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When I became interested in zero-waste living a few years ago, it soon became my entire lifestyle. My life was set up to accommodate all my zero-waste habits, from where I shopped to how I organized my apartment. I never went anywhere without reusable bags, utensils, jars, and bottles. Everyone around me knew I was vegan and that I was trying to produce as little waste as possible – and I took pride in that.
Over the years, though, it started to wear on me. I could feel my nerves fraying at the constant anxiety I had over how much waste an outing might produce. Instead of being liberating, the lifestyle started to feel unsustainable.
Here’s why I gave up on zero-waste living – and how I live now.
I started zero-waste living a few years ago in an effort to do my part to fight climate change. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard about it, but at the time, I felt ready to make the change. I picked up a few more reusable produce bags, ordered a compost bin, and said goodbye to my favorite snacks that came wrapped in plastic. It was an adjustment, but, eventually, it became second nature. I got used to buying in bulk and making almost all of my food from scratch. I stopped impulse buying and started thrifting almost all of my clothes. It was a lot of new habits in a short time, but I loved feeling like I was making a difference. I found community, too.
Sharing the lifestyle with other people was a huge relief. Here were people who got it! As these relationships developed, though, I started to realize two things. The first was that I felt more pressure to be perfect – to produce truly zero waste (which, by the way, is impossible), almost like it was a competition. The second was that I was starting to vent to them more than anything else. After a few years, my enthusiasm for zero waste was waning. Simply put, I felt tired and the aforementioned pressure was getting to me. It felt like a second job and the constant guilt I felt whenever I “messed up” was exhausting.
It was difficult, but I began to share these feelings with my zero waste friends. To my surprise, many of them shared in the exhaustion and eco-anxiety. We were all putting so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect and feeling a sense of panic whenever we thought we had failed, which is a very tiring way to live. I decided something had to be done.
Moving away from zero-waste living was scary because, yet again, it felt like I had failed. It took time to reframe this as self care; shifting my lifestyle to be more sustainable for my own wellbeing was, in fact, a way to take care of myself.
I decided that instead of striving for zero waste, I would aim for low waste. What did this mean? I really like this definition from Sustainable Jungle: “Low waste living means that you make changes to your lifestyle where they are possible and sustainable for you to maintain personally, without placing yourself under the pressure of perfectionism.”
I took stock of all the zero-waste habits I had developed and identified which felt the easiest and most sustainable and which felt the most stressful. Compost had gotten difficult after moving to a neighborhood that didn’t offer compost services. The bulk food store was now over 45 minutes away from me. So, I decided composting no longer made sense and I set a goal to visit the bulk food shop once a month instead of the weekly trips I was previously making.
Even just these two changes brought immense relief, and that was how I knew I was on the right track. Going to the bulk store less frequently actually made my visits more meaningful when they did happen. Giving myself permission to be imperfect made everything feel more realistic and even helped revive my enthusiasm for the lifestyle and overall movement.
After all these changes, I really believe low-waste living is attainable for anyone as long as they do it on their own terms. Don’t try to force it – sustainability is about what’s realistic for you and your lifestyle. Of course, it will require some changes and perhaps small sacrifices, but if they feel like habits you can keep up without excessive stress, then go for it!
To start reducing your waste, first take stock of all your waste-producing habits. What products come in plastic bottles? What is single-use? Then ask yourself, where are you most motivated to make a difference? What feels exciting? If you’re a big cook, perhaps start with your food choices. If you clean a lot, maybe start there. Whatever feels most realistic and exciting will lead to the most sustainable choices for you and your lifestyle.
And keep in mind that you’re likely already doing many sustainable things like using the dishwasher instead of handwashing, turning off the water while you wash your face or brush your teeth, or turning off the lights when you leave a room. All these small actions add up!
Here’s a huge list of little things you can do to reduce waste, but these are some of my favorites:
I love my local bulk food shop! I couldn't believe all the things I could buy in bulk when I first started, but even with all the changes I’ve made, this is still one of my favorites. I recommend just browsing upon your first visit to see all the products – you’ll be shocked what you find. That way, the next time you visit, you’ll know all your options and can make a list accordingly.
Again, I couldn’t believe how easy this was. After buying all my hygiene products in plastic bottles my whole life, I was shocked that I could replace pretty much all my favorite products with plastic-free options. The Earthling Co. makes this easy.
So much of low-waste living is about food, and a CSA makes all the difference in this realm. I get a share of food each week from my local farmer’s market, and it means I don’t have to buy any produce from the grocery store, while also supporting local farmers.
Sustainability is all about the collective: the more we do together, the more of an impact we make. And that’s why every little change really does add up! I encourage everyone I meet to explore the ways they can incorporate low-waste habits into their lives. You might be surprised how simple it can be!