Labels or No Labels? (A Zero Waste Minimalist Reflects)

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!

21 replies
  1. kevin
    kevin says:

    Great article, I love the idea of both zerowaste and minimalism and have actively tried reducing our usage and items but I don’t advertise this as there is a stigma attached and people happily throw it back in your face if you don’t conform to their ideas. I have found this out recently from switching to a vegan diet as well.

    If asked I explain but don’t offer this up first. On a side note food packaging is the most annoying and most of our waste comes from this even if we are making food from scratch as everything, especially organic food is in plastic.

    If companies got charged for their packaging this would change overnight. Oh well.

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Thanks Kevin! I actually found that other people (family members, friends) called me a minimalist long before I called myself one! I guess they labelled me, and eventually I took it on. But to me, declaring myself to be a minimalist was like opening myself up to critique and comparison. As it was my own personal journey, I wanted to find my own way without this!

      I prefer the term ‘plant-based’ over vegan, as I know that many vegans have strong beliefs about what being vegan entails. For example, I eat honey, and if something that had dairy or eggs in it was about to be thrown in the bin and I was hungry, I’d eat it rather than let it go to waste. I feel that some vegans don’t allow that level (or any) flexibility, and I think plant-based is a better term for me. That said, maybe there are zero waste people and minimalists who are the same – I just haven’t met them! And actually, those two labels help distinguish where you sit in the vegan/plant-based world (particularly the health vs animal welfare vegans). Labels have their place!

      Don’t get me started on food packaging! My hope is in the future things will change…

      Enjoy the rest of your week Kevin!

  2. Rebekah Jaunty
    Rebekah Jaunty says:

    “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.”

    I agree completely. I like to use Christianity as an example; people don’t call themselves “Christian” because they’re just like Jesus. Sometimes ideals need names.

  3. meliors
    meliors says:

    Aspirational rather than categorical is a good way to use those kinds of labels. We need lots of role models who show us the struggles and the slippages, who make first tentative steps seem achievable and the next steps worthwhile. We need people like yourself who can remember their beginners mind because being a practicing (minimalist or any label here) means learning and making mistakes and trying again.

  4. Katie Rowland
    Katie Rowland says:

    Loved this article. Definitely gave me some things to think about! I’m new to adapting a zero waste and minimalistic lifestlye so I’m still very hestitant to give myself that label. I think that, like you were, I’m afraid of seeming like a fraud because I’m far from perfect at this. I’ve been giving vague responses like ‘reducing my waste’ but I’m thinking if I had a label it would be aiming for zero waste (because I’m not fully there yet!). My current struggle is buying meat and cheese. I’m very nervous about handing over containers at Woolies and Coles. How did you get over this hurdle?

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Thank you so much Katie! You know, my friend Andrea uses a label you might like…Near-o waste! I actually think it’s great! Because that’s what we all are, really. No-one is at zero! I have to say, I started using the #zerowaste hashtag long before I called myself zero waste. I guess it just slowly absorbed itself…

      I never tried at Woolies, but I had a 100% success rate at Coles. You might need to keep an eye out that they tare the scale or you will pay for the container. Go in, if there’s a queue let others go first, and then act like it’s the most normal thing in the world, and tell them you don’t want any single use plastic and you’d like them to put the stuff straight in your container BEFORE you hand it over. You might find that they use plastic gloves. Even if they use a bag and then drop it in, let it go…this time. And make sure they don’t cling-wrap it afterwards! Then, next time, try to improve. I find local delis and fishmongers use tongs but Coles will use a plastic glove. Still, better than a glove AND a bag!

      (Oh, and once you find someone who “gets” it, make sure it is always them that serves you! Saves explaining yourself over and over!)

      Good luck!

    • sarahgray3
      sarahgray3 says:

      Hi Katie- I have found dairy and meat the hardest things too. What I am doing at the moment is taking chinese takeaway containers to the butcher and asking for no plastic bag. Sometimes they use their bare hands other times they use 1 plastic bag (as a glove) for all the meat, one time I had someone misunderstand and put the meat into bags and then the container. If this happens I just thoroughly rinse the bags out (they are a pretty thick plastic compared to the woolies bags), hang them on the line and then soft plastic recycle them with redcycle. Cheese I buy in 1kg blocks, freeze what I wont use immediately soft plastic recycle the plastic wrapper. Redcycle down cycles soft plastic into park benches and bollards, but it’s way better than landfill! The other thing you could do is talk to the person at the info counter at Coles/Woolies what their policy is for bringing your own container- that way you can say you have asked management if the server hesitates to fill containers for you. I have personally been turned down at Woolworths once. I identify with you! It’s a tough one- I feel nervous still sometimes! You might find this article interesting:

  5. jess64au
    jess64au says:

    I’ll be honest and say I find the zero waste label outside my reach and very confronting to many friends and family. I can’t see a day where our family would come even close the zero waste ideals, and it you are right that it is very hard to find a cliche saying for trying your best to be lower waste. Currently I find myself weird to my general friends and not enough for the zero waste movement.

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      I think the issue with the “zero waste” label is that it has the word zero in it, which isn’t really true! A friend of mine pointed out, in physics, we never reach zero…we merely approach it ; ) I have not met, read about, or heard of a zero waster who does not recycle at least a little. And most things are recyclable, if you look hard enough. But I digress!

      Labels don’t matter so long as you’re doing what you can. And I think that the zero waste movement is very accepting! (At least, my experience of it is.) You’re not weird to us : )

      Keep going, doing your thing. Maybe you’ll find your own label in the future!

  6. caroline harry
    caroline harry says:

    I think the labels are useful as they flag the issues and are a great indicator that you are simply a wonderfully flawed human ‘heading in the right direction’!!
    Great post as usual, Lindsay! Looking forward to seeing you on the TED stage in Perth in October!

  7. caroline harry
    caroline harry says:

    Whoops, I meant to sign off as Urban Tucker Woman! All about reducing waste by sharing the fresh food grown in people’s gardens, on streets, in parks and alleyways!! Connect with your neighbours and share it – don’t let it fall to the ground unused!!

  8. Helmuth
    Helmuth says:

    I think it is all about having a healthy balance between “being the ideal” and “working towards the ideal”. What I mean by that is this. I consider being a “perfectionist” as an almost destructive behavior. Someone who is a true perfectionist is hard to work with. Instead, “trying to do the best you can” but know when to stop is very healthy. I think this is also the case with trying to be a minimalist or a zero waster. “Striving to become it” is healthy, “being it” is not… Just a thought.

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      I love that Helmuth! Working towards the ideal is far more practical, in my opinion! As you get closer to the end, the things that remain get harder and harder. If we all got to 80%, that is much better than just a few getting to 100%. I usually get to 95% (or less, but never 100%) and decide that’s enough for me ;)

      I think getting to 100% takes extremes that has the potential to alienate you from others, and distract from the overall message.

  9. Satisfyingly Simple Living
    Satisfyingly Simple Living says:

    I like the labels because it is what you aspire to, not where you are. I always said I was an athlete when I was competing even though I didn’t win many races.
    Must tell you while I’m at it, how much a difference your influence is! Even my husband is getting on board with me on minimalism/zero waste. Today we cycled a round trip of 54km to go to two Op shops as we need clothes to replace the ones we have worn out. We had a great day out including a sit down coffee after walking out of another that only sold drinks in take away containers. We took a small hiking stove to heat up water for another cuppa in a park, with snacks like homemade beef jerky, biscuits and fruit all held in our steel lunch boxes. All it takes is a bit of planning, some decent panniers to hold stuff and zero waste is easy.

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      “What you aspire to, not where you are.” Love that. I love your analogy about racing, too. Very true!

      Ooh, thank you! That sounds like a great day out – lots of fun! I think once others close to us see the benefits (and there are so many, they are hard to miss!) they can’t help but get on board. Go your husband! : )

  10. Paula
    Paula says:

    I tend to say I am on a journey to…… Zero waste, minimalism. Veganism. In truth I am not sure I will ever reach the ultimate destination but I’m enjoying the trip! As an aside, I am known to be somewhat obsessive about labelling inanimated objects! My kids think it’s hilarious that I have a sign on the garden shed labelling it “garden shed,” , seems infinitely sensible to me!?!


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