all of the criticisms toward the zero-waste movement: that it’s extremely difficult to attain, that it favors the privileged, that I’ll pretty much always be a hypocrite with my choices in some way. It also puts a disproportionate amount of responsibility on individuals and ignores the far more significant contribution of major corporations to climate change.
The reason that I continue to opt for zero-waste options when I can is simply because I feel like even though as one person I might not be able to make a difference, that doesn’t mean I should be apathetic. I don’t believe in knowingly and actively buying into systems that you dislike or disagree with — at least, when you have the privilege to choose (and I do, in most cases). Essentially, my view boils down to, “Always do what you can, think more about your choices, and don’t let apathy overtake you.”
The truth is, like most movements that generate a lot of social media traction — like veganism, fitness, minimalism — we’re sent a lot of mixed messages and constantly feel like we’re not good enough just because our efforts don’t look like what we see on screen. The Instagram version only represents a small portion of the actual ideals behind a movement, but it’s by far the most visible and attractive. If you were to ask Instagram, the new three R’s are more like “Replace, Retail, Reappropriate.” A lot of the “advice” is focused on buying new tools and accessories, but starts and stops there.
So for those who are just diving into a zero-waste lifestyle, it can seem overwhelming — and it’s easy to make mistakes that not only really hit you in the wallet, but also don’t help the Earth in any significant way. Here are some of the things you need to be conscious of if you’re trying zero-waste habits:
1. All-out plastic-phobia.
Zero-waste is also sometimes presented as “zero-plastic.” Not all plastic is single-use, or has to be single-use. Even though lots of people online will tell you that plastic Tupperware is unhealthy, filled with chemicals, and still devastating to the environment no matter how long you keep it for, I wouldn’t take that as a recommendation to run out and buy a ton of expensive glass or aluminum containers (the latter of which are obviously not microwave-safe). I’ve been using the same Tupperware for more than 10 years, since I started university.
Odds are, you already have a lot of containers in your home that you can use to store food and groceries, and even more once you rinse out that old peanut butter jar or drum of protein powder. A “Ziplock container salad” might not look as pretty as a “mason jar salad,” but it tastes the exact same. The production of plastic, in general, is still harmful and something that should be reduced. But as you’re adjusting to a new lifestyle, if you want to avoid rushing out and buying a bunch of new shit, this is obvious.
2. Needing a one-for-one replacement for everything.
It’s amazing how many times I’ve seen a long list of suggested “tools” to help with zero-waste lifestyles where about two-thirds of the list is completely unnecessary. You know what you can do instead of buying a nice little pack of bamboo cutlery lovingly wrapped in a cloth container? Pack a fork, knife, and spoon from home in a small zipper bag. And do you really need a glass water bottle, aluminum Thermos, and reusable coffee cup? Because I’ve been using the same aluminum container for all three for three years and have zero complaints. Aside from the unnecessary expense, this overall makes traveling, even just out to the coffee shop, a huge pain in the ass. I don’t want to go around with a bulky, clinking purse everywhere I go.
3. Buying novelty stuff online.
Researchers at MIT found that online shopping, in general, generates about 5x as much CO2 emissions on packaging as brick-and-mortar shopping, and delivery even on standard online shopping produces about 0.5 KG of CO2 emissions — twice as much for rushed delivery. Sometimes, especially if you live in smaller or rural areas, there are certain things that you have no choice but to buy online (more on the quest for purity below). But when looking for novelty items, such as reusable coffee filters or plastic-free produce bags, you can often find those sold — and even made — in your own community. Connecting with local artisans through marketplaces and local hubs can get you access to those awesome goods without as much of the impact, or paying a premium for rush shipping.
4. Buying the same shit you used to, just in different/no packaging.
When it comes to things like makeup, soaps, and personal care products, foods, and ingredients, it’s easy to get excited because at last, you’ve found something in biodegradable, paper-based packaging! It’s so exciting, that you forget to ask yourself whether or not you need it in the first place.
Looking to reduce the overall number of products you buy is overall the friendliest to your wallet and the environment. There are different things that people can decide to cut out depending on priorities. For me, I replaced dry shampoo with cornstarch (I paid a mere dollar for about a year’s supply of cornstarch — I’m still proud of it) and use the same cheap bar soap for face, body, and hair. You might have different preferences, but everyone should take an opportunity to look at their personal supply of goods, such as makeup, personal care, and kitchen stuff, and find redundancies.
5. Starting and stopping at packaging.
Ingredients, sourcing, and manufacturing all play a huge part in the impact of what we buy. Learning about the impacts of certain materials and their sourcing can be eye-opening. Is it better to buy a plant-based mayonnaise in a glass jar if it was made with palm oil? Bulk agave or almonds? There are certainly elements of this journey that will see you make personal compromises, and you’ll never be perfect. But ultimately, there’s more to evaluate than just what gets thrown away.
6. Being unwilling to compromise.
This might seem counterintuitive to previous things I’ve already said. The fact is, like most major lifestyle changes, at some point, you will have to ask yourself, “Is this practical to pull off?” For example, I was unable to find a biodegradable alternative to SuperFloss (the kind you have to use when you have braces or wires), so I spent about $60 on a water flosser. I used it every day, but after two years, my dentist informed me that those really don’t get the job done, and my gums were suffering slightly as a result. So it was back to the SuperFloss and its wasteful packaging, but I had to remind myself that I’m still making good choices elsewhere.
Maybe you’re finding that menstrual cups just aren’t right for you, or that you’ve poured tons of money into pots and soil for your failing balcony garden when you could just as easily go to a local produce stand where the herbs are wrapped in a rubber band. Repeat after me: you cannot be perfect, and you have to forgive yourself for that and focus your energy on the places where you can make more material change.
7. Not making bigger changes to your lifestyle.
Looking at the waste impact of what you buy is a great start. But if you get the feeling like you’re never doing enough, instead of going out and buying yet another bamboo-based takeout container, try to look at choices you make beyond the cash register. How much do you drive places you could carpool, take transit, or bike to? How often do you buy takeout from fast food places that have reduced their plastic output, when you could save money by making lunch at home and not give as much of your money to a company that is still responsible for more emissions, land and water use than any one person ever will be?
You don’t have to go vegan or get rid of your car overnight (unless you feel you have the right resources to do so), but you can look at replacing some of your more heavy-consumption activities with things that are more localized in terms of their economic and ecological impact. Better yet, go for things that have next to no impact in those categories: instead of shopping with someone, go to the library. Instead of meeting for Starbucks, go to the park. Go for hikes, peruse local farmers’ markets, host a garage sale or clothing swap. You don’t have to completely pull yourself out of the economy (that’s pretty much impossible) and some moves, like giving up fast fashion, definitely require a privileged starting point. But if you’re already in a position to embark on a lifestyle like “zero-waste,” you should look beyond your packages, products, and wastebasket.
Bree Rody-Mantha is a full-time business journalist and part-time dance teacher based in Toronto. She covered Toronto City Hall during the Rob Ford era before transitioning to business journalism. Her areas of specialty include the influencer market, advertising, media buying, and technology. Follow her on Twitter.
Image via Unsplash