Coming to terms with ‘Zero Waste’

It’s time to apply for The Simple Year 6! Click HERE for details, or check out “The Handoff” link above. Deadline is April 15. 

My understanding of zero waste has evolved quite a bit in the past year, but I suppose you could successfully argue it’s been evolving for a while now. When I first heard the term (five years ago or so?), I thought zero waste sounded awesome, yet too lofty to attempt. Months and months (and years) later, when I decided to give it a go, I STILL thought it was too ambitious for any real success and maybe used that as an excuse to not do as much as I could have.

Which is why I wanted to tackle a zero waste project for The Simple Year.

Part of what I wanted to accomplish was figuring out what zero waste means and how to implement that into family life. That’s harder — making it work for a family — than it is to focus on yourself (which is plenty hard enough) because now you’ve got, in my case, three other lives to incorporate. It’s one thing to make myself take my reusable coffee mug with me everywhere, and quite another to convince the fam to do the same … and that’s one of the easier hurdles.

Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself; more on that in a minute. This year has opened my eyes to the nuances of zero waste, and the fact that, much like minimalism, the movement is what you make it. For some of us, that’s going to be easy because our options are great. For others, that means we have to get creative with fewer choices.

When I started the project, I wanted to tackle everything. At the grocery store, I’d count the number of containers in the cart — reusable, recyclable or trash — as if they all measured the same. For personal items like toothpaste or lotion, I made my own products while ignoring stacks of the same already in my cupboard. I associated “zero waste” with a more hands-on, do-it-yourself kind of attitude; I recently joked that some people treat zero waste like a competition, and that if you’re not completely off the grid and making everything from scratch, you’re a failure — but I totally bought into that, not even gonna lie.

Now, I see that I focused on some things that weren’t a problem to begin with, or made it much harder on myself and the family than it needed to be: If you have to buy multiple products to make one item (whether that’s from the bulk bin or regular aisles), how is that better? If you’re making your own lotion but have bottles of it going unused, are you really zero waste? If you have to fight your family to give up certain items, are you laying the groundwork to make this a sustainable project for everyone?

That’s a word I really like — sustainable. If what you’re doing isn’t easy to keep up, it’s not going to last. Not that there aren’t some extraordinary humans out there who can’t fight the good fight every single day with rigid accordance to “the rules,” just that I’m not one of them. If something gets too complicated, I’m going to let it go. It’s just how I’m wired.

So now when I fill my grocery cart, I count what is truly trash and forgive the rest: The liner on Eric’s bread (his bye item) is garbage, but at least the cereal liner can be recycled here (Abby’s bye). Sometimes Johanna picks crackers (her bye), and only the box is recyclable; other times, she picks chips, and the entire thing is trash. I need items like canned beans and tomatoes for the pantry / emergency supply closet, but those containers can be recycled indefinitely (as long as they end up in someone’s cart who actually recycles, I suppose). And I’ve decided paying over $6 a pound for pasta from the bulk bin when I can get a box for less than $2 — cardboard! With only one small plastic square of a window! No other liner! GMO-free even! — is lunacy.

I expected a fight to get the fam on board at the beginning of the project, but it’s not been as hard as I’d expected. Mostly it’s been okay, but they’re on their own journeys, and I’ve accepted that — I can’t always make decisions for them (i.e., it’s easy to make lunch in reusable containers when everything they need is in the house, and a little harder when they’re faced with a situation on their own). They need to own this for themselves, whatever that looks like.

Letting them chose a bye item at the beginning was genius on my part — that really helped them feel like they had some control over what was happening, as well as gave them reassurances that their lives weren’t going to change overnight and in new and scary ways. And I try to focus on the positives rather than the negatives when they make decisions. I’m a big fan of leading by example rather than nagging.

Johanna is probably the biggest offender, even though she’s also the only one who’s strictly along for the ride (literally, she can’t drive), just based on all of her art projects and supplies. Abby tends to go for convenience, but she’s also got some habits in place — she’s great about using durables, for example. Eric has been the most open to it. He doesn’t really care if something is convenient or not, but he does base his purchases on cost. He keeps grocery bags in his truck, and I’d like to get him some produce bags — although he doesn’t mind putting items directly into his cart — and a couple of tared jars — that would increase his options, and mine, who am I kidding, when he texts to see if there’s anything I need at the store.

So that’s how I’ve come to terms with “zero waste” this year — it’s not so much “zero waste” as it is minimal waste or low waste, which is more obtainable for the average person. Like me. I’ve also come to realize that, no matter what you’re buying, you have to look at the product’s end game up front because some day it is going to be tossed — everything, whatever it is — it’s just where it’s tossed that’s the problem. (That’s what keeps me up at night and makes my decisions much harder.)

Next up: I’ll show specifics of the choices I’m making (or would make) these days at the grocery store based on what can be reused or recycled, what is trash, etc.