I made the decision to give up plastic long before I ever heard the term “zero waste”. Back then, in 2012, my focus was on reducing my plastic consumption. It was only after I stopped purchasing items in plastic, and began to choose cardboard and glass instead, that I really noticed for the first time how much packaging I was consuming. Glass and cardboard are heavy, and now I was carrying glass bottles home on the train, rather than plastic packets, I really began to notice it!
When I found out that glass is not recycled in WA, where I live, but crushed into road base (which is not the virtuous cycle of recycling we’re told about glass), I decided that the better option was to avoid packaging altogether. Living with less plastic became living with less waste.
As I started thinking about waste more generally, I began to realise that many of the items I owned were not being used, and were therefore going to waste. If I donated these items to people who could use them, that was a far better use of resources. I’d read about minimalism, but it didn’t seem to be something that I could do. I realised that I needed less stuff, but I didn’t want to reduce my possessions down to a handful of things that fitted into a suitcase.
When I first heard of the name zero waste, much later, I didn’t think that it included me. I took the term very literally, and I figured that because I still recycled, I could not consider myself zero waste. I couldn’t consider myself to be a minimalist either, because minimalists don’t own three saucepans and consider it necessary to have both a round baking dish and a square baking dish, and definitely wouldn’t deem a set of muffin trays a must-have item.
One reason I didn’t like the labels was because I felt that they were absolute, with no room for error. It was as if, by declaring myself to be zero waste or a minimalist, I was implying that I was something that I was not. It seemed somehow fraudulent. How can you call yourself zero waste when you still recycle? How can you call yourself a minimalist when you own more than 100 items?
But what I found was that the labels zero waste and minimalism pique people’s interest. Everyone has ideas about what these labels mean, and they want to ask questions.
Questions about waste: Does zero waste mean you don’t use toilet paper? How do you buy things without plastic? What on earth is a worm farm?
Or questions about stuff: But if you don’t own things, what do you do in the evenings? Do you sit on the floor? What about photos?
It’s a great way to get people thinking, and talking…and maybe even doing!
When you have a generic statement about trying to live lighter on the planet, create less waste, and live with a bit less stuff, it’s too vague for people to really grasp what that looks like.
That, I think, is a missed opportunity.
It’s a missed opportunity because living with less waste is something that we can all do. It doesn’t mean going without, or being deprived, or weaving your own clothes and living in a cave. (Unless you want to, of course!)
People who describe themselves as zero waste or minimalists look just like other people. We live in regular houses. We have regular jobs. We do regular things. You couldn’t pick us out in a line-up! We just choose to create less waste, and own less stuff. Owning a reusable water bottle or refusing a plastic straw is not difficult, nor time-consuming. Donating a bunch of items you never use to people who truly need them is a win-win scenario.
And so, I use labels. Not because I’m perfect. Of course I’m not! Not because I want anyone to think that I’m perfect, either. But because it helps to start the conversation. And it helps others realise that these lifestyles are not about being perfect. It isn’t all-or-nothing, and every action makes a difference.
These labels are not about absolutes. They are about ideals. They are something to work towards. They are about values. We use these labels because we share the same values.
You can call yourself zero waste and still put out the recycling bin. You can call yourself a minimalist and still own furniture, and kitchen appliances. You can aspire to one of these lifestyles, or to both, and not call yourself either.
What’s important isn’t what we choose to call ourselves, or how we decide to describe our lifestyles, but the actions that we take.
We all have different lives, and different circumstances. We all make different choices, and have different versions of “enough”. Zero waste and minimalism look different for everybody. Every version is equally important, not matter what it looks like.
Labels can be useful, but they shouldn’t be a distraction. Let’s not get bogged down with definitions and comparisons. Let’s make better choices. It isn’t about perfection: it’s about doing what we can.
Now I’d love to hear from you! What do you think about labels? Do you love them? Do you hate them? Are you indifferent towards them? Do you see them as a distraction, or see them as a useful tool to start conversations? Do you see them as a way to group together people with the same values, or as a way for people to compare themselves with others and perhaps be frozen into inaction? Do you like some labels, but avoid other labels? Do you feel that using labels makes you feel part of a community? Do you feel that using labels opens you up for criticism? Have you had any experiences, good or bad, from using labels to describe the choices you make? Anything else you’d like to add? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below!