Spilling the Truth About the “Perfect” Zero Waste Image
I’ll admit it. I do like a stylish, carefully curated zero waste image. I’m prone to double-tapping “like” when a snap of a beautiful pantry with whole foods stacked neatly in glass jars appears on my social media feed.
I think that pictures of products made of stainless steel and glass are much more visually appealing than the equivalents in plastic.
But I also know that for me, zero waste doesn’t really look like that most of the time.
Sure, I can take a cute snap of my pantry essentials once I’ve hauled them home from the Source Bulk Foods (which is my local bulk store, and lets me bring and fill my own jars – and jars can look lovely in a photograph)…
…But then they get shoved in my pantry, which is not some kind of oasis for groceries, but a ramshackle assortment of mis-matched jars with mis-matched lids.
The kind that won’t be gracing the front cover of magazines anywhere, ever.
The reality is, zero waste is a lot more jumbled and mis-matched and imperfect in real life. At least, it is for me.
That may seem obvious. But a scroll through any social media feed suggests that zero waste is all perfectly matched jars, beautiful white homes and stylish accessories.
This begins to set unrealistic expectations.
It plants the idea that we need different things – better things – in order to fit with the zero waste lifestyle.
Zero waste is a lifestyle choice. But that lifestyle, in my mind, is one of consuming less and making do with what we already have.
It’s easy to see how the curated images of social media could give a different impression – one that implies a need to purchase new things if they fit with the zero waste ideal.
But zero waste is not about consuming more.
The most important thing with living zero waste is the intention. The intention to reduce our footprint, reduce our waste, and make the best choice we can with the time, resources and options available to us.
Image is secondary to this.
Of course, we all share the best images we have. Good images help – they help attract attention, raise awareness, start a conversation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sharing the best, so long as we don’t only share the perfect bits. There are lots of imperfect bits to share, too.
Without sharing those, we are doing the zero waste movement a bit of a disservice.
Perfection is intimidating. No-one should feel that this lifestyle is unattainable because they don’t own the “right” things.
As someone who could never describe themselves as effortlessly stylish (or, let’s face it, even stylish when I do put in the effort), zero waste does not look perfect in my house.
Yet I’m definitely guilty of curating my images to share more of the perfect bits, and omit more of the less perfect bits.
Crazy really, when I believe that intention comes before image.
With that in mind, I thought I’d share some snaps from my zero waste life that fit firmly in this category. The embarrassing, cringe-worthy, no-way-near-perfect images that are the reality of what zero waste living looks like for me.
Intention over Image: What Zero Waste Really Looks Like for Me
The Zero Waste Pantry
I’ve already shared a couple of pictures of my groceries and pantry above, but groceries in glass jars are such an iconic image of the zero waste movement, I thought I’d share a couple more of my less-than-perfect moments, just to get my point across.
Sharing pictures of my grocery shopping in glass jars on social media is one of my guilty pleasures. I like the way groceries look in glass, and I also think it’s useful to share the kinds of foods that it’s possible to buy in bulk.
Whilst my groceries tend to look pretty stylish when laid flat, viewing from the top down reveals the truth about the containers I use: upcycled jars with mis-matched lids retrieved from the recycling bin over the years.
In fact, if I empty the entire contents of my pantry, it’s the same thing on a bigger scale.
For me, the intention is to reuse what I can. I’m happy with upcycled mismatched jars. Whilst I love the look of Weck and Le Parfait jars, I can’t justify buying new (and as they are German and French brands, they don’t often turn up second-hand in Australia).
My pantry might not look the most aesthetically pleasing, but it works for me.
Zero Waste Cleaning
My washing-up set-up looks pretty much like this: a wooden dishbrush with replaceable head, a natural pot brush, and dishwashing liquid purchased from the bulk store.
Oh, but there’s also my 2012 dish brush, which doesn’t often turn up in photos due to the fact it’s plastic, bright green, and really doesn’t suit the zero waste aesthetic.
In the spirit of zero waste, I said that I’d keep it and use it until it wears out, and then obviously not replace it. Well, it’s now 2018, and that damn brush is still going strong! Which, really is a good thing, considering how quickly plastic dish brushes degrade.
It might not look good in the photos, but the intention is to use things until they wear out, and choose better next time, and that brush continues to serve its purpose.
Zero Waste Bathroom
I make my bathroom products from scratch, with ingredients that I buy packaging-free, and I use repurposed containers. Ticking all the zero waste boxes there!
However, there’s plenty of other things in my bathroom that don’t fit the zero waste aesthetic at all.
When I first went plastic-free I used a bamboo toothbrush, and I hated it. The bristles would fall out in my mouth and then get washed down the sink (hello, microplastic). After more than a year of that, I had enough and purchased a toothbrush with replaceable heads.
Since then (we’re talking back in 2012), the number of bamboo toothbrush brands has exploded, and many of my readers have suggested bamboo alternatives that don’t lose bristles. The thing is, now I have this brush, the most zero waste thing is to keep using it. Plus it works, which is what I want from a toothbrush.
Yes, it’s ugly (and definitely not the zero waste aesthetic). But that’s how it sometimes is.
The intention is to create as little waste as possible whilst still feeling comfortable with the choice I’ve made. Bamboo toothbrushes just didn’t do it for me.
Whilst we are on the subject of ugly plastic, I still have my plastic razor from circa 2009. When I went plastic-free, I had the razor and a number of blades, and I declared that I would continue to use it until the heads wore out, and then I would replace it.
This picture is from 2014, when I still had three blades left.
I’ve been down to the last one for a while, and eventually it will wear out. But a good rinse, drying properly and polishing the blades with a piece of denim cloth has seen it last a lot longer than I expected.
Of course, a stainless steel razor would look much better in my bathroom, and in any pics I share. But actually, what I need is a razor that works, which is what I have. Right now the only reason to swap the ugly plastic one for a shiny stainless steel one is the aesthetic.
Which from a zero waste perspective, isn’t the intention. Replacing functional items solely for better looking ones makes no sense.
The point I want to make is this: zero waste isn’t picture perfect.
Don’t get disheartened by “perfect” images. We all share the best moments, but that is rarely the whole story. Behind every perfect image is plenty of imperfection. That’s just how life is.
Don’t be tempted to buy new stuff to “fit in”. If you want to fit into the zero waste lifestyle, use what you have, and make do.
Zero waste is about intention. It isn’t about buying the right things. It is about caring about the right things.
Now I’d love to hear from you! What do you think is missing from the curated zero waste images shared in social media? Are you guilty of sharing the better bits and excluding the less good bits? Do you ever feel embarrassed about the appearance of your zero waste attempts? Are you happy to share things exactly as they are, whatever they look like? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Great post. This needed to be said. Thank you!
Thank you! :)
Yay keeping plastic things instead of throwing them away!
Haha, they may be ugly but whilst they are still useful they must be used!
Keeping it real. Thanks for this!
Thanks Kathryn! :)
I look at the shiny pics and think about how fake they are.
Same! It turns me off when I think that people are only taking photos of the ideal zero-waste stuff and not showing the reality. Social media is so fake, it’s infuriating.
You are so right, thanks for being honest and true
Zero waste in the real world. Well done, Lindsay!
Thank you! We’ve just started trying to reduce our waste (zero waste feels like a really long way off) and I feel such a disappointment when I see my family’s toothbrushes that are still plastic, or the deodorant that’s still an aerosol. I feel like it’s really wasteful to chuck it out while it’s still good, but I feel like a phony having all this plastic still! But you’re right, the important thing is that next time I’ll choose better now that I know better.
Although, sometimes I don’t. Like pasta. There are no shops less than 30 minutes drive from me that have pasta packaging free. I usually intend to make my own but with a toddler and a newborn, we eat a decent amount of packaged pasta. Thus, we’re attempting “less waste” rather than “zero waste”. And seeing everyone’s perfect waste free pictures makes me feel really bad. But at least we’re doing better than we were I guess.
Thanks for sharing your imperfect zero waste. I tried the bamboo brushes too but the bristles came out and it was just to hard for my teeth. I haven’t seen these with a replaceable brush. The kids have an electric one. They don’t brush as well as they should and we have electronics recycling in Canada so I feel a bit better about it. Yes it is about a process and making due with things we have and making a better choice next time.
Thanks for sharing this :) I think it’s part of a bigger movement of people showing the reality of (transitioning to) zero waste, rather than a picture-perfect lifestyle, which is great! I like to think I share the imperfections and struggles in addition to my very good habits… but I’m not confident I actually am. That is: when it comes to zero waste. My posts on parenthood I believe to be a bit more balanced :) Yet your post is a good reminder to share some of my far from perfect zero waste behaviour and pictures as well!
Great post! I 100% agree! It’s easy to get lost in the myriad of plastic items we should not use in our daily lives and become overwhelmed OR strive to reduce where we can and refocus our efforts on positive changes. Plastic is absolutely everywhere and I feel that by making choices that tell industry that it is no longer acceptable we can help push for change.
Yay! A true to life Lessumer. This is such an important issue, Lindsay, and one I shall share on my blog, High five for fronting up.
I love your honesty LIndsay! Telling it like it is, is the way to go imo!! Greetings from South Africa
Zero waste is not about having the latest gadgets or chucking out to get new stuff, your right it’s about making do, making better choices next time and learning new techniques for next time. Also I find it near impossible to go zero waste overnight and found myself feeling guilty a lot of the time, this journey takes a long time and we should be proud of what we have achieved not guilty for what we haven’t. I’m proud of all these people who are trying their best and I hope they are proud of themselves. It’s not easy but it’s rewarding
This is really refreshing and encouraging to read! I just wanted to clarify that microplastics are really tiny micro-waste shedded by plastics, typically less than 5 mm in size and many are a vast amount are smaller than human hair (particles from fleece jackets, for instance). I noticed in your post on the fake leather purse and in this one about the tooth brush bristles and perhaps it’s just a language difference — the flakes and bristles themselves aren’t necessarily microplastics though they may disintegrate into them.
I love this post! Everything you say is spot on and is inspiring me to remember to “keep it real”, which I told myself I would do, but is so tempting to do otherwise. Thank you! @thezeroshopsc
This is such a timely post for me. I was only thinking about writing something along these lines when i found myself the proud owner of an organic bamboo spork! Something i love the look of, something i bought from a shop that shares my values, but not something i REALLY need. Now i’m lusting after a pair of wooden sunglasses, that i’d have to get sent over individually into Ireland instead of buying a pair of plastic framed ones from a store that probably had them delivered by boat. It’s enough to make a girl go nuts!
I love this post. What is the point in airbrushing our lives.? You are such an inspiration wether your jar lids match or not.
And again another wonderful blog post that speaks right out of my heart! Thank you so much for all your well thought and well written texts. You were one of the first zero waste bloggers I started following years ago and still are one of my favourites.
Just wanted to say thank you for that!
Greetings from Germany (and sorry for any mistakes in my sentences… I’m working on it!)
I love The Source Bulk Store’s kitchen & bathroom lemon myrtle cleaner. It’s such a fantastic product … smells divine plus does an awesome job. Last week, I purchased a chalk pen to write on glass jars for my pantry. The writing can be easily wiped off with a damp cloth. This will last me for years.
Our pantry has a lot of unmatching glass containers and glass food jars that we’ve re-used too. As you say, it’s not perfect. But it does actually look a lot nicer than before when there were a lot more boxes and plastic bags with branding on them. Thanks for being so inspiring!
I have found the same, Lisa. We had family over for a plastic-free Christmas/New Year break, and they commented on how cute the pantry looked, because everything was in glass :) They didn’t care that the jars don’t all match.
Great read! For me, zero waste is, using up all the STUFF in my cupboards then choosing better options. I can almost see the shelves now in my bathroom cupboard♀️ oh the products one purchases over time. Have to give some things away or live to 100!
I can’t express just how grateful I am for this post! I too love a clean, neatly curated, natural bristle brush with shiny glass jars type image yet my internal focus inevitably quickly shifts from appreciation to comparison-itis. Thanks for the reminder and for keeping it real.
Don’t forget that your local op shop/thrift shop always has jars and containers, often barely used, for your pantry and bathroom.
Amen! My bottle brush is an old plastic one where the handle broke off and hubby made a new one from a piece of wood in his shed. The ugliest thing ever, but it still works!
Such a great post. Very well-timed and pertinent – and something I feel I struiggle with regularly.
This needed to be said! I love looking at those beautiful zero waste photos we see a lot, but I take them in an aspirational way. They’re ideal and inspiring while keeping in mind that good enough is, well, good enough. And as Archana of To Universe, With Love says, I’d rather use the plastic I do have to death than throwing it out right now and creating new waste.
My pantry looks exactly the same: I use old jars and Weck Jars (I’m from Germany) I found in my grandpa’s basement. They are doing their work! And I still use my plastic razor for the same reason like you. I still have blades for the razor and I definitely will use them up.
Thank you for the great post!
I’m just starting on my zero waste journey and am reading around the subject. I’m so glad I read this as I tend to be someone who jumps into things and starts feeling bad if what I’m doing doesn’t look like what’s being promoted on social media. Thank you. I’m enjoying your website :)
This is EXACTLY what I needed to hear today. Started my zero waste journey with the new year and it’s been so fun and educational and rewarding. I’m even blogging about it and sharing with friends and family. But it’s easy to feel disheartened when I don’t have a picture-perfect image to accompany my new mindset. Thank you so much for sharing.
This is great, I have only really started doing zero plastic in the past 6-8 months and at first i felt the need to replace everything, especially with all the Instagram accounts that i started to follow. Thankfully I quickly realized that would be more wasteful so i have been doing it gradually and will carry on that way too. I think i will take a leaf out of your book and when i share images of my journey to zero waste on my social media i will show the reality and not make it so ‘picture pretty’ all the time because i do not want to dishearten anyone else from starting a journey to zerowaste.
I was really pleased to read your article. I believe totally in using what you have until it dies and then replace with zero waste options. I dont believe in all the swaps because I dont believe we need them. I am trying to reduce all waste and that means not buying more stuff if I dont need it. Thanks for posting.
Love this! It’s why I still have my flip phone from 2011: I refuse to upgrade anything until the old version runs out (my mp3 player is from 2006), and as flip phones are (luckily for me, as I seem to drop it on an almost daily basis) pretty much indestructible, I guess it’s going to be a while yet….
I much prefer the real-life pictures. Yes they aren’t so beautiful but they are more attainable and realistic and I want people to feel that reducing waste is something that they can do. I do rearrange objects in my pictures but try to keep it real.
Thank you for writing this, it’s an important message.
I appreciate your gentle, honest approach. I am nowhere near your level with zero waste, but I am reducing my waste. Lindsay I’m always inspired by your posts and have many things that I’ve tried and am doing because of you. Thank you.
This is great! And honestly, your pantry looks really nice. Maybe not as slick and streamlined as the Bea Johnson aesthetic, but I would feel more welcome and cozy in your kitchen by far!
However, if the mismatched look is bothering you, another option if you want a somewhat matchier aesthetic (without running out and buying new things) is to scour thrift stores and gradually replace the mismatched bottles with a more streamlined collection of vintage jars or canisters. Oftern there are a few common items from decades past that show up frequently in thrift stores. Choose one or two that you like, and buy only those until you have your pantry filled.
Years ago, way before I went zero waste, I started collecting Crown canning jars (an old Canadian mason-type jar with glass lids and zinc rings). They were about .25 apiece at the local thrift shop. I had some notion of using them for a pantry but it never really worked out with packaged food, so I put them in my attic when we moved. When I went zero waste, after eating down my packaged goods, I decanted the remainder of my dry goods and bulk purchases into my jar collection and ended up with an vintage-yet-matchy pantry literally overnight. I also have an eclectic collection of thrift store dishes collected over a decade that look like a cohesive collection in my glass front cabinets, because I only bought cobalt blue ones.
I look at the pretty thrifted things in my house whenever I get an urge to buy a prettier glass replacement for the plastic detergent jug I’ve been refilling in bulk or similar. Eventually I’ll find a pretty alternative in a thrift store. Until then, the plastic is functional.
I loved this article and I found solutions for tooth brushes and razors! You can use 3 same razor heads in 5 years. If you soak heads in dishsoap after every use for 20 minutes and rub opposite way from how you shave on jean material or leather 20-30 times, it will be good for 1 and a half years per razor head. Instead of a tooth brush, I cut a 6 inch piece of birch twig and sewed a small microfibre sleeve to fit snuggly over it. This is great for use with homemade toothpaste and …. it is not throw away anything! You simply wash it when necessary.
Great blog. I have been guilty of thinking and also admiring those minimal waste photos with zen like appearance on insta and wanted to achieve that. I will think of this blog next time when I am posting on insta and will be proud of my imperfect zero waste effort!
Totally love your post and agree with everything you said. We need more zero waste bloggers like you! Have been wondering about those oh-so-perfect looking zero waste gurus pantry pictures and felt something isn’t quite “right” but couldn’t explain. You are SO right about it’s nothing wrong to share the best bits, but it’s wrong ONLY to share the best bits and not the imperfect parts. It’s more about maintaining an image for marketing rather than really want to share real experiences about their zero waste journey.