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The Illusion of Being Perfectly Zero Waste (or Perfectly Plastic-Free)

A few years ago, I wandered into a second-hand bag outlet in a pop-up shop that sold handbags. One bag caught my eye – it was in excellent condition and very inexpensive (it was $28 AUD). The lady explained that she had purchased it thinking it was leather, but then realised it wasn’t leather at all, so she had reduced it to clear – she was a leather shop, and didn’t want to stock non-leather items.

I bought the bag. It was second-hand, in almost new condition, and I really liked it. It seemed like a good purchase. It carried my zero waste and plastic-free essentials around for a few years.

But over time, the faux leather began to flake off. Slowly at first, but as the bag aged it got worse and worse.

Aside from the fact that it looked pretty tatty, I was also acutely aware that this flaking faux leather was actually microplastic, shedding into the environment.

Eventually enough was enough, and I realised I had to get a new bag.

I always say that it’s important to think about how we’ll dispose of an item when it’s life expired before we make the purchase. (If we are concerned about waste and are trying to reduce our landfill, at least.)

Clearly when I chose this bag, I didn’t think about that at all.

I think that’s why I held onto it as long as I did, even though it was disintegrating before my eyes. I knew that there was nothing I could do to save it. It’s 100% synthetic materials, so not biodegradable, not reusable, not salvageable. It’s next destination was landfill.

Of course, I feel bad about that.

I knew that my next purchase had to be better.

I’ve been following a small independent handmade bag business based on the east coast of Australia (in Mackay, Queensland) called Small World Dreams on Instagram since forever, and I’d decided that when I needed a new bag, I’d purchased one from Claire. I first heard about her because she uses Ink and Spindle fabric to make her bags – Ink and Spindle are a Melbourne-based company who use organic fabric, natural dyes and Australian flora to inspire their hand-printed designs.

I wanted my new bag to be made responsibly and transparently, fit all my things in it, be repairable, not contain any plastic at all and therefore be completely biodegradable, and be made so well that the idea of even needing to put it in the compost is one for the next decade, not this one.

The bag I chose fits all of these criteria.

But I confess, I felt a small pang of guilt when I chose it, because even though it meets all my criteria, is completely plastic-free, and is almost entirely made from organic cotton, the strap is made of leather.

I feel bad about this because I try very hard to avoid purchasing animal products.

But my previous bag, made of faux leather (which is plastic) ended up creating microplastic pollution and damaging the environment that way. It also ended up in landfill.

I feel bad about that, too.

In the end, I kept the leather to an absolute minimum, and made peace with my purchase because plastic-free was my first and biggest priority.

I know that if I’d really tried, I could have found a completely natural and biodegradable bag. I’m sure there are other great ethical small businesses I could have chosen from. Small World Dreams even stock a vegan range made using Piñatex, a relatively new leather alternative made from pineapple fibres. These bags didn’t suit my needs, however – and gold really isn’t my colour.

Actually, I really like the bag I chose. I love the style, the design, the craftsmanship. I know the strap will last a long time (and that is important to me).

I think the guilt I feel comes a lot from the need to try to be perfect.

I know it would be much easier to share with you a completely biodegradable, ethically made, natural, vegan bag – one ideally made locally with organic fabric, and packaged in recycled sustainable materials.

Easier in my mind because if I tick all the “ethical boxes”, no-one can make judgments about my choices.

Which is a false truth, actually, because people will make judgments whatever the choice.

Choices are rarely (ever?) perfect. No matter how many boxes are ticked, there’s always something that was forgotten about.

It’s a scary thing, putting your life and your choices in public. You’re opening yourself up to criticism and judgment. The reason I do it is because I think that sharing what I do and the choices I make helps others find their own way, learn from my discoveries and make better choices themselves.

Knowing that I can influence others to have a positive impact in their own lives and towards the environment is what keeps me motivated to continue.

It’s much easier then, to share the best choices. The things that work really well. The success stories.

But none of us are perfect. I’m not perfect. I don’t pretend to be, either, but it’s a lot easier to share the perfect bits than the imperfect bits.

I’d rather tell you that I’m the perfect vegan.

I’d rather tell you that I’m perfect at zero waste.

I’d rather tell you that I’m perfect at plastic-free.

But of course, I’m not any of these things.

The reality is that absolutes are hard. Different values can be conflicting, and we have to find our own way.

I have complete respect for anyone who lives with absolutes. I know that for many vegans, their resolve is absolute, and the idea of being an “imperfect vegan” is an oxymoron. There’s no room for flexibility: you either are or you aren’t.

For me, doing what I can is better than doing nothing at all. I try, and I struggle, and I fall short, but I keep striving to do better.

I wonder if my imperfections are because I’m multi-passionate. I care about too many things to be completely focused on one at the expense of all the others. I care about plastic-free and zero waste, supporting the local economy, buying second-hand and supporting Fair Trade. I care about food miles and air miles and reducing carbon emissions. My diet is plant-based and I don’t buy animal products at home, but when I’m out I make exceptions, and especially when friends have cooked for me.

My decisions are always about reducing my impact, but what that looks like varies from one decision to another – there’s always a compromise somewhere.

Then again, maybe my imperfections are nothing to do with being multi-passionate. Maybe they are simply because that’s how I am. Imperfectly imperfect.

What I’ve realised is, I don’t want to feel bad about the decisions I make. I try so hard to weigh up all the options and make the best decisions that I can. Not perfect ones, but better ones than the time before. That’s something I should feel good about.

Making better choices is something we should all feel good about.

Chasing the crazy notion of perfection, that’s what leads to overwhelm, stress and feeling miserable. Embracing our imperfections? That’s acceptance of what actually is. None of us are perfect at everything, all the time. Being kind to ourselves (and to others) is a much better alternative than beating ourselves up over our shortcomings.

My choices won’t be everybody’s choices. But they are my choices. In all their imperfection, I make them. Being happy with them means letting go of the desire to be perfect, and the fear of being judged when I’m not.

I’m not perfect, and I can be happy with that.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you struggle with the need to be perfect? How do you tackle criticism or judgment of the choices you make? Have you found your peace with making imperfect decisions? Anything else you’d like to share? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments!