6 (Embarrassing) Confessions of a Zero Waste Minimalist
Ah, those embarrassing decisions of the past. We’ve all made them. (Yes, all of us!) When we change our lifestyles, there are all those choices we made pre- lifestyle change that – when we think back to them – just make us want to cringe. Did we really think / do / say that?!
My personal lifestyle-changing epiphany came in 2012, and for the last four years I’ve lived a plastic-free, zero waste and minimalist lifestyle. I’ve embraced the idea of having “enough”, and slowly reduced my annual landfill waste to fit in a jar, and decluttered all the unnecessary things that were going to waste in my home. But for every “after” there is a “before”.
Let me tell you, my pre-2012 self made some pretty cringe-worthy choices. Here are 6 of my worst.
I “collected” single-serve sachets.
As a kid, I liked to collect stuff. In addition to my collection of National Trust bookmarks and interesting pebbles and rocks, I used to collect single-serve sachets of sauce and sugar. I have no idea why. I had no use for sachets of hollandaise or tartare or French dressing, yet I was fascinated by these tiny plastic portions of sauce.
I’d clear out whole condiment trays at cafes, and store them at home in a box. Sometimes I’d take them out and admire them. I loved how small they were, and all the different colours. But I never used them. Now, the waste of single-serve items means I’d never, ever take one – and I certainly wouldn’t admire them!
I used to ask for an extra straw.
As a teenager and in my early twenties, if I ordered a drink in a bar, I used to ask for an extra straw. One straw wasn’t enough for me, I had to have two! I wish I could shed some sort of light onto why I thought this was necessary, but to be honest, it completely baffles me. Now I live with straw shame.
I purchased (and used) a coffee pod machine.
This must be my most embarrassing, shameful confession. Yes, in my mid-twenties I purchased a coffee pod machine as a birthday gift for a partner… and of course, I used it. It wasn’t a Nespresso machine with those metal pods, it was a cheaper version with the plastic, non-recyclable pods. Not that the recyclability of the pods matters, because the waste that goes into the production of new pods cannot be offset by recycling the old ones, whatever the material.
Single-use convenience at the expense of the planet. There are so many other ways to make and enjoy a decent coffee. I thought that pod coffee tasted good. Now it leaves a very bitter taste in my mouth.
I bought “novelty” gifts.
Novelty gifts. Those “humorous” items that get a laugh, and maybe a few minutes of pleasure, before spending the rest of eternity in landfill. The presents you give to people “who have everything” – yes, I fell for the marketing.
If someone truly has everything, they definitely don’t need novelty gifts. No-one needs pointless tat. Was it really worth spending my money on stuff like this, and creating the extra waste for a couple of laughs? No. Now, if I need to buy a gift for somebody who has everything, I buy tickets, or a restaurant voucher, or an experience. Or toilet paper. Because even people who have everything need toilet paper.
I bought things I didn’t need because they were “bargains”.
Who doesn’t love a bargain? Bargains are one thing, butI used to confuse bargains with “stuff that’s been reduced in the sale”. Actually, these are quite different. A bargain is something that you need, that is available to buy for far less than it is actually worth. Something in the sale is an item that is being sold at a cheaper price than it once was. That doesn’t mean it’s a bargain (it could be on ‘sale’ from a heavily inflated price). If we don’t need it, it definitely isn’t a bargain!
I used to shop in the sales. I’d buy things that were heavily reduced (the big red tag told me so) simply because they were reduced. I didn’t think about whether I needed it, would wear or use it, and how much I would have paid if I had seen it without the red tag. Saving money was a reason to buy it – except I wasn’t saving money at all. I was spending money. Buying stuff I didn’t need was a waste of money, time and resources… and it just added to the clutter and stress of my home. Now I’m clear: a bargain is only a bargain if I need it.
I owned stuff I never used.
Pre-2012, I never really thought about how wasteful and unnecessary this was. It wasn’t that I intended not to use things, but I’d somehow entangled my sense of identity in with the stuff I purchased. I’d pin my dreams of being slimmer on buying tighter-fitting clothes. I’d attach my hopes of mastering a new hobby by buying all the equipment. I’d envision the life that I imagined for myself, and choose things that fitted in that life, rather than the one I actually lived.
I’d buy products before the act, so to speak, and these things remained unused, singing my failures softly to me whenever I saw them in the back of the cupboard. Both minimalism and zero waste have taught me that if it’s not being used, it’s going to waste. Keeping things we don’t use isn’t an inspiration to change, it’s a reminder that we didn’t. If it’s not useful now, it’s better off being given to someone who will use it. Now I only own things that I use.
Why am I sharing this with you? Not because I enjoy embarrassing myself! I want to show you that people can change. We’ve all made poor choices in the past. I certainly have! Those poor choices don’t define me though, just as they don’t define you. We all have the opportunity to do things differently next time.
We can take those poor choices and learn from them, and make better choices in the future. We can look back and laugh (or cry!) at the memories, but we don’t need to hold onto them. Those choices represent who we were, not who we are, nor who we are capable of becoming.
It doesn’t matter if those choices were years ago, or last week, or even this morning. Mistakes made in the past, however recent, are no reason to avoid trying again in the future. Whether that’s reducing plastic consumption, refusing single use items, stepping off the consumer treadmill or something completely different, we can all make different choices. Forgive yourself for those cringe-worthy choices of the past. Know that next time, you can choose better.
Now I’d love to hear from you! Were there any of these that you could relate to? Any that you (fortunately) never made the mistake of choosing? If you’ve made lifestyle changes, did you have an “epiphany” or was it more a gradual process that led you to make changes and see things differently? Was it one thing that inspired you to live life differently or a number of different things? Do you have any confessions of your own? What embarrassing secrets do you have from your past that makes your present self cringe in despair? If you’re in the process of making changes, are there any current habits you have that you’re beginning to question and wonder why you make those choices? Is there anything else that you’d like to add? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below!
It’s amazing isn’t it?! When I look back at my life BZW (before zero waste), I think “who the hell was that person?!”
Haha, that is so true Kristy! “Who was that person, and what was she thinking?!” I guess the truth is that we just don’t see things, but once we see them, we can’t un-see them. I sometimes wonder why it took me so long to see them, mind!
I used to hoard those littlectravel-size toiletries from hotels, including soaps – and I didn’t even use bar soap! I also used to think that if I could recycle or donate something I was doing my bit, instead of stopping to think if I really needed the stuff in the first place. I’m sure there are worse things lurking in the past but, maybe luckily, I can’t remember them right now!
Oooh yes, I can relate to that Min! I was going to add as number 7 that I used to collect all those “free” single sachets of moisturizer and perfume from the fancy department store counters – the ones that contain about 0.5 g of product and 20g of packaging (that mushed-together metal and plastic packaging that isn’t recyclable). But then I thought I’d come across as a sachet fetishist. Which I kinda was! Single serve and tiny things attracted me. Now, thankfully, they repel me! ; ) That first month that I quit plastic I forced myself to use up every one of those sachets so they wouldn’t go to waste. I’d collect them like trophy items – and never use them! At least I did in the end.
If you do think of any more I’d love to hear them Min!
Hahaha!! The machine pod coffee! The same for me, we still have it, until she will “die”. We could not be so perfect, the most important is to know where we can progress.
At least these days it is possible to buy stainless steel refillable pods (Crema Jow make them, I don’t know if there are other brands). Sometimes we make decisions and we just have to see them though – wait for the machine to “die” as you say! I also regret buying it new – I’m sure Gumtree is awash with second-hand pod machines!
The great thing about doing so many cringe-worthy things in the past is that it is really easy to improve!
I was given a pod machine and a load of pods with all different types of coffee. I thought I would just use up the pods and then give the machine to a charity shop. That was about three years ago and I still have a lot of pods to use up. Maybe it’s just time to give the machine and the remaining pods away. i just feel guilty every time I use it.
If you’re feeling guilty when you use it, then I agree Christina – it is time to give it away! You’ll save someone else from buying a new one at least – and you’ll feel much happier :)
When I bought my last flat, the previous owners left the patio heater. I decided to sell it in the end. Selling it means one less new one made as if someone is going to buy then they are going to buy. Giving it away could result in someone taking it who would never have thought to get one in the first place.
I like your thoughts on this. I tend to agree, I prefer to sell things as I know the owner will want it rather than just seeking free stuff they won’t use and might landfill. But sometimes people just want stuff gone – and if it is an emotional burden (like feeling guilty every time you see something) then donating can be helpful. Finding a good new owner is the most important – whatever the means!
I can relate to all of those things! I also used to love getting single-use cosmetic samples – because they were freebies. They were rarely for products that I’d actually use though so completely pointless and wasteful…
Oh yes, me too Lola! I used to collect them for “travelling” – not that I ever travelled much other than a week’s holiday in the summer! The lure of the freebie! It was always for weird stuff too, like serum and skin brightener and stuff that I didn’t need at all! That first month I gave up plastic I made myself use them all up – because I couldn’t bear to throw them away. It was such a chore!
My husband recently decided to let go of his pod coffee maker. Now he mainly uses a $10 french press, which he says makes better tasting coffee too! (I don’t drink coffee so I can’t really say.) Yay!
The whole straw and lid thing is something current me finds baffling! Why do I need a lid and a straw if I’m eating in the restaurant and I’m old enough to be trusted not to spill the drink all over myself? And plastic shopping bags. Why do I need a bag for one thing that I’m just going to carry out to my car? I just refuse or pull out my trusty reusable shopping bag if it’s more than a few items.
Hurrah for your husband Stephanie! I think there’s something very relaxing and therapeutic about making coffee in a French press or stovetop espresso. At the last place I worded there was a pod machine, and I would insist that we all made a big French press and share it as it was more communal – with success! “Instant” is never as satisfying!
That drives me crazy too – takeaway containers when people dine in! It drives my husband crazy but if we go somewhere to order a drink, I always like to inspect all the vessels – especially if I can’t see cups on display. Better to be safe than sorry!
What about the double-bagging?! Or the “would you like me to put this completely sealed up thing into a separate plastic bag” question? Most of the shops I use now expect people to bring their own bags (one place charges for paper bags and doesn’t have plastic at all) which I love!
2 straws! When I was a teenager 2 straws was the only ‘cool’ option, single straws were for losers! (oh dear!) I have a reusable stainless steel one now though!
Haha, was I ‘cool’ then, Susie?! I had no idea! ; ) I have both glass and stainless steel now and wouldn’t be seen dead with a plastic one! I don’t use them together mind – two straws is no longer necessary for me… I have both because I prefer glass, but the stainless steel one fits handily in my cutlery set. Honest!
So totally relate to this. When I look back at my life before doing my first Plastic Free July, sometimes I barely recognize myself. I bought tons of scented lotion from the mall, and I used two dryer sheets in every load of laundry. We had a coffee pod machine, too. (On a sidenote, I accidentally drank a cup of coffee-pod coffee a few weeks ago, and ew. Didn’t remember how many of those pods had tons of artificial flavoring. Coffee from the Chemex tastes so much better.)
Thanks for sharing!
I know what you mean Elizabeth – what was previous me thinking?! My bathroom was awash with expensive bathroom products – all in plastic, and purchased often boxed as well with plastic wrapping on that!
I never used dryer sheets – to be honest, I never used a dryer. Even in England, I just used to hang stuff around the house. Damp laundry hanging on radiators – not something I miss now! What do dryer sheets actually do?!
Pod coffee and boiled plastic, yuck! I’ve seen lots of those pods are “vanilla flavour” and you can get hot chocolate ones… dread to think what’s in them! Chemicals aside, there’s something far more delicious about stuff made from scratch!
Dryer sheets are supposed to keep your clothes from getting static in the dryer, but mostly they make them smell like weird synthetic fragrance. :\ So glad I don’t use them anymore!
Oh! The things we do without really questioning it! I guess I’m lucky that my mum was never into using those things. Otherwise I’m sure I’d have used them too!
I’ve been battling with myself over my coffee pod machine for the last year. I have a reusable metal pod, but it still seems incredibly wasteful to have that big water tank heating up every time someone wants a single cup of coffee. As a minimalist, it’s also quite ugly to see sitting out on the counter. I just can’t bring myself to spend the money on a french press with the pod machine still works. The transition after the “ah-ha” moment takes years!
I hear you, Jen! Sometimes choosing the lesser of two evils can be hard. I’m definitely a believer that unless it’s dangerous or hazardous to health, it’s better to keep something and wear it out rather than chuck it in favour of a “better” option.
Does the water tank heat up excess water? Could you just fill it enough for one cup? I’m wondering if it would be that different to boiling the kettle. I guess it depends on your machine.
You could list it on Gumtree or Craigslist or one of those, and see if you can sell it? Just an idea. That way you’ll get some of the money back (and can buy a French press), and you’ll hopefully prevent someone else buying a brand new one. If no-one wants to pay a price you’re happy with you can just keep using it. I find that when I list stuff on those sites, my attachment to the object drops significantly. Whereas at first I really want to get back close to what I paid for it or what I think it’s worth, but once I’ve listed it for a few days I change my mind and decide I just want it gone! It’s strange how it really affects how I feel about things – but very useful!
Isn’t funny to think about how we “used to be” and how we could/would never go back?! I used to do a couple of the things you mentioned! Feels good to be moving in the right direction :)
Haha, but you’re not going to admit to which ones, Andrea?! ; ) I wonder in a few years if we’ll look back on our current selves and despair at some of the choices we make now? Of course, I can’t imagine it but I’m sure it will happen!
Oooh, mine was *cringe*…. Healthy Choice dinners that I would heat up in the microwave IN all it’s plastic glory! Yarrrkkk! No wonder my hormones went all out of balance and ended up with Adrenal Fatigue! But it started me off on this journey of cooking from scratch, then removing all plastic around food, then minimalism, then zero waste! And now health is showing it’s face! Hallelujah
I love that they were called “Healthy Choice”, Susan! Except I don’t, as I’m sure many more people are misled by that. I wonder when microwave meals will be a thing of the past? As someone who also cooks completely from scratch, the idea of those meals grosses me out too. But I’m so glad that they eventually led you to wear you are now – especially as your health is returning! Yay for real food!
I used to love a “bargain” too, oh the lure of that red tag!
Now I have learnt a bargain is when buying the product is at a fair price that is good for me and the producer and extends to buying fresh local foods where the farmer is paid fairly and directly at prices higher than from the supermarket and gifts like art and crafts where someone is making a living from their unique talents.
Laura, that is so perfectly put! It’s never a bargain if someone has been ripped off in the process, or if the planet was trashed in its production. If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. I agree – it is so much more than price. If stuff is too cheap, then it isn’t a bargain either. Thanks for the reminder!
I think it’s fair to say we all have our embarrassing/shameful moment PZW. Not too long ago (actually right before I decided to go ZW), I purchased and used a Keurig machine with the accompanying pods. I thought if I recycled them (they’re recyclable in Vancouver, Canada) or reused them to start seedlings, I could justify it. It wasn’t until I started to notice the cost of the pods themselves slowly increasing, that I decided I no longer wanted to use them. I used to watch for Clinique Days (the makeup brand) where they would give a free make-up bag with sample items if you spent X dollars on their products (which actually are full of crap anyway). I would collect these makeup-items, along with hotel toiletries and any samples I could get my hands on, only to keep them stored away in a box untouched and unused. It was almost as though the idea of having them (even if I never used them) was worth holding onto them. When I discovered minimalism, it became so easy for me to let those items, along with many others, go. I donated all my unused makeup to a local non-profit that works specifically with women in the sex trade (they would use the make up before going out for the night), as well as all my half-used beauty products that were collecting dust.
I could go on and on, as I’m sure many people here can of all the ways they lived superfluously in their PZW days. But the key to remember is you have changed your ways, you are now conscious of the decisions you make when you consume, and you can always find new ways to improve.
Thanks for posting this! It’s always comforting knowing that we’re not alone on this journey of self-improvement.
Oh Daniella, I can relate to all of these things! Thank you so much for sharing your story – and your actions after your enlightenment! I used to think that by recycling I could consume, guilt-free. Now I see it as a last resort! I also used to buy all those Clinique and other Counter beauty products when they had those offers – the pencil case thing with all the pointless stuff I’d never use inside! (What a great deal – not!) I love that you donated them, I didn’t think of that at the time and made myself use them all up. The non-profit you found sounds fantastic – so great you were able to support them.
You’ve really highlighted something that I believe in – that just because you don’t want or use something any more, there is no need to keep it out of guilt, and it doesn’t have to go in the bin. There is always someone out there who will want and use our old stuff – the challenge is to find them! Thank you so much for sharing this.
Yes, I could go on and on too! Like you say, the point is, we can change. And no doubt there will be more changes in the future! I look forward to doing things better! ;)
I do have a weakness for ‘bargains’ that I don’t need on the £1 rail in the local charity shop. But at least that’s recycling and helping a good cause. It’s something that apparently people don’t want for more than £1, or it would have gone already (it’s a reductions rail)! So it might as well be hanging in my wardrobe, waiting for the ‘perfect’ occasion (or for when the everyday items have become rags). That’s better than degrading in landfill, or fuelling the local Energy from Waste plant. I guess an inbetween stage is that it would probably be used as rags to wipe down machines if I didn’t buy it, but it would ultimately end up in the bin. I am saving pre-loved goods from the bin. :-) I never buy new stuff if I can get what I want second hand.
I agree Susie, that charity shops can be tempting! The thing I like is that I give my money to charity, and if I change my mind I can take it straight back to the shop and they gain, and I don’t really lose. It’s almost like borrowing ;)
All those silly gifts for my kids at Christmas… light up pens, tiny torches, figures that talk… an unrecyclable melange of plastics & metal, requiring batteries and forgotten within days. Oh the shame.
Oh Liz! I have been guilty of buying such “novelty” gifts in the past myself! There are whole websites with “what to buy the person who has everything” stuff – all novelty and pointless, but yes, I have been a customer of those sites in days gone by. Now I cringe too!
I want to start my transition to a zero waste lifestyle but I am conflicted about what to do with the plastic products that I currently own. What did you do with the plastic you consumed before starting your zero waste journey? Did you throw them out? Or did you continue using them until they needed a replacement and then opted for the more durable and eco-friendly options?