Our Zero Waste Journey: What I’ve Learned

I’ve been working on reducing the waste we generate for nearly a year, and although I’m not as close to an actual zero as I had expected, I have learned so much. (If you want to check out where I started, click here.) It has made me hyper aware of my consumption habits and led me to a more seasonal way of living. I have learned about sustainability in architecture, product design, landscape design, and ordinary day-to-day habits. A few of the things I’ve learned over the past year have stuck out to me, and I wanted to share those with you.

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1. It’s not a label, it’s a lifestyle

I’ll be the first to admit that when I decided to “go zero waste” I had no idea what that really meant.  I had done some research, but the idea in my head was that I’ll follow certain steps, implement a few swaps, and my trash will magically disappear. If this is where you’re at, I’m sorry to tell you that things don’t quite work like that. It’s a lot harder than I first thought.

Zero waste is more a mindset, a lifestyle that you have to chose over and over again every single day. It’s not one big decision, it’s a million tiny decisions that seem insignificant but that add up together. It’s making those choices so much that they become natural.

Through this year, I’ve started to hesitate when using the term zero waste. Because we can’t actually get to zero, the word itself gives us a false idea of perfection, even if we try to remind ourselves that we’re making progress. It subconsciously signals that there is an end we’re trying to reach, and once we reach it then we’ll finally “arrive.” You can see it in my blog post titles: “Our Journey TO Zero Waste,” like we’re going somewhere. But I’ve realized that it can’t be about reaching the craziest, lowest waste level - as if life is a video game. It’s about seeing the impact of our personal actions and shifting those actions in real time to minimize our negative impact. I’m not trying to dis the zero waste name or movement, it’s a good thing, but forgive me if I don’t use the term all the time.

2. It will look different for everyone, but the principles are the same

This mindset shift of reducing waste will look different for each person. Your waste stream is not the same as mine, so the waste-reducing steps you take won’t be exactly like mine. Maybe I need to start bringing lunch to avoid plastic packaging, but you’ve already got that in the bag and need to work on buying fewer single-use plastic snacks. We each have different places that need work, but the underlying principles are the same: refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle.

3. Remembering is half the battle

You can buy and save and thrift all the zero waste things, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t have it with you when you need it. That’s why remembering is key. In the beginning, setting up memory devices can be very helpful. Like hanging your reusable bags by the door so you see them on the way out, or writing notes to yourself and sticking them to the door/mirror/car. Keep everything you need for going out in your bag ready to go so you don’t have to search for them on your rush out the door. And make a habit of cleaning your travel utensils right away so they’ll be ready for your next excursion.

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4. There are two major trash generators

In our house, the two major trash generators are: food and single-use plastics. Food is easier; all it takes is composting, a little food storage know-how, and some planning ahead so food gets eaten before it goes bad. Plastic is a little more difficult just because it’s so prolific. Buying in bulk, making what you can, switching to reusables, or finding products with compostable packaging all fall under this category. Generally, a household has about two (plus or minus) major trash generators. If you can whittle these two things down, then you’ll be well on your way to the minimal-trash-run life.

It’s helpful to analyze what’s in your garbage can so you have real data on what you’re actually putting in there - it might surprise you. Once you know what’s making up your trash pile you can start devising how to reduce it. You can focus on the biggest waste-generators and make real impact on your pile rather than waffling around with little things that have a minuscule impact and give you a false sense of accomplishment. Figure out your two major trash generators and work on those. Then, once those are minimized, reassess and find the next two to work on. This gives you enough to do without getting overwhelmed.

5. You have to find your “why”

I’m not going to sugar-coat it: some days it’s tough to make the sustainable choice. When you’ve got a toddler trying to climb out of the grocery cart every two seconds while you’re shopping and every single person you pass tells you they fear for her life, it’s so easy to just say you’ll buy her the individually-packaged fruit snacks next to you if she’ll just sit still! Sacrificing convenience is hard. So you need a rock-solid reason why you’re doing it. Why do you want to reduce your footprint? What do you hope to get out of this way of life? What drives you to keep going during those hard days? This is your why. Find it, think about it, write it down, tape it to your mirror, put it on your felt letter board. It doesn’t have to be complicated and it doesn’t have to be like anyone else’s.

My personal why is that I feel a responsibility to be a good steward over the things that God has given me, and I want to leave this world a better place for my daughter.

6. Moderation

If you’re like me, it’s easy to get caught in the trap of perfection. It can come from comparison: seeing perfectly curated zero waste pantries from perfect zero waste bloggers can be inspiring or it can give you a sense of failure for not having the same thing. It can also come from ourselves: when we aren’t living up to what we think we should be doing (even if that standard is impossibly high), we feel guilt. But guess what? We don’t have to be zero-waste zealots! Don’t compare your first year with someone else’s tenth, and don’t set your standards so high you feel like you’ve failed before you’ve even started. It’s good to push yourself, but it’s also good to give yourself some room to breathe. You do have to be a little careful with moderation, because if left unchecked it can lead to rationalization. But for the most part, we can all lay off some of the guilt.

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There you have it; the top six things I learned about zero waste in the last year. It’s not a comprehensive list, but I hope it helps. What have you learned about reducing waste and living sustainably? Tell me in the comments!