Conscious Waste: overcoming perfection paralysis

The 16 oz mason jar: it’s the universal symbol of the zero-waste lifestyle, a growing movement that has attracted hundreds of thousands of followers worldwide. But what does it really mean to live with zero waste and is it realistic for everyone?

Heidi Bischof
Jul 12, 2018 · 6 min read
Bea Johnson’s 2016 trash jar (source: Zero Waste Home)

Hats off to the zero waste bloggers out there — the likes of Bea Johnson, Lauren Singer and Kathryn someone, who somehow manage to fit their year’s waste in a small jar, only buy clothes in op shops and run tours through their trendy, minimalist homes. But while there are hundreds of thousands of people all over the world living or aspiring to a zero waste lifestyle, my take is that this is too daunting or unrealistic for most people.

It is also worth mentioning here that the term ‘zero waste’ is a bit misleading, as there are certain things that are usually left out of the jar (I’m not exactly sure what — condoms perhaps?). Also it doesn’t consider the supply chain or ‘upstream’ waste. For example, while zero waste-ers might shop in bulk stores, the produce in the bulk bins usually comes in plastic originally (it’s just the bags are a lot larger than the ones you see on supermarket shelves, so overall there is less plastic, but it’s certainly not zero).

My not-so-Plastic-Free July

If we want to reduce our waste a great way to begin is by paying attention to the waste we generate. So last month I ran a 30-day challenge for people to collect all their single-use plastic (which was also a great lead-in to Plastic-Free July). Participants said seeing a month’s plastic all in one place was a great eye-opener and has motivated them to use less but some people also said they struggled trying to reduce their plastic use. And who can blame them? Consumers are not exactly supported by the majority of governments, manufacturers or retailers out there in trying to reduce their plastic consumption.

I also shared my collection (see below), which was all disposable plastic from our two-person household for the month of June (we have virtually no single-use plastic anymore so I thought I’d take it up a notch to make it more interesting). However, I’m not going to rave on about how valuable it was and how I stopped using all this stuff overnight because now it’s Plastic-Free July (and I’m supposed to be a role model for others).

My ‘June Plastic Stash’

We often have ridiculous expectations of what we can achieve and then are really hard on ourselves when we don’t live up to them. And then we get discouraged and often give up. I was just about to go down that path again myself, when I decided I’m kind of over that vicious cycle and I also don’t want to pretend to be something I’m not. Although we’ve massively reduced our household waste in the last year I saw how much plastic we still use and at first I thought “Ok, I’m not going to buy ANY disposable plastic in July, it can’t be that hard!”. But here’s what it would mean:

  • Not placing any mail orders
  • Stop taking supplements
  • Start making our own kefir (I planned to do this 18 months ago but somehow it’s just stayed in the too-hard basket)
  • Giving up cheese or paying a fortune to buy gourmet cheese cut straight from the block
  • Going back to eating non-organic butter (available in paper v plastic-lined foil)
  • Finding an organic butcher that isn’t too far away (and hoping they’ll accept my reusable container)
  • Not eating any pasta, crackers or chips
  • And last but not least…not drinking wine for a month! (in case you’re thinking there’s no plastic in wine bottles — screw-on caps have plastic inserts and even the foil wrapped around corked bottles is plastic-lined). And unfortunately there are no vineyards in Sydney’s inner west where we can get refills.

I think that last one is ultimately what helped me decide against Plastic-Free July 😉

So more than anything this has reinforced to me just how difficult living with zero waste is. While the concept itself is overwhelming, there is also A LOT of information out there and most people struggle to find time to filter out what they REALLY need to know. This makes it hard for them to start making more conscious choices.

Zero waste is a fantastic goal to have, and one we should be striving for as a society, but as an individual lifestyle that we could all realistically embrace and claim to be living? While some of the perfectionists and over-achievers out there might lap up zero waste, most people need a different way, something that is realistic for the average person, a way they can make incremental changes, gradually creating new habits that have a more positive impact on the planet.

Conscious Waste is not about perfection. It’s about becoming more conscious of the waste we generate, which then leads us to become more conscious of our consumption habits. It’s about taking small and gradual steps that are within our means. The idea is that it is achievable for the average person out there. Because when it comes to saving the planet, isn’t an improvement in the actions of the majority better than perfection for a minority? And who knows — maybe eventually we all WILL achieve zero waste, especially when our current economic and political system stops promoting over-packaging and plastic consumption as if we had another planet to go to. But at least in the meantime we’re doing SOMETHING.

The new ‘R’s’ in the waste mantra

We’ve all heard the original waste mantra that emerged in the 1980s — the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Under the Zero Waste movement, this evolved to five: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.

In creating Conscious Waste I have tweaked this a little further:

Introducing ‘REFLECT’ as the first ‘R’

This is about encouraging people to firstly think about and observe their current habits. To start noticing what they throw in the bin each week and how much waste their household generates. And also to start thinking about the impacts of what they buy by becoming more aware of where and how things are made and what will happen to them at the end of their life.

Urging people to ‘RETHINK recycling’

Recycling should be our last resort (before landfill) when it comes to managing waste. Recycling is not the ‘green’ solution to waste we’ve come to believe. Learn more about why we need to reduce our reliance on recycling in this earlier article.

Composting is the exception here. It is probably the best example of recycling as it is truly circular — it creates a valuable resource from food waste via a natural process, thanks to a bunch of worms (and certainly should not be at the bottom of the waste pyramid, sorry Bea!).

Creating a new ‘R’ for ‘right now’

This is about convincing people that conditions don’t need to be perfect in order to start taking action (because they never will be). The key is to start small, keep it simple and take it one step at a time, but mainly just to START. My next ‘one step’ will be to start making our own kefir, as I feel that’s something we can manage to do this month.

Learning to live more consciously

You can get more great tips about reducing the plastic and waste in your life by downloading my free pdf 6 Ways to Conscious Waste.

AND NOW OVER TO YOU: I would love to know YOUR BIGGEST PAIN POINT when it comes to conscious waste and conscious consumption — what do you really struggle with? Please let me know in the comments!

Heidi Bischof

Written by

Sustainability educator & activist, founder @ Earth Ethic

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