How Going Zero Waste Can Save Your Life (and A Lot of Money)
I discovered the zero waste movement in 2018. I started by reading Simple Life Hacks to Drastically Reduce Your Trash and 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste and eventually got to the grand poobah Bea Johnson, Zero Waste Home. The movement really spoke to me because my immigrant parents instilled in me a hatred and fear of waste and so many of the tips were easy and cheap to implement.
Though it is a very simple idea – create less garbage – over time I realized that living this way had ripple effects leading to a sea change in my perspective on so many things. Here are the ways that going zero saved my life (and a whole lot of money too).
Just to be Clear: Zero Waste is Not Minimalism
Zero waste is an aspirational goal of reducing one’s trash. Minimalism is about reducing one’s possessions. Though minimalism and zero waste share some aspects in common, most of the gains from being zero waste do not come from minimalism alone.
I think one main difference is that minimalism focuses on how the stuff you own affects you and zero waste focuses on the impacts of your decisions on the world.
The most effective way to be a minimalist is to outsource. Minimalists can travel with zero luggage, purchase everything at the destination, and trash that stuff before going home. Zero stuff. Zero wasters carry way more stuff than even a normal person – their own cup, napkin, bowl, bag, flatware, etc. Because zero wasters don’t want to buy more stuff, they have to be prepared for everything, which means less outsourcing.
It’s also easy to be envious as a minimalist. A quick Instagram search showed #minimalist posts look like interior design catalogs while zero waste is just pictures of trash.
Minimalism can makes you feel bad about yourself, which makes you want to spend more to get sleek new multitaskers and neutral clothing. Zero waste – it’s all achievable. Look at her compost or his upcycled rags – you can have them too because you already have junk!
Minimalism is concerned with how your possessions take over your time. Zero waste spends its time mending those possession. Minimalists might have Tesla’s and zero wasters have their 21 year old Lexus (that’s my car).
Minimalism is an expensive destination while zero waste is a sloppy journey. And I think that’s why zero waste appeals to me in a way minimalism never could.
Zero Waste Takes the Joy out of Shopping
Most zero waste solutions necessarily include reducing spending. For instance, before buying something new you have to question the needless and unrecyclable packaging, the resources and energy to make, ship, and maintain the product, and how to dispose of the product.
So say goodbye to shopping for new things! And even when you have to buy new – like for food, you’re geared towards loose produce at the farmer’s market (less packaging). The prices are higher but there are also far fewer opportunities to impulse buy. (The average grocery store sells 40,000 items! The average farmer’s market sells…less.)
Part of the joy of shopping is serendipity and sales. You go looking to catch something at a bargain. But when you go zero waste you have to think about whether you need the product, not how much you “saved.” And ironically this line of thinking leads to saving a lot more moolah.
How Zero Waste Saves Energy
In the personal finance world, saving money on HVAC is hotly debated. Of course if it’s a question of individual comfort v. Savings, people are going to value that differently. But if it’s your comfort v. The demise of the world, well that’s a bit closer.
More than physical energy, zero waste conserves mental energy. A main problem with minimalism is that if you only get to have a few possessions, you can convince yourself each one has to be the best. You can go on an upgrading binge so long as you get rid of the old model. With zero waste, you stick with your phone/handbag/car till it dies.
Prices have come down on everything from technology to airplane tickets to home decor, clothing, and food. Middle class families can buy pretty much everything these days. With nothing out of reach, all of it loses meaning. We don’t have to save our pennies, we don’t have to wait. How do we stop buying when we can have it all? How do we give our purchases meaning again?
I know that sounds constraining. But I’m so easily decision fatigued I’ve reduced nearly all my choices. I eat less so I can shop less and I’ve constrained my shopping to whatever is bikeable/carryable. And I know I have the choice to have choices but there can be freedom in restraint.
How Zero Waste Saves your Health
Over my lifetime I’ve purchased almost 30 KINDS of products just for my HAIR. Most of these I only purchased once but why did I think I ever needed them? And each product had at least 15 ingredients, which translates to 100s of chemicals I’ve put on my scalp over the years.
Now I just rinse with water. It’s not a miracle but it looks and feels the same as it did when I used a dozen or so products. My hair is thick and low-porosity, meaning it’s impenetrable. So all these products that were supposed to transform my hair from the inside out, were never even allowed in. And like the definition of lunacy, after each product failed, I kept looking for the next touted cure. Rinse and repeat.
By becoming zero waste, I’ve just learned to accept my hair for what it is instead of what I’ve been trying to make it.
Being zero waste, you learn to eat and drink out of nonplastic containers, reducing your exposure to chemicals in plastics. You cut out packaged foods with their load of strange colors and ingredients. You use cloth maxi pads instead of bleached plastic. Your body will thank you.
Build Resourcefulness and Gratitude with Zero Waste
When you’re shopping, you’re looking externally for solutions.But if you’re zero waste, you have to look internally. It’s like being MacGuyver every day.
Once you realize you don’t need to go shopping or get help from anywhere else, you’ll be amazed at your resourcefulness and grateful for the stuff that you once ignored. It almost fills that void that used to be filled by getting a great bargain. You get your endorphins by actually learning useful skills and becoming independent.
Zero Waste Builds Awareness
I was shopping idly online once and asked myself, what was I looking for? Invariably it was dresses. I have dozens of dresses for every occasion, they all fit, and I genuinely like all of them. So why am I always shopping for more dresses? Part of it was boredom, part novelty seeking, part nostalgia and comfort, remembering shopping for clothes as a kid when dresses were a rare and costly purchase, and part this latent fantasy about finding this amazing dress that would solve all my problems. I mean it sounds stupid but shopping is my emotional crutch. It was easy to go ton autopilot for so long but following zero waste, you start to ask yourself why do you think what you have is not enough? And then, where else can I get these needs fulfilled?
How We Treat Our Stuff is How We Treat Ourselves and Others
We use the word “objectifying” to refer to treating people like objects. And it’s a little strange because it assumes we treat our objects worse than we treat people. But I wonder if it isn’t all connected. If you treat every object well, can you help but treat yourself well and other people well too? If you treat your objects poorly, can we expect you to give better treatment for people?
They say how you do anything is how you do everything. If you destroy your apartment, that anger isn’t contained in your destroyed objects. It’s not a perfect analogy and I’ve seen people treat objects way better than people (peoplifying objects instead of objectifying people?) but to a certain extent it holds true. If you treat every object with care, you become a more caring person. It doesn’t exhaust your supply of care – instead, it builds the muscle.
Zero Waste Builds Attachment
I was hand washing some clothes and I thought, it’s been awhile since I’ve really manipulated my clothing. Like yes I wear it but now it’s visceral. I’m putting effort into it. We are connected.
In our disposable culture, it doesn’t seem like you ever need to take care of things. At one time, women only had a few outfits in their closet. This was because clothes/fabric/labor were very expensive. Imagine if you stained or ripped one. You can’t go out and buy something new. You had to fix it or always wear a stained/ripped outfit. And once you rip/stain one of your outfits, you’re sure to be more careful next time. You’ll take good care of your stuff. These days, you’d just buy something new and toss the old item in the trash.
Mending things is out of fashion. Because there’s always something to replace it with, we never have to be careful not to wreck things. That doesn’t just go for stuff. We used to be a less mobile society. If we had a falling-out with one person, we had to mend it because that person is our neighbor – we’ll see them for the rest of our lives. Now, people don’t even bother to make friends in their new towns.
We’ve lost something in a disposable culture. Zero waste helps us remember that we don’t have to start new. We can fix things, and our things might not be perfect or new, but they will have history and memories. And we learn how to mend things. And next time, we’ll be more careful not to break things, because we know how valuable each and every item and relationship is.
Build Self Esteem Through Zero Waste
Disposables used to be the epitome of luxury. Only the rich could afford to buy things that won’t last. Oh but times have changed. Disposables are everywhere; reusable are rare. But disposables aren’t luxurious anymore. Recently at the ob-gym, I ripped the paper gown I was given so it felt like having a pile of torn up paper towels on me. I felt like a pile of garbage.
Disposable things aren’t nice. Real things are nice. My collapsible Stojo cup and bowl are nicer than plastic cups and bowls. I got real napkins a decade ago and there isn’t a time I pull them out that people don’t think it’s fancy. And when you use them, you feel fancy. Guess how you feel after using things that are going straight into the garbage?
Build Power Through Zero Waste
I’ve always been into environmentalism. When I was a kid, my siblings and I read 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the World and were hooked. We understood the importance of taking care of the environment. But equally important, the advice was geared at children – those high on idealism but low on money and power. So every idea was empowering to us and it helped that my parents are immigrants who hate wasting things. So now all these habits are ingrained in my family’s lives.
Nowadays I hear more people say that the economy and climate change are the issues that worry them the most. At the same time, our disposable culture has become a huge problem in terms of trash, emissions, and cost. And they seem more helpless than we were as kids.
And obviously there seems to be one movement that links these two together, while also working on self-confidence – zero-waste. It’s something even kids can do, and it’s empowering to make that difference.
Build Change through Zero Waste
A lot of people will ask me, why even try? Your contributions to the landfill or lack thereof make no difference – it’s the corporations that matter.
One, it does make a difference. Today I refused 2 antiseptic towelettes, 3 plastic cups, 1 takeout container, and 2 napkins. Let’s say every day I refuse 8 disposable things offered to me. That’s almost 3,000 pieces of garbage/year and almost 90,000 pieces over 30 years. 90,000 pieces of plastic used for maybe 15 minutes each that won’t be polluting some third world country or being ingested by a whale just because one person said no. I mean maybe I can’t save all the whales but I can save maybe 900 of them.
And what if a bunch of people started doing this? The companies would buy fewer disposable things, and fewer disposables would be made. If we supported places that used reusable, those businesses would flourish and other businesses would copy their success. People wrongly think businesses do what they do just to be evil and the only way to change them is through government force. But businesses actually change in response to consumer desires. They sell things that consumers like. If it doesn’t sell, they get rid of it – they don’t keep selling it because they have some ulterior motives.
Can you imagine what would happen if, say, a coffee shop didn’t have disposable to-go cups? No one would go there. The change has to start with the consumer. Everyone brings their own cup, and the store stops buying disposable cups. If we change our actions, we change business, and then the world.
Build Identity Through Zero Waste
Even if the numbers didn’t matter, how I live matters a lot to me. It also deeply affects how I view the world. People who do nothing to support their causes soothe their egos by assuming others are the same and they get hopeless and jaded. The idea is, if someone who knows and cares as much as me won’t do anything, what chance do we have?
When I see people actively engaged in change, they assume the best in people. The thinking is, even though my part is small and I have no power, I’m doing it. Anyone can do it. It makes you believe in yourself and others. It helps you value the importance of incremental changes.
Too many people start with beliefs and never back it up with action. I think it’s more powerful and effective to start with action. The actions create a virtuous cycle of belief, hope, and advocacy.
Conclusion – Zero Waste Saved My Life
Perhaps it’s hyperbole to say zero waste saved my life but I do think it has had a lot of positive impacts on my mindset. And it’s odd because ostensibly this is not something people get into to improve their lives, but to improve the world. Funny how that works.
So… question here on some of the specifics. How do you deal with stuff like dry goods, or canned food at all with the idea of zero waste? Do you just forgo eating olives or canned tuna?
Zero waste is an aspiration – I still throw out a bag of garbage per month, but I used to throw out a weekly bag. It’s an improvement but it’s not perfection. For canned tuna, you can recycle the can. For olives, you can reuse the jar or buy from the olive bar (with your own container). For dry goods, you can buy them at bulk food stores, again by bringing your own containers.
“Zero waste is an aspiration” makes a ton of sense. Thanks!
Great insight on looking at the individual benefits of zero waste – rather than labelling it as something we do for the environment / our kids’ future
I don’t know if that’s sarcasm or not but thanks for the comment!
Definitely not sarcasm. Our family tries to minimize our landfill waste, and we try to make sure appropriate food waste is composted, etc. As you note, often our first steps towards zero waste are because we want to improve the world (or we feel guilty for having a negative impact based on our waste). But you’ve reframed this to highlight the many positive benefits on us individually.