Can you be Zero-Waste and a Minimalist?

Can you be Zero-Waste and a Minimalist?

They sound so contradictory, zero waste and minimalism. Zero waste seems to mean hanging on to everything, and minimalism seems to mean getting rid of everything. Surely you can’t get more opposing ideals?

Yet I feel that I belong in both camps. I aspire to zero-waste living, and I’m equally drawn to minimalism. What’s more, I don’t really feel an internal struggle between the two. Which means they can’t be so contradictory at all…can they?

Minimalism, Zero Waste – and How It Began for Me

Was I a minimalist first, or a zero-waster? I’m not entirely sure. I think both ideas were there, even before I became either. At Christmas and birthdays, I’d always feel confused about being bought presents. After all, I didn’t really need anything, so I’d suggest that the gifter found me something useful.

It didn’t occur to me back then to say I didn’t want or need anything at all, but I knew that something wasn’t quite right. Anything I did have I knew could one day come in useful, so I kept cupboards full of glass jars, and shelves full of old tins, and a wardrobe full of clothes I might need if it suddenly got hot enough to wear summer clothes / I lost half a stone / I gained half a stone / hot pink suddenly started to suit me.

The minimalism really took hold when I moved to Australia. I didn’t have anywhere to store stuff whilst overseas, and I didn’t know how long I’d be staying, so there was no point shipping my worldly possessions across the oceans (not to mention, I didn’t have the funds for that). Everything I brought with me had to fit in 1 suitcase.

I remember thinking, when I move back home, I want everything I own to still fit in that one suitcase. It was my first real experience of how liberating it is to have few possessions.

Once we found our first place to live, the things we owned started to add up… but slowly. Our first flat was so small we couldn’t fit a lot of unnecessary furniture. It wasn’t that we consciously tried to be minimalists, but circumstances led us to be that way.

Then, a few months later, I found out about the Plastic Free July campaign. Quitting plastic for a month? Sure! Up until then, I’d been an avid recycler. I’d save my plastic bottles up and traipse across the city to the only depot for recycling. I’d wrap all my tiny bits of aluminium foil into a big ball before putting it in the black box to ensure the machines could pick it up. I composted my scraps. I thought that was enough.

Quitting plastic was only meant to be a month-long challenge, but once we’d seen the devastation that plastic causes in the environment, and understood the health implication from exposing ourselves to plastic, how could we ever go back?

I gave up plastic, and switched to buying things in cardboard and glass. Both of these are noticeably heavier (especially when you don’t have a car to carry your shopping home) and I became aware for the first time of how much packaging I was consuming. Packaging that served the sole purpose of moving something from A to B, and then, with no further purpose, was thrown away.

During that month of Plastic Free July, I also found out that glass isn’t recycled in my state. Yes, it’s accepted in the recycling bins, but it’s either trucked to another state or sent to landfill.

My zero waste journey began.

Zero Waste and Minimalism are both about Simplicity

It’s easy to think that zero waste and minimalism are conflicting ideals. One seems to advocate keeping everything, whilst the other seems to advocate throwing everything away! Actually though, they are both much more similar than first appearances might have you think.

Zero Waste means sending nothing to landfill. Truly zero waste means sending nothing for recycling either. For most zero-wasters it’s an ideal we aspire to; a journey with a destination we may never quite reach but one we are always working towards. For me, the biggest realisation with zero waste is if I don’t want to send anything to landfill or recycling, I have to control what comes in through my front door.

Zero waste means simplifying. I buy in bulk using my own containers. It means I’m limited to where I can shop, so I don’t get dazzled by special offers or buy more than I need. I no longer have multiple bottles of toiletries cluttering my bathroom because I felt compelled to stock up whilst they were on 3 for 2.

If I can’t find what I want without the unnecessary packaging, I look for an alternative, consider making my own, or go without. Occasionally none of these are options, and I’ll make the purchase anyway – I am human after all, and that is why zero waste is an ideal! It’s not about deprivation, but making conscious choices.

Zero waste means I avoid shopping malls where beautiful models try to sell me clothes that I don’t need, or gadgets, or toys. I don’t go to the shops to browse, only when I need something specific. I think about the life cycle of a product before I buy it: what’s it made from, will it last, and how can I dispose of it at the end of its life?

Hang on…or is that minimalism?

Minimalism is about asking ourselves, what is enough? Keeping things that are useful or practical, and getting rid of the clutter. Getting rid of all those “just in case” items that fill our closets and spare rooms and storage space. Choosing the important things and ditching the rest.

What is ‘enough’ varies from person to person, so there are no hard and fast rules for minimalists either. Again, it is an ideal. It’s also a journey and one that requires constant work, because there is always more stuff. As with zero waste, one of the most important ways to keep clutter out of your home is to control what enters through the front door.

Minimalism is actually a huge complement to zero waste living, because it addresses the elephant in the room – or rather that huge big pile of stuff in the room that we’re keeping in case it might ever be useful. Well, that’s how us zero-wasters justify it to ourselves. Don’t want to send it to landfill, it might come in handy!

Look more closely though, and that pile of stuff is probably harbouring a whole heap of negativity. Things we bought that we didn’t need, or want, or use. Waste. Guilt. Things we received as gifts that we didn’t like. More waste. More guilt. Clothes that no longer fit. Further waste. Further guilt. As zero-wasters, we feel guilt even more, because we care about the embedded energy in these things.

The irony is, that as these things sit collecting dust and generally not becoming handy, they may as well be sitting in landfill.

Minimalism is confronting. It makes us question these choices. It makes us look long and hard at our shopping habits and spending patterns. Most importantly, it makes us buy less of what we don’t need – meaning less waste.

Can you be Zero Waste and a Minimalist? Yes!

Zero Waste isn’t about hoarding. Minimalism isn’t about sending constant streams of stuff to landfill. There’s only one key area where zero-wasters and minimalist thinking differs – convenience. Zero wasters are all about reducing what they send to landfill (and/or recycling). Minimalists are all about reducing clutter. Zero wasters are more likely to carry reusables;  minimalists are more likely to use disposables. It all comes down a personal decision as to what is “enough”, and different people have different values. There are zero-wasters who will never embrace minimalism, and minimalists who will never live a zero-waste lifestyle.

Then there are those of us who want to do both.

And yes, it is possible. Both ideals have so much in common. They are both a reaction to waste, to rampant consumerism, to buying more than you need. They are both about mindful living and making conscious choices; deciding what’s important and doing more of that, and less of the stuff that isn’t. Buying fewer things and choosing well. Making do or doing without. Simplifying.

Now I want to hear from you! Which side are you on…are you a minimalist, or a zero waster, or both? (Or are you neither?!) Which came first? Have you found one path has helped you on the other, or hindered your progress? What are your biggest challenges, and what have been your biggest realisations and triumphs? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

45 Responses to Can you be Zero-Waste and a Minimalist?

  1. “when I move back home, I want everything I own to still fit in that one suitcase”

    I felt this way when I did my own mirror of your journey from the UK to Australia! I remember returning home and being overwhelmed by the amount of things in my parent’s kitchen. I keep aiming to move house with less things each time. The concept of zero waste inspires and taunts me in equal measures.

    You’re right that minimalism helps achieve zero waste – and that insight that I needed to reduce how much I was consuming was definitely one of my biggest realisations. I feel like my biggest challenges are living with people who follow more mainstream goals (and me therefore trying in some part to reduce our intertwined consumption and save the resulting waste from landfill) and finding a new purpose for all the random bits and pieces that can’t simply be reused, regifted or recycled.

    • I have that same aim! We had a big clearout when we moved from the last flat to this (bigger) one, and we intend to have a huge clearout before the next move at the end of the year! We are reluctant to move because we’ve “outgrown” somewhere!

      I wonder about this…living with other people. We are thinking about renting our spare room when we move (we won’t be needing it for stuff!) and a friend of mine pointed out that we might find it hard living with someone with more mainstream ways. Still, I think it would be a good lesson, but also I think anyone renting would have to at least “get” some of these issues!

      Did you have any tips? Or any real frustrations you’d like to vent about?!

      • My tip Lindsay is to deffo rent out your room-put it on Air B’nB-so you get some additional income when you feel like it, and you can specify or choose minimalist zero waters like yourself too!

        • Thanks Su-lee – we definitely intend to do something – just need to explore the options : ) Thanks for your tip though – we’d probably better warn people that we’re into zero waste / minimalism!

  2. I always thought they were in line with each other. Like for example, having too many clothes equates to excess laundering and more of an impact on a landfill at some point. Though I’m starting to hoard certain things, small paper bags I can reuse, bits of aluminum foil lol.

    • That’s good news! I know several people who think zero waste means never throwing a single thing in the bin (or donating it even) because it might come in handy, and whilst it might, the stress and chaos and mess it creates just cannot be worth it! We all need to find our balance ; )

      I agree wholeheartedly about the laundry. I’ve lamented many times about having too many clothes and as I wade through the heap every morning to get around the bed I think how great it will be when my wardrobe is halved. I’m getting there! Things are slowly wearing out…

      And yes, I also have a pile of foil that I reuse, and many paper bags! But periodically we will go through (well, my husband does) and removes the tattier bits. I’m minimalist but up to a point!

    • I have yes, and I follow her instagram account, although I haven’t read the book. When I first heard of Bea (around the time of my first Plastic Free July) I thought she was so extreme! …And whilst I think she has a level of discipline I’ll never have (I like cooking too much to stick to rigid meal plans, and I can’t carry off the clothes she wears!) I’m much more understanding of her now, and love her work, of course!

      It’s interesting, it’s all a journey and everyone can find a place they are happy and comfortable. I guess I would have described my choices as extreme if you asked me 3 years ago to look at me now! Yet it doesn’t feel in the slightest bit extreme…so who knows, in another 3 years ; )

  3. Hi, Lindsay
    I loved your post and especially the last paragraph. I am definitely both, but got into zero waste (or as I call it “near-o waste”) first. Now, I want to be minimalist even more! I see how there is a contradiction though- I find myself saving every glass bottle and paper scrap to “save it from going out there into the landfill or the recycling center” but this makes it hard to be minimalist! I have always been crafty too and have many art and sewing supplies, plus boxes of monthly decorations, aye aye aye! I am still in the process of culling through everything we own and I am making decisions about what I should keep and what I should part with. As with anything for me though, I think it’s all about balance!

    • Near-o waste, tee hee, I love that! I’m so glad you loved my post, thank you! And pleased that I inspired you to think a little more about minimalism : )

      It’s interesting that some people see the contradiction whereas for others there is no contradiction at all! I save my glass jars still, but I’ve donated ones I don’t need to people with bee hives so I’m not amassing more and more. Gumtree is a great way to offload jam jars for free too. (Plus I buy very little in jars now, which helps) I keep paper bags and foil, bits of ribbon, used wrapping paper (!) but when it all starts getting ridiculous I cull it. It’s all about balance, definitely! That was my word / intention for the year – balance – such a great thing to focus on : )

      • Oh, my gosh- balance has been my and my husband’s mantra about all things in life long before near-o waste! It has a nice ring to it doesn’t it? Thanks for the tips :)

  4. Oh I so struggle with this we have been trying to live zero waste for the last 3years combined with very little money and specialised diets clutter came in full swing despite two house moves and a constant purging. However we have now managed to scrape together some minimal savings and embraced minimalism in the last 18months. Since Christmas I have been able to purge what I kept in case finally knowing that if I really need it it can be replaced or borrowed from friends.
    A big wakeup call was three weeks ago losing my dad after just 5 weeks of illness. In that time the house work was neglected and no dent was made in the work in progress crafting projects. I looked around both his house and mine and realised all I wanted was a copy of one photo from his house and from mine I could fill a suitcase and a box and I’d be done. So now I’m purging slowly but constantly. Even the kids are joining in. I am accepting that all those craft projects won’t happen I’ve too much to manage daily with 3kids two have autism. I want to sit on the sun with my kids when its nice not have to clean stuff and drag bins to the curb.

    • I’m so sorry to hear about your dad. I really think times like these make us realise what’s actually important in our lives, and it isn’t stuff. You’re so right, you can borrow things you don’t have from family and friends (or libraries, or sharing sites). It’s so much better to save your money and time, and spend on things that matter. Like your kids! Good luck with the purging and remember the end goal – more free time with your children : ) Think of all the memories you’ll be able to create! It doesn’t matter if you go slowly, you’re still going in the right direction : )

  5. Interesting article, thank you! For me, zero-waste and minimalism came at the same time. The blog that I started at the kick-off of my journey towards less plastic, is called PlasticMinimalism. I still am not living 100% plastic-free or zero-waste, but my (plastic) waste is a whole lot less than a few years ago. I have also started to declutter my stuff. I am careful with getting rid of stuff I do not use/need. Sometimes it takes a while to find an appropriate new owner. If I cannot sell it, I give it away, often through social media, or I bring it to the local second hand store for donation.

    • Thanks Annemieke! Like you,I found them both at around the same time nd I’m glad of that – I think together they keep me balanced : ) I agree though, these things aren’t snap decisions and they do take a lot of time…and I wonder if we ever get there…?!

  6. First, I keep meaning to tell you how much I enjoy your header image.

    I think minimalism and zero waste can go together, but it depends on why you want to adopt either philosophy. For a long time I held on to just about everything rather than tossing it out which didn’t give me that clean streamlined feeling I wanted in my home. Then looking through our local Freecycle group I realized there were uses for these things and they didn’t have to be stored in my house or tossed out. There really was a third alternative.

    Looking at my Freecycle feed today I saw offers of cardboard boxes, toilet tube rolls for crafting, glass baby food jars and much more. Also people have been selling their empty toilet paper tubes on Ebay for extra cash to crafters.

    • Thanks very much Lois! I really like the picture (I took it in Esperance) and it was only after I’d written on it that I realised I as talking about steps…!

      For me minimalism taught me not to hold on to things just for the sake of it. Sure, some things might come in handy, but often they make mess, take us space, cause frustration and stress and it isn’t worth it. I used to keep packaging to re-use (well I still do, but much less). However I could walk to any shop and pick up second-hand boxes or used bubble wrap that’s heading for the bin anyway, so now I don’t keep entire rooms full!

      Really – people sell toilet rolls?! That’s funny. Unfortunately mine have “Who Gives a Crap?” printed on them (that’s the company I buy from – they give 50% of profits to charity and are plastic-free and don’t use chemicals) so I’m not sure they’d be sellable!

      • Yep, people really do sell their toilet rolls. I recently read where one woman uses her empty rolls by filling them with home made deodorant and just peels down the cardboard as needed. I’m going to try that with a couple. The rest of mine usually go to the craft box for the children when they are here. They love scraps they can use their imaginations to make things.

    • Lois, this comment equally amazed and excited me! I already Freecycle, but had no idea of the 2nd hand market on eBay for things like toilet rolls. I hope you don’t mind Lindsay, I have linked to this blog post from my blog- minimalist exposure. Thanks for the tips!

  7. I started as a minimalist and only discovered zero waste between Christmas and New Year, just gone. It felt like such a natural extension of minimalism to me- I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard or thought of it before. I was searching terms around minimalism in my local library catalogue when Bea Johnson’s book came up. I reserved it on a whim and the rest, as they say- is history! To me they seem the most natural complement to each other. However, I have always had frugal tendencies- such as choosing to shop second hand, hoarding old bits of ribbon, padded envelopes etc etc etc!

    My biggest frustration is that whilst minimalism is really accessible to all- no matter what age, race, location or group in society. Zero waste in inaccessible to a lot of people because of how industrialised we have become or because of their income. Here in the UK, not in or anywhere near a major city trying to shop Zero Waste is practically impossible. Whilst I started out so fired up in January, it has very quickly turned to disappointment because I simply cannot shop in the way I want to. This is further complicated by health problems which means I simply don’t have the energy to do everything from scratch or travel miles to obtain zero waste produce (which would also seem counter-intuitive). Then there also comes the issue of finances- when choosing to go Zero Waste could raise even the small part of my grocery bill between 50-75% I’m not sure it would be possible for me to take the choices I wish to, at least at this stage of my life.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your story! I think that minimalism is the perfect extension of zero waste and helps to keep everything in balance. I still haven’t read Bea Johnson’s book as my library doesn’t stock it – I have friends who have it so probably I should borrow it sometime!

      You’re right about accessibility. Zero waste is much harder for people because of circumstances, particularly living arrangements and circumstances. That said, there’s still so much that can be done if you just keep chipping away, no matter how slowly. Whenever I find a new solution I find it so exhilarating, no matter how tiny the change! And it gives me the motivation to keep going. There’s still lots more I could do though! Keep on aspiring and making changes slowly and you’ll continue to head in the right direction : )

  8. The only problem I see is getting rid of the extra stuff without creating waste. I try find a use for it, myself or give it away, but there are certain things that are too good to throw out, but not needed at the moment… currently we are hoarding glass milk bottle :( Root Simple posted on their blog how difficult it is to be minimalist when you’re a DYI or homesteader, but they had some good tips too. Thanks for getting me thinking about it.

    • Yes, it is definitely about balance! Figuring out what might actually be useful, and what is really “just in case” when we know that we’ll probably never need it! and being creative with how we get rid of things – to doesn’t have to be recycling bins or charity shops only, but it takes time to find solutions. Glass milk bottles though – can you put them on Gumtree or Freecylce, or return to where you got them from?

  9. I think it depends on when you come to zero waste, but both movements are about only consuming what you need, so they are actually very very complementary, really.

  10. Yes, off course you can be both! I believe they compliment each other really well. I can’t say I’m a super minimalist, and I’m definitely not zero waste. But I aspire to be both… one small step at a time. I do admire how far you guys have come. You are such an inspiration :-)

    • Thanks so much for your comment Anne! I always say this but it’s true…it’s more about the journey than the destination. I feel like I’ve come such a long way, but there’s so much further to go! I couldn’t agree more…small steps, small steps : )

  11. [minimalists are more likely to use disposables]
    I’m on my path to minimalism and I don’t totally agree. I hate disposables. Minimalists’ point is to free you space, time, resources to things that matter. Why would I spend my hard earned money on disposables? If I prefer to go for disposable diapers vs washable ones I have to make more money, that is work more hours to buy stuff instead of spending that time adding value to my and other people’s lives.
    Minimalists won’t just get rid of the junk, they will first and formost consider selling, donating, blessing another person with it rather than just sending it to landfild. It is considered to be a good choice to first place ads at local boards listing the stuff you wanna give away or running a garage sale or having friends to come over for a party with an intention to see if they need anything of your possetions that you are ready to part with.

  12. I came into your post by accident and it was exactly what I need right now. I discovered Minimalism and Zero Waste just recently and I’ve been trying to follow both of them but can’t seem to figure it out so I really glad that I found your post. I really appreciate it, great post :)

  13. This is just what I needed to read right now, as I’ve just moved to doing zero waste (or as someone else further up put it, ‘near-o waste’!) a month or so ago. I’m using up the stuff in plastic packaging that I still have, but not buying any more if I can help it. I love my local farmers markets and bulk food places. But in moving towards zero waste, minimalism has also been on my mind, as they do seem to fit together! I just watched the doco ‘Minimalism’ on Netflix last night, and reading your post and the other comments affirms for me that I’m moving in the right direction and that I can do both. I just need to determine what I have that holds value for me and keep that and sell, gift or donate the rest. It might take a while, but I’ll get there!

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Anna! I love the phrase “Near-o waste”, I think it is a great term :)

      You can definitely do both, maybe not to the extremes you could achieve if you just went for one without the other – but let’s face it, most of us aren’t into chasing “extremes” :) You’re right, it is all about what has value for you, and only you can decide that. And yes it takes time, but there are so many lessons in the journey itself. Enjoy the process! Even at it’s most frustrating, you will be learning and growing and it is a satisfying and fulfilling path to be taking! Good luck, and if you need any help or have any questions I’m here to assist :)

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