What is Zero-Waste?
It all started with composting. Naive little old me, I just thought it was a nice idea that my food scraps could be reborn into soil. Next thing you know, I watch a documentary that debunks the glories of recycling and BOOM, I’m suddenly falling deep into an investigative youtube rabbit hole about all things zero-waste.
The first thing I learned was that “zero-waste” is a sham. The concept, at first glance, suggests that people are truly living life with just a jar full of trash, not accounting for their recycling (that may or may not end up in the landfill after all), and the trash that they managed to re-purpose, such as glass food jars or old t-shirts.
Turns out the term zero waste is better defined as “environmentally conscious consumerism.” It’s about using your buying power as a consumer to support conscious brands, such as those who void plastic packaging and unsustainable manufacturing practices. It is also about embracing Recycling’s 2 sisters who are often ignored— Reduce and Reuse. More specifically, reduce your single plastic use and waste by replacing with non-plastic, reusable alternatives.
Cons of Zero-Waste
Besides the completely misleading and slightly obnoxious name, the zero waste movement has quite a few downsides. For starters, when I first began researching zero waste living, I became extremely overwhelmed and anxious because I felt that every aspect of my life was producing enormous amounts of waste despite having considered myself an eco-conscious consumer in the past. EVERY SINGLE THIING I used seemed to be on the naughty list, starting with my single use plastic dish soap down to my hair ties.
Once I decided I was going to change my ways, I ran into another problem; zero-waste living is not widely understood or embraced, so finding alternatives is a challenging and time consuming process. I happen to have alot of free time on my hands and, not to mention, am very invested in the cause, so I’ve spend hours and hours researching different brands, ideas and, tricks on zero waste living. The issue is that the average person who might have a demanding job, a family, a pet, debt, a wedding coming up, a funeral coming up, a birthday, you name it—that person, doesn’t have the time or the energy to look up mom and pop small businesses in Portland that specialize in making solid dish soap.
The movement is not only difficult to implement, it is also limited to the highly educated and privileged. I tied to explain to my mother why plastic bags are to be considered pure evil and she countered by saying plastic bags are great because then you can reuse them as trash bags for your bathroom bins, to which I replied that your bathroom bin doesn’t need a trash bag at all because it’s all dry waste and when it’s full you can just add it to your KITCHEN TRASH BAG AND REDUCE YOUR PLASTIC BAG CONSUMPTION!!! To which she shook her head and walked away. As you can tell, I was exasperated and defeated.
In order to grasp the concept of zero waste, you have to first understand the gravely of global warming, our failing waste management system, the pitfalls of recycling, and our own unhealthy relationship with consumerism and buying shiny new things. My mom is a great example of how zero waste is not for the under educated; she’s an immigrant, hard working, caring, strong, independent women, but she didn’t make it past grade school and believes everything she hears on cable news. AGAIN, the average person may or may not know some or all of these things, and usually the more you know has a positive correlation with your education level and your privilege.
The last pitfall I can see in the zero waste movement is it’s potential to become a niche consumerist obsession. On the several zero-waste online stores, and even at your local organic food store, you can find fancy bamboo cutlery to-go kits, fancy coffee travel mugs, muslin produce bags, the works! There is a “green” solution for everything, even things that don’t need a solution, like your hair ties for example. There’s so much stuff out there that you can buy to “substitute” your plastic, that if you swapped everything out all at once, you could spend a couple hundred bucks easily. And going back to my first point, I was so anxious about all of my plastic consumption that I almost did just that.
Pros of Zero-Waste
I started with the cons of zero-waste because I think the pros are more obvious. While this list is shorter, it’s my opinion that the impact of living zero-waste outweigh it’s pitfalls. First off, reducing our single use plastic consumption is a major benefit of the zero-waste movement. PERIOD. In the big picture, being more conscious (and pickier) about what we buy can have a tremendous positive effect on our money management and our waste management. Not only do you not need another tub of hair gel for your collection, but it’s packaged in plastic so you definitely don’t need it.
Zero-waste living helps you shift your mindset and focus less on stuff (buying stuff, having stuff, throwing stuff away) and focus more on the important things in life. And if you care about the environment, you will also gain piece of mind knowing you are, at bare minimum, not contributing further to the problem. Most importantly (for the purposes of this post), switching over from single use items to reusable items can save you lots of $$$ long term.
Zero Waste Life Hacks to Save you Money
Number 1: USE UP ALL YOUR PRODUCT BEFORE REPLACING
We live in a society obsessed with buying new things— even if they are used, in our minds they are new to us. It’s the consumerist society that the top 100 corporations responsible for most of global warming thrive on. The good news is that zero-waste living can help reduce this. I made a vow to myself that I would not buy anything new until I was completely out of the product. This goes for soap, groceries, toothpaste, cosmetics, and anything else I buy. Not only has this helped me reduce my waste, but I’ve had to think long and hard before I buy anything knowing that I won’t replace it until it’s finished. From what I’ve learned, this concept is super important for newbies in the zero-waste community, especially those who seek to replace all of their non-zero waste items with fancy new ones. The idea is to reduce your waste, so you shouldn’t throw something out that you could have used just to buy a new “eco-friendly” version.
Number 2: DON’T FOLLOW THE HYPE
I saw these really cool “unpaper towel” rolls on Etsy that looked just like paper towel rolls. All the vendors had cool designs and button snaps so that each “sheet” snapped together and some of them came with a reusable tube to roll your unpaper roll onto. These 6 towel rolls were being sold anywhere from $30-60 dollars. The cheapest I saw was $26 dollars. Then I went on Youtube and saw how to make them, essentially cutting up a towel into squares and sowing flannel to one side for decoration. I loved the idea but I didn’t want to throw down $50 bucks for a glorified hand towel. This is a prime example of how marketing can get you! I decided I wanted to get rid of single use paper towels but didn’t need fancy print imitations, so I went to Target and bought two packs of square kitchen towels and a small decorative basket to have in my kitchen for the soiled towels. The 100% cotton kitchen towels came in a pack of 6 for $1.99 and the basket cost $8.99, for a grand total of $13— half the price of the cheapest “unpaper towel rolls.”
Number 3: SERIOUSLY, REDUSE & REUSE
There are a few front runners out there for reusable food and beverage containers, such as collapsible food containers for travel, reusable silicone sandwich bags, bamboo cutlery kits, travel coffee mugs, etc, etc. The fact is, you probably already have food containers at home, you already have silverware, and you already have many of the things you need to be zero-waste. I, for example, make my coffee at home every morning and take to work in a travel mug, saving me tons of money. I also have a small food container that isn’t quite the same size as two slices of bread but close enough. If I was ever so inclined, I could also pull out some silverware from my kitchen and stuff it in my bag— but I don’t really buy takeout so it’s a non-issue. The moral of the story is…keep it simple, don’t buy things just because they seem cool, and think about the things you already have that might replace single-use.
Number 4: WHEN YOU MUST BUY, CONSIDER THESE MONEY SAVING TIPS
A few things I’ve learned on my journey…
- At the supermarket, shop the perimeters. This is usually where all the fruits, vegetables, bread, and dairy products are and where you’re more likely to find unpackaged food (i.e less plastic). Shopping only the perimeter will definitely save you money because of how much it will limit your options. Bonus, the unpackaged food is usually the healthiest because it is fresh and unprocessed.
- When buying body products, such as lotion, sunscreen, hair products, etc, consider switching over to solids. Solid lotion, or lotion bars, are more likely to come wrapped in paper, as a bar of soap would be. You can also find solid shampoo and conditioner bars for all hair types and conditions, even hair products can be found in solid forms. Solid form products boast to last longer than their liquid counterparts because they skip the water and fillers and are highly concentrated, meaning you need less product. They can also be found for cheaper; the other day I bought a solid shampoo bar at my local organic supermarket for $5, whereas my regular liquid shampoo costs me $12. I also found a 3.5oz of plain, unscented Castile soap on Esty for $3, which is comparable to the cost of a regular sized liquid dish soap (that’s mostly water!).
- I’m personally on a mission to switch out all my liquid soaps, detergents, and cleansers for solid bars, but if this is not the route for you, consider buying refills. Many brands offer refills in pouches that use 60% less plastic than bottles; some online stores also offer concentrated cubes that you can mix with water to create a liquid product and at least one company, Clean Cult, uses a carton instead of a plastic bottle. Refills are generally cheaper because they use less packaging and therefore cost the manufacturer less to make.
- The last option, arguably the easiest but ultimately the least effective, is buying in bulk. Usually buying in bulk means it will still come in plastic but at least it will cut down on the plastic waste and save you some time and money. You can store the big container somewhere hidden and refill smaller bottles as needed.
The Bottom Line
So many people have been discouraged by the extreme level of commitment it would appear you need to be a true “zero-waster,” that now Zero-Wasters are having to do some serious damage control to explain the true meaning of the movement. For me personally reducing my waste has had the very pleasant side effect of saving me money, like never again needing to restock on paper towels. What’s really important is reducing your waste though. Every little bit counts and you don’t have to go crazy trying to radically change your life to be literally “zero waste.” It’s all a matter of positive psychology; don’t focus so much on what you are doing wrong, instead continue to improve what you are doing right. And remember, the more you lean into environmentally conscious consumerism, the more conventional brands will feel the pressure to change their unsustainable manufacturing and distribution practices.
Bonus: Here is a great article I found on what it really means to be zero waste by Polly Barks: How to go zero waste on a budget. And here is another article I found useful by MoneyNing: 5 Ways a Zero-Waste Lifestyle Saves the Planet — and Your Money