If you had to guess what the hardest thing about going zero waste is, what would you say? Lack of access to bulk stores? Zero waste products being more expensive than their plastic-packaged, overly wrapped counterparts? Lack of buy-in from the kids, or the spouse, or parents, or colleagues?
These things can certainly be challenging. Yes, it would definitely be easier if we all had an incredibly affordable bulk store just around the corner, right next to a veggie shop full of fresh locally grown, unpackaged produce, and our family was so enthusiastic about zero waste living that they fought over whose turn it was to do the grocery shopping.
Let’s just imagine that for a second. Ahhhhhh.
The absolute hardest thing about going zero waste, though? In my view, it is none of these things.
The hardest thing about going zero waste is stepping off the consumer treadmill. The hardest thing is not buying stuff.
Let me explain.
When I talk about “stuff”, I’m not talking about the grocery shop. I’m talking about everything except the grocery shop. Yes, the zero waste conversation often hovers around bulk store shopping and avoiding the single-use plastic packaging that so many grocery items come packaged in.
We forget that everything else we buy is also contributing to the “waste” issue.
Everything. Even the zero waste reusables that we buy. No matter how eco-friendly the product, it still uses resources and it still uses energy in its creation, and it still has an impact on our planet.
Now I’m not saying, we shouldn’t buy anything, ever. Furniture, white goods, clothing, homewares, kitchen tools – it’s all useful stuff. Those zero waste reusables are pretty useful too.
But that’s exactly the problem. There is useful stuff everywhere; we know it is useful, and we want to buy it.
Sometimes we do buy it.
The hardest thing about zero waste is about resisting the majority, if not all, of the useful stuff. The hardest thing about zero waste is not buying stuff.
Change is Hard, and Buying Stuff is Easy
Change can be hard. Starting and then ingraining new habits, consciously trying to remember new ways of doing things before it seeps into our subconscious, researching new ideas and learning new skills – it can be exhausting.
We want to make progress, and fast. We want to see the evidence of this progress.
And that is where the buying comes in.
It’s almost like a beginner zero waste right-of-passage; the buying of stuff. We’ve all done it. (Well, most of us. Including me.) We want to look like we’ve made progress, and so we buy the things to prove it.
The water bottle, the reusable coffee cup, the reusable produce bags.
It makes us feel good before the real stuff happens. The refusing of the single-use items, the remembering of said reusables, and the reshaping of habits.
That’s the real secret to being zero waste. It’s not the buying of stuff, it’s the remembering of stuff.
Of course, it’s okay to buy things. (Yes, it’s always better if we think carefully about our purchases and ensure that they are made by responsible companies and sold by responsible businesses; and they are exactly what we need and will use often. But no-one is perfect all of the time.)
We have to remember, that all of us enjoy a certain amount of comfort that we’d like to maintain. No-one reading this is living in a cave, collecting rainwater, growing all their own food and weaving their own clothes. Let’s be realistic. Maybe we like eating chocolate, or drinking coffee, or wearing ethical fashion. If takeaway coffee is our treat, then it is our treat – and a reusable coffee cup is a useful purchase.
Some things are useful, and some things are necessary. If the “thing” is standing between going zero waste and not (and will reduce waste in the long run), better to buy it.
But at some point, we have to recognize that we cannot continue to buy stuff to reduce our consumption and waste.
We have to reach our “enough”, be happy with what we have, and step off the consumer treadmill.
Stepping Off the Consumer Treadmill
The consumer treadmill refers to the constant desire or pull we feel to buy stuff and upgrade stuff. Letting go of these urges and not succumbing to temptation can be hard. It can take time. Sometimes a lot of time.
But if we are really going to embrace zero waste living, this is what we need to do.
You know how with exercise treadmills, you spend a lot of time and energy walking or running, and yet you never actually get anywhere? Well, the same applies to the consumer treadmill. Buying, storing, maintaining and ultimately disposing of stuff all takes up time and energy, for not much (any) gain.
The happiness we feel when we buy new things is fleeting, and it fades. What we’re left with is a credit card bill and more stuff to take care of – which tends to leave us feeling frustrated and overwhelmed rather than satisfied.
This is a tough lesson to learn.
Change is hard, and buying stuff is easy.
Even when we know that it is true, it can be so hard not to buy stuff. New things are so shiny, and marketers are extremely good at persuading us that we need things. That our lives will be better with them.
When I first went zero waste, the zero waste options on the market were lean. This was a good thing, as I was still in the early I-want-to-make-changes-and-want-to-see-progress stages when buying stuff is such a temptation.
Because the selection was meagre (and my budget was tiny), I didn’t buy a huge number of things, and the things I have are well used.
Then, as I went further down the zero waste path, I embraced the second-hand lifestyle, the making-do lifestyle, the borrowing-rather-than-buying lifestyle.
I learned about my “enough” and I let go of the urge to buy stuff as the solution (to whatever the problem might be).
It is more than 6 years since I first went zero waste, and now there are so many more options for zero waste items – often described as “essentials”. There are reusables for things I’d never have thought of (and would never have considered necessary until I clamped eyes on them), and there are better versions of things that I already have.
It’s easy to see things and think “ooh, I could use that” or “ooh, that is a much better version of what I already have – I should upgrade”.
The challenge is to resist this temptation. It can be a daily challenge. To understand that what is useful is not the same as what is necessary. It is easy to convince ourselves that we will use things, and therefore we need them. Instead, we need to remind ourselves that we don’t.
Things that are useful are not always necessary.
This isn’t about no stuff. We need stuff: it is useful and sometimes necessary. We can buy things because we consider them both useful and necessary, and we can recognize that everything we buy has a footprint.
The most zero waste thing to do will always be to buy nothing at all: to make do with what we have. That doesn’t mean it’s realistic, practical or achievable, but it is the truth.
If we can’t buy nothing, what can we do?
We can buy less, we can buy better, and we can make things last.
We can limit our purchases. We can choose second-hand, or we can borrow, or hire. We can share resources, we can trade, or swap. We can improvise, and make do without.
This is the closest we get to zero waste living.
We can consume resources, or we can conserve them. The planet won’t be saved by us all purchasing yet another reusable.
Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you find it easy or do you find it difficult to not buy stuff? How has that changed over time as you’ve begun reducing your waste? Is it something you’d like to be better at in the future? Or have you reached a happy balance of “enough”? Any other thoughts? Please tell us in the comments below!