Why “Guilt” Has No Place in the Zero Waste Lifestyle

Why do I love the plastic-free and zero waste lifestyle? Well, there are lots of reasons, but a big one is this: knowing that every single day I can make a difference and have a positive impact. Every single day I have the potential to create waste, and the opportunity to avoid it.

We all do.

This is something we can all be excited about, and embrace.

There are so many things in the world that are out of our control. Decisions we have little or no influence over. Policies or actions we cannot change. Despite this, we do have the ability to look at our own personal choices.

We all have some influence, even if it is at the household level. We have control of our own personal actions, and we can do the best we can.

We can choose carefully, considerately, and deliberately. We can do our best.

And that is something to feel really good about.

Which means that embracing the plastic-free and/or zero waste lifestyle should be something we feel good about.

Yet all too often, those good vibes are mixed in with something else.


How is it that doing something good can make us feel guilty?

Because it shouldn’t. Yet it does.

For me, I think guilt comes from falling short of “perfect”.

We can strive for improvement. We can aim for better. Indeed, setting goals and working towards improving has plenty of positives.

But it can also be exhausting. We all have our limits.

Most of us will hit these limits long before we reach “perfect”. If perfect even exists.

There’s a gap between wanting to be perfect, and coming up short. This is where guilt sets in.

When it comes to living plastic-free and zero waste, guilt isn’t helpful. We want to feel good about the actions we take and choices we make. Feeling good is the best way to keep going.

Feeling guilty can be paralyzing; like it’s all too hard. Guilt can lead us to think it’s-not-good-enough-so-why-bother-anyway.

That’s not what we want at all! Something is better than nothing. Trying is better than not trying. However imperfect it may be, bothering is most definitely better than not!

Guilt is a topic I keep coming back to. I’ve talked about how being perfect is an illusion. I’ve talked about how it is important to share all the bits of zero waste living, not just the best (photogenic) bits.

There’s another aspect of guilt that I think we need to talk about. How we support one another in our imperfect choices, and the things we say. We have the power to encourage, and we have the power to deflate.

What we say, and how we say it.

It’s so easy, when we’re excited or passionate about a topic, to trip up on this. However well-meaning our intentions are. For example, someone tells us about their newly purchased reusable. And we point out that there’s a better or more ethical version. Or we tell them that it’s easy to find that same item second-hand.

We’re excited to share our knowledge. We’re excited to encourage the next steps.

But it can leave the person feeling judged and inadequate. It can make the person feel unsupported. It implies that they fell short… and that can mean guilt.

It’s not the intention, but it can be the outcome.

I had this experience recently when I threw away my old bag. I received a couple of comments, obviously well intentioned: Couldn’t I have coated the bag in wax? Couldn’t I paint it? Couldn’t I cover it with new fabric?

By this point, the bag was already in landfill. I immediately felt guilty. Guilty for not trying harder to salvage the bag.

And then I thought… no. I try really hard to reduce my waste. I rarely send anything to landfill. (This bag is the most I’ve sent to landfill in years.) I share my tips and insights, and encourage others to reduce their own waste. I do a lot already. I know I’ll never be perfect, and I never said I was perfect.

No, I should not feel guilty for not learning to sew, or researching fabric paint (that comes plastic- and packaging free).

No, I should not feel guilty for discarding one old, worn out thing; and buying one new thing in its place.

No, I should not feel guilty for not being perfect, or not putting up with something that has really served its purpose.

The point is, I did the best I could.

Don’t we all do the best we can?

In which case, shouldn’t we be cheering one another on?

Any change in the right direction is a positive, however small and imperfect it might be. When others make changes, it shouldn’t matter if it’s not the change that we would make. Let’s celebrate their achievements. There’s no need to point out the “better” choices.

There are so many people in the world oblivious to the impact of plastic on the environment, unaware of the resources wasted with single-use items, too wrapped up in the culture of convenience to realise how much it’s harming the planet. Let’s not rebuke those taking steps to do something better.

Judgement and guilt-tripping is not going to inspire anyone to keep trying. Encouragement and inclusiveness, that’s much more motivating.

Let’s be kind. We’re all in this together. We must celebrate the wins. Applaud the steps in the right direction. Cheer on any decision that’s an improvement on the previous one.

In my view, the plastic-free and zero waste lifestyles are all about encouraging others to make better choices. And any step in the right direction is better than no steps at all.

Let’s not berate others for how far they’ve got to go. Let’s celebrate how far they’ve come.

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29 replies
  1. Alix Evans
    Alix Evans says:

    Great post, Lindsey! I, too, am a perfectionist and struggle with the negativity of being less than, both in myself and in others. Encouraging and celebrating any steps taken on the path towards plastic free is a positive act and an affirmation.

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

      Thanks Alix! It’s definitely easy to slip into the critiquing frame of mind, but it doesn’t really get us anywhere. When I’m struggling with an imperfect choice, I find it helpful to think back to what the “me” of 5 years ago would have done. That way I realise how far I’ve come – and that is something to feel good about :)

  2. Jill Hollings
    Jill Hollings says:

    Hi Lindsay, Thanks so much for your latest blog. I have been getting quite stressed trying to go totally plastic-free but feel better now. Just doing what we can makes much more sense.

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

      My pleasure Jill, thanks for taking the time to comment :) Remember, “doing what we can” evolves over time too, so what seems impossible now won’t always be impossible. Just stick to what’s achievable for you right now, and have faith in the journey :)

  3. Jo
    Jo says:

    Love this post. Its so easy to feel like you’re not doing enough and to focus on what you “should” be doing better, instead of what you have managed to achieve so far. Thanks!

  4. Mel
    Mel says:

    I think sometimes people new to the ideas of zero waste and plastic free are quite naiive about the realities of time, effort, research, ‘mistakes’ / ‘learning experiences’, and frustration that are all part of the process. I think there are some who take out that frustration on the people who are trying to help. Part may be due to the titles themselves as ‘zero waste’ and ‘plastic free’ are ideals that are probably unobtainable for most, if not all, people. This may add to the frustration for people who feel they need an endpoint. Personally, I want to know if there is a better option out there. I want to know if I have fallen prey to green washing and picked a product or habit that is not going to be a positive change and may even cause more issues. I want to know that I can continually improve on my choices if something has to be repaired, replaced, or upcycled. I love things that involve lifelong learning. I have only recently joined FB groups but am afraid to comment because of all the backlash toward the people trying to help.

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

      Hi Mel and thanks for sharing your thoughts. Yes, it can be easy to underestimate the time and effort it takes in the beginning – I think social media exacerbates this!

      I totally agree with you about wanting to hear other people’s opinions – that’s why I love the comments section of this blog so much! But I think we need to be careful about oversharing in our eagerness to be helpful, and perhaps flattening other people’s enthusiasm. If I want to know people’s opinions, I tend to ask for people to share their experiences or ideas. Similarly, I try not to overshare when people don’t ask. Where I do, I think language is important. For example, telling anyone they “should” do anything is quite aggressive, versus “next time maybe you could think about”… I don’t profess to be perfect. But I’ve seen new members pop up in zero waste groups, making their first post and being really excited about a change they made (purchasing a KeepCup or deciding to go meat free on Mondays) and then someone else telling them they shouldn’t have got a plastic cup, or unless they are vegan it doesn’t count, or whatever the message is. And the newbie feels totally deflated, embarrassed perhaps, and definitely not inclined to comment again. Sometimes we forget that big change is lots of little changes added together and people need to find their own way a little.

      I’m like you, always wanting to know more and learn. All I’m saying is, we need to be mindful, not flatten one another and support other choices even if they aren’t the ones we would make. And sometimes, keeping our opinions for those who ask for them ;) (Or maybe private messaging, rather than lambasting in public!)

      Hope that makes sense!

  5. TeaforHannah
    TeaforHannah says:

    Loved this, so honest and you shouldn’t feel bad for throwing that one item away as sometimes it just can’t be helped!


  6. Sarah Rickard
    Sarah Rickard says:

    This is great to share, and I love that you shared you had feedback about the handbag post. Rather than feel guilty for the options people gave in the feedback, for what you could have done instead, I for one find these comments useful in case I am in the same predicament and don’t know what to do with a well worn item. Although your item had gone, these suggestions may have helped other items from ending up in landfill. So reason to feel good you shared this!

    And I do want to leave feedback about something you mentioned in this post, and that is that we CAN change policies. In fact the biggest impact you can have as an individual is to vote for action on the climate emergency.

    Sure we can have an impact with our individual choices and actions, however we are often faced with struggling to the better thing because the system is set us up to fail (it’s easier and more convenient for people to use a lot of single-use plastic). Why not put that effort into changing the system. Put your thoughts and frustrations into an email to your local MP, and ask them to take action or you will vote for someone who is willing to take action. This can have a massive ripple effect, especially if you share with your friends and family that you wrote/phoned/met your MP, why you did it and what you got out of it!

    Sharing this for anyone who feels that they want to have a bigger impact!

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

      Hi Sarah and thanks for your considered comment :)

      Regarding changing policies, I think you might have misinterpreted what I said. I completely believe that one person can make a difference and that we have the power to influence. What I meant here was that we (generally) aren’t the actual person writing the policy or making the decision. So yes, we can apply pressure and express our concerns and champion change, but in a literal sense we do not change the policy. Hope that makes sense!

      I agree that once we’ve mastered our own choices, getting out into the community is a great next step. I love talking to people and encouraging them to start the journey. That’s my passion, and giving talks and running workshops on reducing waste and living lighter is where I see my role. I have friends who embrace the political side more, and I think it’s important for all of us to do what we can, where we see a space to do so in a way that works for us. Thanks so much or sharing you thoughts :)

  7. Kaisa
    Kaisa says:

    Such a good text that really gave me comfort.

    I’ve been trying to make less waste for couple of years now and in Finland I was doing pretty good because it’s rather easy in there. But I moved to Greece last November and it isn’t easy here at all. Hardly any recycling and no composting. I felt so bad when I came and couldn’t go on as I had. Then all the stress from moving to a new place came and suddenly I just felt pressured about making less waste when I was failing in it. I stopped following many instagram accounts because they just made me feel guilty.

    Now I’m getting over it and am starting to feel more positive about the little impact I can still make and this text came in the right time!

    Thank you very much Lindsay!

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

      Hi Kaisa and thanks for your comment. Moving can definitely shake things up a bit and it can take time to adjust, for sure! My friend Stella lives in Greece (on Paros, not the mainland) and she might be a good person to connect with as she seems to have all kinds of contacts and knowledge, and is very positive in outlook! Her instagram is sustainable_living_paros, and this is her website: http://liveplasticfreenow.org/

      Hope that helps and good luck! Oh, and no pressure at all ;)

  8. caroline
    caroline says:

    I have adapted a zero waste lifestyle, and my cleaning business is also adapted to be green. I love teaching my clients about zero waste and how to go green

  9. Juliet
    Juliet says:

    This is why I call myself minimal waste rather than zero waste. I have type one diabetes. no matter how healthy I am, I will never not require insulin to survive. this creates a lot of medical waste. syringes, test strips, insulin vials and pens, batteries for testing supplies, etc. This is why I’m looking to become more sustainable through veganism and minimal waste output.

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

      Medical waste is definitely one of those excellent uses of plastic, Juliet! No doubt all of us zero wasters, as we begin to age, will be needing medication at some stage. I purchased some vitamin B12 tablets recently and the company has changed the packaging from glass to plastic. Grrr. But I’d rather buy B12 tablets than eat meat. And I’d rather not have a B12 deficiency in the name of zero waste, either…

  10. xpectopatronerd
    xpectopatronerd says:

    I love this so much! I’ve been ‘going green’ properly for five months now, and regularly feel bad because I’m not 100% waste or plastic free yet (even though that’s an unrealistic goal to start with). Even though I blog and post on social media about loads of changes I AM making, and share loads of quick and easy ideas that others can copy, I still get scared that I’ll be called a fraud or that people will judge me because I’m not ‘doing it properly’. I’m going to remind myself to celebrate, not berate myself from now on!

    Sarah | xpectopatronerd.wordpress.com | @xpectopatronerd


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] This is a really big one too – there are times when the fatigue (see above) gets too much and I buy a packet of popcorn for my hungry daughter or I really cannot make it to the butcher, or I just want to eat a penguin.  But as you put the wrapper in the bin the guilt sets in – why didn’t I try harder, why didn’t I make the effort? – at this point you need to CUT YOURSELF SOME SLACK.  Think about the achievements not the failures – you are doing better than most on the planet.  If you are struggling with guilt this is worth a read. […]

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