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Friday, April 13, 2018

I'm Dropping the Term "Zero-Waste"


This post has been so hard for me to get started on because I know there are several people in my followers who have been very inspired by my "zero-waste" endeavors, and I don't want to let them down. I didn't really know how to write out my thoughts and get my point across, without sounding like I've completely abandoned the whole movement. Because I haven't. That's not what this is about. The only thing I am dropping is the label that, for some reason, causes me to strive towards some unattainable level of perfection that cannot be reached, and some unrealistic expectations I have created for myself.

As a person who is invested in reducing waste and making huge efforts to spread the word about the negative impact trash is having on our planet, I want to put this out there. I think labels and titles can be very misleading sometimes, and unfortunately I think the term "zero-waste" has become a term that gets thrown around too loosely. I've decided to stop using it for a label on myself all together. This is a complex topic with many layers, and a lot more than just a few talking points, but in an effort to keep this down to an easy read, here are my five most basic reasons for dropping the term "zero-waste."

1. It is widely misused
The term "zero-waste" was originally coined to describe a quality of a circular economy. This circular economy does not yet exist in America, or most other developed countries. Instead of using the term purely for that purpose, the hashtag culture as redefined the term "zero-waste" to label anything and everything pertaining to waste reduction. Basically, "zero-waste" never meant to imply that a "zero-waster" must create exactly zero waste, or be striving toward a goal of creating no waste whatsoever, but this is how the term is often used. As a result, it paints an image of a goal that is unattainable by most people. This is counterproductive in many ways and causes people to give up before they even get started.

2. It can sound exclusive and be offputting to newcomers
A lot of people will hear the term "zero-waste" and immediately assume that they will never be able to fit into that category. So rather than try to make the small changes they are able to make, they will simply turn away from the idea completely. If we want to fight for our planet and try to spread the word about the impact trash is having on our forests and oceans, we need to do it in an open, inclusive, and friendly way. Yes, everyone can make a difference. But not everyone is going to realize the simple, small, everyday changes that they can implement into their routines. Using a broad-stroke term like "zero-waste" can make it seem like you have to be all in or all out.

3. It leaves little room for error, and can affect self-esteem just like any other label
This was the very first indicator that caused me to begin analyzing the effect of labels. I noticed so many people on social media expressing feelings of guilt every time they made a mistake, or weren't able to live up to their idea of what "zero-waste" should look like. I even noticed myself doing this. I think it's necessary to have standards, but we must be kind to ourselves. When I read what some of my fellow "zero-wasters" were feeling, I related immediately. For example, if I arrived at the grocery store and realized I forgot my bulk bags, I'd sometimes drive all the way home to get them. This created a whole new level of work for me because I have to plan my shopping and cooking around a toddler's nap times, husband's work schedule, and pregnancy fatigue. The store isn't just right around the corner, and I can't do it all. And this isn't realistic for most other people either. If I didn't have time or energy to go get the bags, I'd continue inside the store and do my shopping, but skip all the bulk ingredients, noting that I'd have to make another trip the next day to get them. Again, not always realistic. Other times I would go inside, buy my ingredients in packaging since I didn't have my cloth bags, and then experience strong feelings of guilt for the whole rest of the day, and every time I used one of those items. None of this is healthy. Ever since dropping the term "zero-waste," I've made it a point to be more forgiving of myself. Now when a situation like this comes up, I go ahead and just finish my shopping, get what I need, and if some of it is in packages, tell myself "Oh well, I'll try to do better in the future," and move on. It's frightening how negatively a label can impact a person's sense of self-worth. I like to see people making an effort to help the planet, but not sacrificing their happiness or self esteem for it. This is a busy world we live in, and even some of us who have really made an effort to slow down and simplify still forget things and don't plan well. It's fine. Do what needs to be done, make the right choices when it's possible, and be grateful that you're able to do even the bare minimum.

4. Many people live in a home with individuals who aren't as interested in reducing waste
This one applies to so many people, myself included. I cook food for other family members, I'm in charge of buying shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, and other products we use. There is absolutely, positively no way that I could completely DIY every little thing, create zero waste, and also keep my husband and son comfortable and happy. They have favorite foods that come in packaging, and to be honest, so do I. There are products they don't want to live without, and that's totally fine. My kind husband fully supports my endeavors, and is always interested in trying every new thing I come up with. But he doesn't like some of them, and that's fine. There are a lot of things I prefer to just get the commercial version of for myself, too. Shampoo/conditioner are one of them, laundry detergent is another. I've bent over backwards trying countless DIY recipes, zero waste shampoo bars, and bulk products in my own containers, yet I keep finding myself buying commercial products for certain items. Sometimes I like it at first, but after a while I end up going back. The second best thing you can do in these situations is at least try to buy chemical-free products from responsible companies. I can't completely rid our house of plastic waste and keep the entire family happy. And I know that this is a very common difficulty. So those who are trying to keep up with this "zero-waste" image are feeling like they have to choose between their family or the planet. Or they have to convince their family members to jump on board. It's not entirely realistic.

5. Un-packaged food and DIY ingredients are not always the most affordable option, and are rarely available in rural areas.
Depending on where you live and what stores are available in your area, it may not always be cheaper or more convenient to cook completely from package free ingredients or make your own skin products. But you'll hear bloggers and YouTubers putting a message out there that it is. A lot of these bloggers who live in cities with lots of resources within walking distance of their houses are quick to assume that what's easy for them is easy for everyone. But it's not. Most of us have to get in a car and drive, sometimes great distances, to reach stores that have the unpackaged products that meet our needs. Most rural towns in America do not have these options available at all, and ordering online is usually more expensive and includes some type of packaging. So to perpetuate this idea that it's possible for anyone to be "zero-waste" is incredibly irresponsible. Anyone can make some of the small, simple changes, but we can't all keep up with the image. And unfortunately, that's what this label has done. It's created an image that very few people can see themselves succeeding in, and they feel like failures when they try to, and can't keep up.

For me personally, now that I am pregnant and caring for a high-energy toddler all day, it comes down to hours in the day and gas in the tank. The first few weeks of my pregnancy, this mama wasn't happy! By the time my husband came home from work every day, I was tired, exhausted, drained from trying to do everything perfectly and look after a toddler while creating an entirely new human being inside of my body. Cooking, making multiple stops at different stores to find all the ingredients without packaging, driving 40 minutes to the co-op once a week to get specific ingredients to make un-packaged snacks for my son (super expensive, by the way) was just completely unrealistic, given the circumstances. If I had all of the recources available closer to home AND at affordable pricing, I may feel differently. But the way things are at the moment, I haven't been able to keep up with all of it. At the end of the day I need to forgive myself and make time for my son, for my husband, my house, and me.

I know I will lose some followers for this. And that's fine. I hope you can all understand that I am not saying I've given up. I've just loosened my ideas of what is acceptable. I realize we all need to pitch in to save the planet, and to be honest, I truly feel I am still doing my part. I avoid waste when possible, I do so many things, but I also realize that we DO NOT live in a circular economy yet, and sometimes it's better to let go of trying to be perfect, than it is to be unhappy.

I'm leading a low impact life, and I'm putting my success as a mom and a wife first. And that's pretty darn good priorities, in my opinion.

If you are someone who has struggled with this topic, or has struggled with labels of any kind, please feel free to comment below, I would love to hear from you!

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1 comment

  1. That’s why I changed my Instagram handle from @zerowasteaway to @earthloveminimalist. I couldn’t drive to the store with bulk foods and do my other shopping for mental health reasons, and it ended up that the bins were cross contaminated with wheat, which is bad for this celiac family. “Zero waste” wasn’t going to happen. I buy things in packaging now, and I use canned beans regularly. I still feel a little guilt. I’m slowly getting over that. I’d love to have less recycling. I wish cloth diapers still worked for us. I wish I had access to a composting service. But I don’t. So I do my best within my limitations, just like you are.

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