Zero waste, plastic-free, low carbon living: do individual actions matter?

As someone who has written about individual action (such as making better personal choices, and eco-friendly swaps) a lot, I’m sure you can guess where I’m going with this. Yes – spoiler alert – our individual actions matter. But what do we actually mean when we say that they ‘matter’? Is individual action really enough? What else can we do beyond the simple swaps and personal choices?

Last year felt like a turbulent year for the planet. The Amazon, Indonesian, Borneo and the Congo rainforests were on fire, cyclones hit India and Bangladesh, there was a heatwave in Europe, flooding in Venice and Japan, a typhoon in the Philippines; and we began 2020 with unprecedented bushfires in Australia.

In the face of such disaster, clutching your reusable coffee cup really doesn’t feel like much of a comfort.

I have to tell you, the events of last year definitely shook me. I don’t just mean the weather events, but the narrative around them by those with vested interests in maintaining the status quo, the political decisions being made (or not made), and the seeming inaction on the part of those in power (manufacturers, corporations, businesses, politicians, governments).

I’ve felt angry, I’ve felt sad, I’ve felt frustrated, I’ve felt furious, I’ve felt despondent. Have I felt hopeless? I’ve possibly come close once or twice. But through all the ups and downs, I’ve felt determined. Determined to do what I can.

And as big and sometimes daunting as these issues can seem, there is definitely a place for individual action.

Why individual actions matter

Everything we do and every choice we make has some kind of impact, so let’s have the best impact we can. Why wouldn’t we want to make the best choices that we can? If I know that there is a better option, I have access to that option and there are no barriers to me making that choice, it’s a no-brainer. For me it’s about living my values. Whether that’s consuming less, buying ethical and fair trade, avoiding plastic, boycotting fast fashion, choosing vegan, or something else, trying to do better for the planet, people and animals is always going to be a good thing.

It’s about being a good citizen. Recognizing that others are affected (for good or bad) by the choices we make. We are voting with our money about the kind of world we want to live in when we make choices about the products we buy and businesses we buy from (or choose to boycott).

Small choices add up. You’ve probably read the quote “it’s only one straw, said 8 billion people”. If we make choices often – or if many of us are making these same choices – the opportunity to have an impact is huge. When lots of people are making these same choices, businesses and governments begin to take note.

We all have the power to influence others, and leading by example is a great way to do that. Whether you inspire your local church group to ditch the single-use disposables for events, persuade your school to remove plastic straws from the dining room, encourage your boss to create a sustainability action plan at work on influence your climate-denying uncle to invest in a reusable coffee cup, our actions and choices create ripples. Slowly but surely, we can demonstrate a different way of doing things, and create a new normal.

It feels good to make sustainable and ethical choices. Simple but true.

Where individual actions fall short

Individual swaps alone do not challenge – and change – the systems. For example, you can choose to purchase every single thing you buy without packaging by shopping at bulk stores, make food from scratch and opt for second-hand. But the system still produces food in packaging, advertises ready-to-go meals and prepared food and encourages society as a whole to buy new. You can invest in solar panels and swap the car for a bicycle, but the system still relies on fossil fuels. We can feel good about our personal choices whilst recognising that to change the systems, we have to think beyond individual swaps.

Its not an equal playing field. Not all of us have access to bulk stores, organic vegan cafes, homegrown food, supportive friends, excellent public transport or a cohesive community. We don’t all have fabulous cooking skills, high energy levels, plenty of time, few responsibilities, or a healthy household budget. What’s easy and accessible for one is completely out of reach for another.

Individual actions don’t do anything to address these inequalities – and if we want society as a whole to change, these options need to be within reach of the majority, not the few. Yes, those of us with the opportunity to do more must definitely do what we can, we just need to understand that the change we can bring about with individual actions will always be limited if these choices are out of reach for many.

Individual actions focus on the individual. It’s where a lot of us start – but eventually we need to think beyond ourselves. Whether that’s our local community, our workplaces, social places, sports clubs, churches, our local councils or our politicians. How can we amplify what we know? How can we share what we learn, influence others, question decision-makers, apply pressure and demand change? If we stay at the ‘consumer choice’ level of participation, our influence (and impact) will be limited.

Think about changing your mindset

Individual action, making better personal choices and simple swaps are an excellent place to start. As long as we’re not under the illusion that switching out our washing-up liquid for a plastic-free and eco-friendly option is literally going to save the planet (credit where credit’s due of course, but let’s not overstate our impact).

But in the same way that we don’t get to take too much credit for our individual actions, we also can’t let ourselves take on too much of the burden.

It’s not your fault.

Don’t have access to a bulk store? Drove the car because you couldn’t face walking in the rain for 20 minutes to catch the bus? Forgot your reusable coffee cup and ended up with a disposable? Took a flight to visit your grandma overseas? Being human means being imperfect. It’s not our fault that we don’t have access to everything we’d like access to. It’s not our fault that we live in a system that encourages waste, or that we have to make decisions that are less than ‘perfect’.

We can be a part of the system whilst recognizing that is flawed. We can be part of a system whilst recognizing the need for it to change. Rather than blaming ourselves for choices we have little control over, it’s more productive to see the issue as a fault of a system, and to look for ways to actively change that system for the better.

Stop feeling guilty.

I think a lot of us feel some kind of guilt when it comes to trying to live more sustainably, but as we mentioned earlier, it isn’t a level playing field, and we don’t have access to all the options.

Companies in particular have jumped on this, to shift any blame from them to us.

Some examples of this: companies telling us their packaging is recyclable or compostable, but not investing in infrastructure that ensures their products will actually be recycled or composted where we live (suddenly it becomes our fault for not wanting to take the epic trip to the next town or the council’s fault for not accommodating their product). Another example: airlines giving customers the option of buying carbon offsets themselves (which means only those who both care AND can afford to do so will do so), rather than committing to offset every flight they make themselves out of their profits.

Don’t give companies the satisfaction of feeling guilty for their inaction. If you can’t make a choice that you’d like to make, ask yourself what is stopping you – what part of the system is making it difficult for you? That’s where you need to focus your energy – not on blaming yourself.

Being smug isn’t helpful.

Luckily for some of us, we have easy access to the bulk store, we live right next to the bus stop (and the live app tells us if the bus is running late or not), we never forget your reusable coffee cup and grandma lives two streets away. But it’s a hollow victory when others don’t have these options. Rather than sitting back and feeling pleased with ourselves that circumstance has worked in our favour, we can channel our efforts into leveling the playing field, and increasing accessibility for those with less.

How to take action (if you want to)

After all this talk of burden and guilt, the last thing I’m going to do is tell you to do more. If individual swaps is where you’re at, that is great. The more people making sustainable choices, the better. I applaud your efforts.

But if you’re feeling that you’re at a place where you are ready to do more, here are some ideas.

  • Use your voice. Start conversations, share ideas, acknowledge successes and call out concerns.
  • Demand action from those in power. Write letters or send emails to your local council or MPs. Tell them what you’re frustrated with and what you’d like to see them act on, and tell them how you’d like them to act. What is it that you’d like them to do? Ask them to reply to you with their response.
  • Get involved with your local community. Whether you’d like to join a political activism group or you’re more comfortable connecting with the community garden or heading to a sewing group, meeting the people who live where you live is the first step in strengthening your community.
  • Donate where you can. If you’re in a position where you can donate money, think about the organisations you most want to strengthen. Would you prefer to donate to political groups, those working to improve the environment, alleviating poverty, improving access to education?
  • Give your time. If you can’t afford to donate money, can you donate your time instead? Volunteering for tree planting or food rescue, ocean and river cleanups, working in a charity shop or manning a stall at a festival are all options.

Individual actions matter. But the biggest change will come not when we skip the plastic bag and refuse the disposable coffee cup, but when we start to think about how we can influence those around us, and connect with others to amplify our impact.

Now I’d love to hear from you! How do you feel about individual action? How have your thoughts on this changed over time? Do you have any suggestions for ways we can amplify our impact beyond simple swaps? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Tired of ‘eco-judgement’? Here’s how I’m tackling it

Have you ever made a deliberate choice to do/not do something because of the environmental, ecological and/or social impact, and then mentioned that choice to a friend, shared it on social media, or made a comment to a colleague, only to be told:

That’s not the best* thing you could be doing’ / ‘your actions don’t matter’ / ‘why did it take you so long to start’ / ‘what about doing x instead’ / ‘don’t you know y has a bigger impact’ / ‘it’s not perfect’ / ‘you’re not perfect’ / another equally frustrating and deflating thing?

Oh you have? I had a feeling it wasn’t just me.

I don’t know about you, but I do not find it the least bit motivating to be told all of the gaps in my effort, nor do I get inspired after hearing all the ways I’m doing everything wrong.

And yet… it happens. To all of us.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this (well, one of the reasons) is that I’m currently in the process of redoing my website (it’s long overdue). Part of that means updating my ‘about’ page, which I last touched circa 2015. Not even kidding.

Writing an ‘about’ page isn’t just writing about me. It’s introducing the website and the ideas and topics I cover to new readers, explaining the types of things I write about, and giving a good idea of what to expect.

As you can imagine, over the last four years, things have evolved a little, and I want my updated page to reflect that.

Now I’ve always tried to keep this website reasonably upbeat, and focus on the positive and practical. I also try to be gentle in my approach. I’m not perfect (and really, who is?), plus I still remember the time before I went down this path, when I did all kinds of things and made all kinds of choices that I wouldn’t now.

I’m sure I’ll be able to say the same thing in 10 years time about choices I make today.

But over the years I’ve softened a little more in my approach and outlook. The more I see other perspectives, the more I see that change is a process, it’s not always easy, and everyone has a different capacity to do so.

This website has always been about the choices I make, why I make them, and how I go about doing what I do. It’s a reflection of the way I think and my personal navigation of the issues. My hope of course, is that you find this useful and practical – but there is no expectation that you will be able (or want) to do everything that I do.

I am not the zero waste police. I want people who visit my site to feel supported, without any underlying tone of judgment. Something I’ve been really trying to do in my vocabulary over the past year or so, and in anything I write, is remove the words ‘should’ and ‘should not’. These are judgment words, full of opinion and swayed by the values of the person doing the judging. I don’t find them helpful.

And so, I am declaring this space a ‘should’ and ‘should not’ free zone. That’s not to say I’ve never used those words in the past, but I am trying not to use them now. My place is to tell you what I do, not tell you what you should do.

Removing judgment words from your vocabulary – you should think about doing this, too. (See what I did there?! There is absolutely no ‘should’ about it. You might like to think about it. I found it helpful. That’s what I really mean.)

One of the reasons I wanted to do this, is because more and more I see and hear about eco-judgment and eco-oneupmanship in the sustainability space – and it makes me sad (or is that mad… maybe both).

Aren’t we all meant to be on the same side – team planet?

Yes, if you have the capacity to do more, then do more. No need to gloat, however! And it isn’t realistic or fair to expect that everyone will be able to make those same choices.

Nor is it realistic to expect everyone to be at the same point in the journey. I know that so often these critiques are given with the best of intentions; but at the start of the journey, when everything is already so new and overwhelming, being bombarded with a whole other set of ethics/morals/values/opinions that weren’t even on the radar a minute ago isn’t usually that helpful.

I feel lucky that when I started out with living with less waste, back in 2012, there really weren’t that many people ahead of me in the journey. So by default, I had the space to find my own way, discover things I could change and make progress at a pace that worked for me.

Now I feel like it’s a little more tricky.

Just today I read an article published by the BBC (no less) declaring that asthma sufferers had as a big a carbon footprint as people who eat meat. But the article was not about reducing air pollution. Instead, it seemed to be entirely the fault of asthma sufferers, for having asthma. Apparently some could switch to ‘greener’ medication.

I don’t know why this ‘eco-guilt’ and ‘eco-shaming’ is on the rise. In the case of asthma sufferers (and is this reflective of these issues in general?), maybe it is simply easier to blame individuals than address the systems that need changing.

Anyways, in my own small way, and in the spaces I hold, I am taking a stand.

There is no room for eco-guilt, eco-shaming, eco-oneupmanship and generally feeling bad whilst trying to do good over here. We’ve got to keep that room available for creating positive change and motivating others, not dragging them down!

When other corners of the internet start to get a little shouty, know that this is my pledge to you.

That’s not to say I don’t want to hear your opinions, especially if they are different to mine! Now I love the comments section of this website. It easily doubles (triples!) the value of anything I write when others share their perspectives, experiences, and yes – opinions. You’ll notice that at the end of almost every post, I invite people to share their thoughts and leave a comment.

Yes, I want to hear from you!

Comments are great. Opinions are welcome. Alternative experiences being shared is encouraged. There’s plenty of room to disagree and offer alternative viewpoints. And I’ve no plans to change this. It creates a richer experience for everyone, and I’ve learned a lot from the comments that you all leave.

This isn’t the same as judgment. That’s when people rock up and start telling others (often people they’ve never met) what they ‘should’ do. I don’t really even need to say this, because we already have such a positive and judgment-free space, but when addressing others, I’m going to encourage you to leave your ‘should’s and ‘should not’s at the door.

Change can be difficult. Eco choices aren’t always straightforward. People have different energy levels, priorities, budgets, commitments, accessibility and skill levels. Everyone is at a different stage of the journey.

Personally, I think we can get a lot more done – and have a much nicer time doing it – if we spend less time looking out for failings, and more time being supportive of where people are at.

Others make choices we wouldn’t make ourselves, but that doesn’t make them wrong. We’re all just imperfect humans in an imperfect world, living in a system where sustainable solutions aren’t always within reach. We are all doing what we can. That’s not a reason to feel guilty. That’s a reason to feel good.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you ever feel guilty about when it comes to trying to be more eco-friendly or live with less waste? Do the opinions of others add to that guilt? Any tips for dealing with negativity? How have your views changed over time? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts below!

Zero Waste Optimism (4 Tips for Staying Positive When The Planet Seems Doomed)

A question I’ve been asked a lot recently is “how do you stay positive?” It’s a fair question. After all, there are plenty of reasons we might despair. Pollution or litter or carbon emissions; the attitudes of governments and political leaders; or the lack of awareness, interest or action on the parts of businesses, organizations and even our friends and family.

Yes, it’s frustrating. Probably the most frustrating thing is not in seeing the problems, but in knowing that there are solutions and yet not seeing change being adopted on the scale it needs to be.

Despite this, I stay positive. That’s not to say I never have moments of doubt or despair, but on the whole, I’d say I’m an optimist. Here’s how I do it.

1. Optimism… or What?

I consider there to be three options. Optimism, indifference, or pessimism. Which translate as: we think that everything will be okay in the end, we simply don’t care, or we think that everything is doomed.

I’m not even sure that I consider this to be a choice. I do care: about the planet, about wildlife, about people, about fairness and equality and doing the right thing.

And if I do care, I can either think that everything will be okay, or that we’re doomed. I can either think that the planet is worth fighting for, that change is worth pursuing, that working towards making the world a better place is a goal worthy of my time and effort… or I can just give up.

And if I give up, if I turn my back on all the things that I care about: well, I don’t actually want to think about what that looks like. It’s not an option I want to entertain.

That’s not to say that I think I’m some kind of superhero or that the future of the planet is in my hands. I know I’m not the only one who cares, I’m not the only one trying to do what they can. It’s not to say that without me the planet is actually doomed (!).

But if there are two choices – one being we ‘win’, and start living sustainably on this one planet that we have – and the other being we ‘lose’, sea levels rise, the oceans fill with plastic and we make ourselves extinct – well, I know which team I want to be on.

Whatever happens, I need to be able to say, hand on heart, that I did something. Knowing that the only way to be on the winning team is to be a part of it keeps me optimistic.

2. Taking Action and Working on Projects

I find projects that get the message out into the community are the best way to keep myself motivated.

For the first six months that I went plastic-free I was very much focused on my own journey, learning skills and creating new habits for myself. After that, I was keen to figure out how to share my knowledge, get involved with the wider community… and I haven’t stopped since.

Over the next seven years, I started this blog and I started giving talks and running workshops. I got involved with my local council running a waste-free event, I worked on the Plastic Free July campaign. I co-started a community fruit tree project and community composting hub, and I set up a community dishes library.

None of these things are ground-breaking or world-changing, but they all contribute to bringing about change nonetheless. Connecting with others, sharing ideas, creating opportunity.

Even by sharing one blog post, or giving a talk to a handful of people, or starting a small project; you never know who you’re going to reach and what influence you’re going to have.

Ideas are like ripples and they spread. I share these things in the hope that others will adopt them, share them, make them better and together we will increase our impact.

Knowing that I’m contributing to something bigger than me and my personal waste or footprint helps keep me optimistic. And always having a project on the go, no matter how small, keeps my fire burning.

3. Remembering Where I Started

When it comes to staying positive, another thing that helps me is remembering where I started.

I’ve always considered myself to be someone who cared about the planet, but I know there was a time when:

  • I asked for an extra plastic straw in my drink;
  • I purchased fast fashion;
  • I snaffled all the freebies regardless of whether I’d use them or not or how pointless they were or how much packaging they came wrapped in;
  • I chucked every bit of food waste in the bin;
  • I was in love with recycling (and saw that chasing arrows symbol on any packaging as a ‘get out of jail free’ card absolving me of any personal responsibility);
  • I felt almost smug about the fact that I owned reusable shopping bags and only took a plastic bag when I needed something to line my bin.

(I’m sure there’s plenty more examples.)

I cared but I was totally disconnected to the impact my personal actions were having, and embarrassingly unaware that actually, my personal actions and my voice are exactly where my power comes from.

I thought it was up to others to change: governments, businesses, organisations. I didn’t realise that I have the power to influence, to champion, to hold to account, to share, and to take a better path every single day through the choices I make.

I believe that when you know better, you do better. If you don’t realise something is a problem, why would you do things differently?

I hold onto these memories of myself and know that if I can change, other people can change too. I like to believe the best of people, and I think that most people want to do the right thing. They just aren’t aware of the impact that their actions have, sometimes.

4. Looking back as well as forward

Lastly, I think it’s important not to focus on the task ahead so much that we forget to look back at what we have achieved and how far we have come. There’s been so much change in the last 7 years and when I think at how much perceptions have shifted, it feels incredibly humbling.

When I first took part in Plastic Free July in 2012, I was one of 400 participants. Last year 120 million people took part in 177 different countries.

Governments across the world are legislating to ban plastic bags, plastic cutlery, styrofoam, food waste to landfill and more.

Change is happening. I know that sometimes it doesn’t feel fast enough, but actually, it’s kind of incredible that we’ve done so much already.

When I think about how far we’ve come, I can only feel optimistic about what will happen in the future.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you consider yourself to be a pessimist or an optimist? What do you struggle with most? What tips do you have for staying positive? How has your outlook shifted over time? Anything else you’d like to add? Please share your thoughts below!

3 Things to Do (Instead of Feeling Guilty) When You “Fail” at Zero Waste

Let me tell you a story about a butternut squash that I found in the fridge. Well, I didn’t find it exactly, because I knew it was there, underneath the silverbeet in the crisper drawer.

Before you tell me that butternut – and other varieties of – squash/pumpkin shouldn’t actually be stored in the fridge, but at room temperature, I’m going to put my hand up and say, yep, I know this.

But it was in the fridge nonetheless.

I suspect what happened was, the veg box arrived, it sat on the side glowering at me for a few hours, and then I decided I’d had enough and piled everything in the crisper/fridge as quickly as possible.

Just because we know what it the best or correct thing to do, doesn’t mean we always do it!

And probably, the fact that it was in the fridge was the reason for what happened next.

Because one day I opened the fridge, and I saw this.

If you hate seeing waste, look away now.

And yes, when I say “one day” I literally mean that I somehow didn’t notice it getting to this point. Clearly it didn’t go like this overnight; but I saw nothing until I opened the fridge and was confronted with this spoiled, rotten and disheveled-looking pumpkin.

And oh, let me tell you about the guilt that followed!

Because I hate waste.

Because I do not identify myself as someone who wastes stuff – so I shouldn’t be wasting stuff, right?

Because I’m organized and I know what’s in my fridge and I don’t let stuff go bad. Except…

Because a farmer went to the effort of growing that pumpkin (and it was organic! Double demerits for me) and then a business went to the effort of sourcing and selling that pumpkin to me. It feels very disrespectful of me to be wasting all that effort.

I have expectations of myself around the way I do things, and I fell short.

Now I’m no stranger to eco-guilt. I think all of us have experienced eco-guilt at some point. When we forget to refuse the plastic straw perhaps, or when we realise the thing we’ve putting in the recycling bin for the last decade is actually not recycable at all.

Basically, if we are not doing everything perfectly all of the time when it comes to trying to live sustainably, there will probably be guilt.

Newsflash – no-one actually does all things perfectly all of the time.

We need time to get those habits ingrained. Sometimes we mess up, sometimes we forget. As beginners it’s easier to forgive ourselves as we are still learning.

But messing up isn’t always limited to beginners. I’ve been conscious of reducing my waste for years now, but that doesn’t mean I don’t mess up! Being more practiced or experienced doesn’t mean slip-ups don’t happen. When they do, I, for one, feel pretty guilty about it.

But the thing about guilt, is that we can deal with it in one of two ways.

We can allow it to crumple us until we feel defeated and like it’s all too hard and what’s the point in trying anyway…

…Or we can take that energy and use it to power our next choice, our next action, and our next commitment.

Let me tell you, the latter option feels infinitely better than the first option.

Dealing with my environmental guilt is something I’m learning how to do. I don’t want to be the person crumpled in a heap, I want to be the one getting back up and dusting myself off.

That doesn’t mean I don’t feel guilty, but it means I try not to stay feeling guilty for too long.

Here’s some things I do to turn that guilt into useful action.

1. Remind myself that I’m not perfect, but also that I never said I was, that I actually will never be, and forgive myself for being human.

This should be obvious but I think sometimes we forget that we’re humans, and humans mess up sometimes. I know I do. I know that no-one is perfect but I do set high expectations for myself.

I think that’s okay, but there still needs to be room for error.

So yeah, I didn’t mean to let that pumpkin go to waste. But it happened. I guess I won’t be winning the “zero waste perfection” award this year, but I’m okay with that.

2. Ask myself, what can I learn from this?

Most of my eco-guilt comes from falling short of the standards I set for myself. I think it’s useful then, to have a good look at what happened and why I’m feeling guilty now.

I definitely think that I can get complacent around not creating waste. thinking to myself, I’ve been doing this for so long now that of course I won’t waste anything!

So it’s actually useful to get a reality check. There’s always work to do, it’s easy to slip up when we’re not paying attention.

I had a think about why it happened (I shouldn’t have stored that pumpkin in the fridge, I should have kept a closer eye on what was in the fridge) and resolved to do things differently next time.

I can’t change the past, but I have the opportunity to do things differently in future.

3. Choose something to DO to channel that frustration and guilt into useful action.

Forgiveness and reflection are important, but action is better! That energy has to go somewhere, so why not channel it into something useful?

Here’s some ideas:

  • Talk about the “fail” with others. (Just like this!) We all want to share the wins and successes, but talking about failures is equally important. Change is never a straight line, and it’s helpful to others on the journey to see that it’s a zig-zag, not a perfect arc.
  • Share solutions. For example, this got me thinking – I wonder how many people know how to store food correctly? And how many people end up throwing things away prematurely simply because they stored the thing wrong? I’m adding this to my list of future blog posts. That way I can use my mistake to help others choose better.
  • Make your voice heard. Write to companies, manufacturers and businesses to discuss the issues and share solutions. This isn’t relevant to my situation here as I accept 100% of the blame. But say you ordered something and it arrived wrapped in plastic because you forgot to ask about the packaging, or you were given a straw because you forgot to say “no straw”. You can own your part whilst still reaching out to the business to explain and ask them to do better.
  • Make a change. Forgiveness and reflection are two parts, the third part is doing things differently next time. Whether that’s tweaking our routine, or setting up a reminder, or investing in the tools to do things differently, we need to use this guilt to fuel a new way of doing things.
  • Join a group of others taking action. Maybe it’s picking up litter, or making reusable shopping bags, or writing letters; maybe it’s a group of like-minded people getting together to share ideas… But finding a group that’s bigger than you can help channel some of your energy into creating more systemic change.

I don’t know if we can get rid of guilt altogether. Maybe a little bit of guilt is a good thing. It shows we have an awareness of the impact of our actions. I find that feeling a little bit guilty reminds me that these are things that I care about; issues that I care about.

Used right, we can channel our guilt to take action rather than letting it overwhelm us, and do better next time.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you suffer from eco-guilt? Is there anything that makes you feel particularly guilty? How have you learned from it, and how do you try to manage it? or do you not have a guilty bone in your body? In which case – tell us your secrets! Wherever you sit on the scale I’d love to hear your thoughts so please share in the comments below!

 

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.

Guilt.

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.