5 Mindset Shifts for Zero Waste Living

When I started my journey to zero waste living back in 2012, I didn’t actually know that’s what I was doing. I’d never heard of the term ‘zero waste’ and although Bea Johnson was already writing her blog Zero Waste Home, I hadn’t heard of her, either.

I was simply interested in reducing my rubbish, which had started out as a plastic-free adventure, and expanded when I went to a recycling facility for the first time and saw all how much other single-use packaging (cardboard, cans, tins, etc) was amassed in just a single day, all waiting to be baled and shipped to Asia.

Fast forward seven years, and the zero waste lifestyle is a growing movement that has definitely captured the hearts, minds and imaginations of many. And by many I not only mean those of us who want to reduce our footprint and take responsibility for our waste, but the marketers that have embraced the zero waste movement as a way to sell us more stuff that we probably don’t need.

No wonder then, that critics claim zero waste is expensive. Marketing exists to sell us stuff, and those marketers are hard at work telling us we need to purchase all kinds of things to be zero waste.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve purchased some things which have definitely helped me reduce my waste. Most zero waste advocates have bought something. But buying something (we’ve all done it) isn’t to be confused with embracing a consumer mindset, or turning the zero waste lifestyle into yet another way to consume more than we need.

I buy something if I need it. That in no way means that it’s an essential for anyone else, that everyone else needs it, or that I’m encouraging others to make a purchase.

I think anyone who is trying to reduce their waste and live more sustainably would say the same.

Because zero waste isn’t the path to buying more things. At the start, it’s a bit of a rite-of-passage, the buying of ‘zero waste’ things – whether we truly ‘need’ them or just think we do.

But in time we start to settle into a different mindset. The true zero waste mindset.

I was thinking about how my mindset has shifted since embracing the zero waste lifestyle. Here’s five zero waste mantras that I hold up as true to the ethos of living with less waste. No buying of shiny things included.

Everything is a Resource

Everything is a resource. Whether we’re talking about ‘stuff’, the packaging the stuff came in, the resources used to make it, ship it and get it to our homes, the people who worked to make this happen, the space it now takes up in our homes – every step requires materials, time, energy and land.

It’s no longer enough for me to just look at the product, see a lack of plastic packaging and consider it to be zero waste. I need to look at the whole picture… because waste happens before the item gets to me.

I can’t know all the answers, but I can make best guesses. Where did it come from? How was it made? Who made it? How was it transported? Is it made to last? Is it recyclable? How can I dispose of it, if I no longer need it?

This tends to lead me to holding off purchasing straightaway (waiting helps me feel sure that it’s something I truly need), borrowing if that’s an option, or choosing second-hand.

Value What You Have

Value isn’t just about how much they cost or what they are worth in monetary terms. Value is about seeing how much effort and/or resources went into making those things, and also how much benefit they bring to us (perhaps joy, perhaps because they save time, perhaps because they make life easier).

Zero waste means I respect the things I do buy and the things I own much more than I might have in the past, and I look after my things properly.

For example, knowing that a single pair of jeans takes 7,600 litres (2000 gallons) of water to make doesn’t stop me buying jeans: there is nothing more comfortable, surely, than a good pair of jeans? But it makes me prioritise buying second-hand (or ethical, well-made) jeans, ensures I wear them often and means I won’t go shopping for replacement jeans until my current ones are completely worn out.

Zero waste means embracing scuffs, chips, cracks, worn parts or dents as part of an item’s story rather than seeing them some kind of defect.

Not to mention, it means ensuring that those things I no longer use are not left languishing in my home – they still have value to someone, and to keep them is a waste of resources someone else could be using.

Embrace Making Do

Resisting the temptation to buy stuff can sometimes be a struggle. There’s always something new and shiny out there, stuff that will save us time and make life easier, things that look beautiful. Zero waste is about resisting the urge to accumulate yet more stuff, and make do with what we have.

That goes for second-hand, too! Buying second-hand is great when we need something and can’t make do with what we have. Buying second-hand things that we don’t need (but are oh-such-a-bargain) and rarely use is not very zero waste.

Sure, sometimes we need to buy stuff. But the most zero waste thing is always going to be making do. The more we make do, the more we reduce our footprint.

Fix What is Broken

A big part of making do and reducing waste is fixing anything that breaks, rather than seeing it as an excuse to chuck it in the bin and head to the store to buy another.

Sometimes it is something we can fix ourselves – maybe we just need to buy some glue or a spare part. Sometimes we need to borrow a tool. Other times we might not have the skills or knowledge, but we know someone who does (probably that person we borrowed the tools from).

Occasionally we have to pay someone to fix things. What a great investment! Keeping our stuff out of landfill, reducing demand for new resources, ensuring extremely useful skills stay alive and paying someone for their time and knowledge. So many benefits to be had at once.

I’ve got a pair of boots that I purchased circa 2010. My guess is that at the time they cost around £65 (AU $110). To date, I’ve probably spent twice as much repairing them – definitely upwards of $200 – over the last 9 years. They’ve been into the shoe repair place more times than I can count, and have had soles replaced, heels fixed, bits glued back on, stitches re-sewn, a toe-cap put in, a zipper changed, laces swapped.

It’s been worth it to save resources (no new boots purchased in the last 10 years), save time (no shopping for new boots required), and also keep my favourite and most comfortable pair of boots on my feet.

Celebrate the Old

In the same way that I used to ‘upgrade’ things before they really needed to be replaced and feel excited by the thought of new things, now I’m excited by the thought of making things last as long as possible.

Instead of feeling any kind of embarrassment about how old things are, I feel a sense of pride that I’m still using them and that they’ve lasted.

This bag was purchased around 2005. I use it every time I make a trip to the bulk store. It’s my favourite shopping bag, even though it wasn’t designed (or purchased) for that purpose – I barely knew what a bulk store was when I bought it!

There’s nothing I consider more personally satisfying than responding to ‘oooh that’s nice, is it new?’ with ‘nope, it’s x years old and I got it from the charity shop!’

Old doesn’t mean antiques, either – at least, not in my house. It means stuff I’ve owned for a while. Most of it is monetarily worthless, but it still provides me with heaps of value.

Imagine if, as a society, we shifted from feeling proud of how new things were, to how long we’d made the old things last?

Zero waste is about valuing resources, whether they be new or old. It’s about reducing what we buy, and we do this by rethinking our relationship to our stuff and respecting the things we have and the people who made them. At least, that’s how it happened for me.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What do you think about these zero waste mantras? Are there any you’d add? Any you disagree with? Any other thoughts? Please share in the comments below!

5 Mindset Shifts for Zero Waste Living
14 replies
  1. Jane Killingbeck
    Jane Killingbeck says:

    i have an ancient pc a friend cobbled together for me a few years ago and fairly old tv my daughter gave me when they got a new one… most of my stuff is old and cracked or ragged …and this is si liberating as I dont need to lick my house or my ancient car as noone would want my stuff … I cancelled my house contents insurance too…. freedom from the fear that is endemic in our consumer society because we all have so many shiny knew things and t have old stuff is seen as shameful or a sign of poverty. I wear clothes even if they have stains that wont come out in a wash…apart from going to a special occasion and try to sponge things rather. than just throw in the washing machine and only wash when really dirty… its about opening our eyes to how much we are susceptible to crazy norms that have become prevalent in our societies but which consume the world’s resources unnecessarily.

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

      I love this Jane, thanks so much for sharing :) I too have a tendency to wear things well beyond the point where most people would discard them, it doesn’t bother me and most of the time these thing are the most comfortable ;) I always try to find things second-hand before I buy new and I think 90% of the time that works for me. There’s a few things I don’t buy second-hand (hello, underwear) and a few things that I can’t track down, but it is amazing what is out there – and often in great condition, too!

  2. nofixedstars
    nofixedstars says:

    great observations! i know when i started being more conscious of lifestyle way back in college we thought it pretty much was about recycling things. we thought it was fine to buy new stuff whenever we wanted, as long as the old clothing got donated to charity shops or popped into those ever-so-convenient bins in various car parks, and all the glass and cardboard and aluminium made it into recycle centres… then we began to learn how the donated clothing got baled up and shipped to asia for textile fibre recovery at a profit, or to africa where it was sold (again, at a profit) and disrupted local markets. we learned that our recycling often went in landfills, or was shipped abroad (along with all kinds of trash and toxic waste!)… that’s when i packed it in and started buying things second-hand and trying to minimise plastic and even recyclable packaging.i think for me, the biggest mindset changes can be summed up in two phrases: “everything is a resource”, and “there is no ‘away'”.

    the hard part for me is finding helpful things near me. we have no cobbler these days, although we certainly had several when i was a kid, and no bulk shop. freecycle and similar initiatives have little to no presence locally. but i am hoping that will change over time. i really feel zero waste is the way forward, although as you observe, market forces are trying to co-opt it too!

  3. Richard
    Richard says:

    Brilliant! Your articles are always an inspiration, and an encouragement to continue to swim against the current of materialism, and a reminder that zero waste really is something we should be working towards and for. Thank you.

  4. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Thank you Lindsay for the read! We are not a zero waste family (yet!) but we certainly try our darndest. We have minimised many aspects of our lives.

    One thing I have been struggling with lately is that my husband’s job requires him to use a lot of new tech and gadgetry (all of which eventually require upgrades). He tries to buy his gear second hand but unfortunately tech changes so rapidly that he often has to buy new. Does he need to upgrade his equipment? Well, the short answer is yes unfortunately and it makes a huge difference in him being able to do his job properly, efficiently and effectively. Sadly, there is no ‘make do’ option here. What are your thoughts on this?

    Warmest regards

    • Art
      Art says:

      The need to use the latest tech is a thorny problem that doesn’t really have a DIY solution. Apple will take back their gadgets and they resell or recycle in their own (de)supply chain: https://www.apple.com/environment/. I can’t vouch for how truly “green” it is. I will say the cost of it is included in the gadgets so that might be a reason to buy the more expensive Apple gear. That is one of the roots of the problem. Throwing trash in the ocean is “free.” We (corporations but ultimately consumers) need to be charged for the “negative externalities” that the waste stream creates. The would provide more of a financial incentive to go zero waste.

  5. Nicola
    Nicola says:

    An inspirational article – thank you. When it feels like you are the only person proud of trying to use less, to buy from charity shops rather than create the demand for brand new products and to keep old things going, it’s so nice to read an article like this and read the comments of like minded people.

  6. Beth
    Beth says:

    I have never bought tin foil, but every so often people bring it to my house on the top of a casserole. At one point I acquired a fairly large piece, large enough to cover a 9 x 12 baking pan. I used and re-used that same piece of tin foil for two years. I would tear, and it kept getting smaller. Finally, I had only a couple of small pieces left, and I used them to make oven roasted garlic. Friends would ask me why I didn’t just go out and buy some tin foil, and I told them, that wasn’t the point. I have never bough tin foil since, and that was years ago.

  7. Sara
    Sara says:

    Love your post and wish I saw it even earlier on in my quest for understanding zero waste. Inspired by your pair of boots (10 years!) and ‘jars bag’, I’m not sure I’ve had many shoes that lasted as long as yours and still look good!!

  8. Liz
    Liz says:

    My mother’s mantra, circa 1940s, was “ use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” How nice to see that mindset return.

  9. Margaret A Green
    Margaret A Green says:

    Thank you. You are a true inspiration. There is now a shop named Replenishing in Leigh, greater Manchester. You can refill empty containers eg washing powder, shampoo etc etc. Plus they sell other environmentally friendly products. Kindest regards, Margaret

  10. Thread Bee
    Thread Bee says:

    Hi,I have also initiated a green alternative in Chandigarh in India.We recycle old clothes and make utility bags and handicrafts.The underprivileged women work for us for the sustainable living.If anyone can help us to promote and sell these please don’t hesitate to come forward to help the social cause.

  11. Alison Deacon
    Alison Deacon says:

    I loved seeing beautiful “things” in shops but knew I didn’t have the room for them
    or sometimes the money.
    With permission (sometimes) I will take photos. I Can then “see” things, without owning them and get the same pleasure

    This works on the internet too

    If you really like something, and it keeps tugging at you, you can then go and buy it


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