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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!

I’m passionate about zero waste and sustainable living, just don’t call me this…

There’s one word I try to use as little as possible when it comes to talking about zero waste, living plastic-free or anything sustainable living related. In fact, I try never to use it at all.

Could you guess what it is?

I’ll tell you, and you might be surprised. Because it’s a word we hear often. Sometimes it’s even prefaced with words like “responsible” or “ethical” or “conscious” – so how could it not be a good word to use, with such honourable descriptors?

The word is this: consumer.

Now, I consume. We all consume. From food and water, to energy, to the things we buy to use and wear and own, we are consuming.

But calling myself a consumer? That implies that the main thing of value I have to offer is my ability to use up resources.

Being first and foremost a consumer means declaring that our best and most valued traits are our shopping habits.

And that is not the case at all.

I just don’t… I just can’t… identify with being a consumer above all else.

When was it decided that we would be reduced simply to consumers, to cogs in the economy, our value judged by what and how and how much we buy?

I try to never label myself (or anyone else) a consumer, and I don’t want to be labelled a consumer. I don’t really want to be called a responsible consumer, an ethical consumer or a conscious consumer, for that matter.

Yes, I try to consume responsibly, ethically and consciously. But I don’t identify as someone who buys stuff. I feel that labelling someone a consumer takes away their power, and says – the only way that you have influence is by shopping.

We have power. To share ideas, to express our opinions, to call out companies, to make our voices heard, to apply pressure to businesses and governments, to vote, to demand change, and to ask for things to be different.

Our power extends far beyond the things we buy.

Let’s not give our power away.

So if we don’t call ourselves consumers, what do we call ourselves instead?

The way I see it: we are community members. We are citizens. We are people (both as individuals and groups) who care a great deal about the planet and our children’s future.

But somehow this label of ‘consumer’ has got pushed to the forefront and rather than saying “I’m a concerned and passionate citizen” we are reducing ourselves to just one part of the whole: a ‘conscious consumer’.

I am so much more than that, you are so much more than that; we are so much more than that.

Now I’m sure we’ve all heard the saying “money talks” and the idea that “we can vote with our dollars for the change we want to see”. And I do believe that this is true: we can vote with our dollars.

But voting with our dollars does not have to mean shopping, or buying, or even consuming.

It can mean choosing green energy, or opting for public transport, or donating money to charitable causes, or contributing to organizations whose work we admire.

In fact, sometimes we “vote with our dollars” when we don’t buy anything at all.

I vote with my dollars when I opt out of the formal economy and swap stuff, share stuff, and make do with what I have.

And yes, I vote with my dollars when I shop at the local bulk store, or buy something from the charity shop.

Very occasionally I’m voting with my dollars when I buy something brand-spanking-new from a store, or less frequently, that has to get shipped from interstate.

Because yes, I consume. I try to consume responsibly, and ethically, and consciously. (And minimally yes, but I do still consume.)

That does not reduce me to a consumer.

Did you see the Guardian article published earlier in May which stated that it had updated its style guide to reflect more accurately the environmental crises facing the world?

So “climate change” is now “climate emergency” or “climate breakdown”, and “global warming” is now “global heating”. The editor-in-chief of the Guardian was quoted as saying that they wanted to ensure that they are being scientifically precise, and communicating clearly.

“The phrase ‘climate change’”, she said, “sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”

The words we use to describe things are important. Stronger language definitely invokes stronger reactions. Climate breakdown clearly has a sense of urgency that climate change does not.

And ‘concerned citizen’ has a power and gravitas to it that ‘responsible consumer’ does not.

Plus, it’s far more accurate.

We cannot make the world a better place simply by consuming better. We have a chance, we have a choice and we have, I think, a responsibility to do more than simply buy things to try to create positive change.

Let’s share ideas. Let’s share resources. Let’s champion those that do good, and hold those that do not to account. Let’s sign petitions, let’s add our voice to campaigns for change, lets write to our politicians and governments. Let’s get involved where we can, and put our energy into things that matter.

Let’s consume consciously. But let’s not give our power away and reduce ourselves to being consumers, first and foremost. That is not who we are, and that is not the limit of what we can do.

The truth is, we will never save the world by shopping.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you agree, disagree, did you learn something new, have you changed your mind or are you sticking with the status quo? Whatever your thoughts are I’d love to hear them so be sure to leave a comment below!