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What’s in a Name?: The Problem with Zero Waste

Zero Waste has a big problem, and it’s not the difficulty of finding a good bamboo toothbrush or how much a hemp sweatshirt costs. It’s the expectation of perfection: that you will achieve absolutely zero waste, and anything less than that is, well, waste: wasted resources, wasted time, wasted effort, wasted breath.

So let’s break that down a little and talk about how unrealistic expectations undermine the movement.

The Origin of Zero Waste

The phrase “Zero Waste” started as an industrial term used at a production level and was then co-opted by consumers as a label for their own efforts to reduce waste. The problem with the phrase “Zero Waste” is that folks seem to think that unless they’re achieving that “zero,” then their efforts are worthless- that anything less than perfect is unacceptable. This belief is a slippery slope and is why lots of folks give up on Zero Waste efforts.

Undermining Our Worth and Contributions

Last year, to help celebrate Earth Day, I was looking for a speaker to talk at our local library about Zero Waste. Several local folks had been profiled in a series of newspaper articles about their year-long collaborative Zero Waste project, but when I reached out to them, all had felt like they’d fallen off the Zero Waste wagon and would have felt hypocritical talking about it to others. How could folks who had engaged in serious Zero Waste efforts for a year feel like they had nothing to contribute to the conversation?

I ended up doing the talk myself, and when the evening was done, the post-event conversations between attendees all quickly devolved from actions they were taking to reduce their waste to confessions about how they still compromise on things, like buying sneakers or driving a car. These are the same folks who, minutes before, had been giving me advice on where to buy moisturizer in reusable metal containers and talking excitedly about the worm composters they keep under their beds. In a word, they were already savvy Zero-Wasters.

So, why do folks pursuing Zero Waste undersell their own skills and experience? Because the expectation is zero. And anything less “isn’t zero waste” so by definition they feel they have failed.

And, sadly, both the ZW community and onlookers are quick to point out any flaws in someone’s ZW efforts and to tear them down. But that’s a topic for another time.

How We Can Fix It

The best solution would be to label the Zero Waste movement something more accurate, like, “Making a Lot Less Waste” or “Trying Really Hard to Make Less Trash,” but those just aren’t as sexy as good ole’ “Zero Waste,” are they?

So what’s the practical solution? Like everything else with Zero Waste, the solution is, as always: change your mindset.

Repeat after me:

It’s better for everyone to imperfectly practice zero waste than for a handful of folks to be perfectly zero waste.

We are all going to take our own Zero Waste journeys, which will progress at different paces and everyone’s strategies and priorities will be different. Someone practicing Zero Waste in a temperate climate is going to look different from someone in a cold or tropical climate. Someone living in a rural area is going to have different strategies from someone in an urban area. A person living alone is going to do things differently than a family of four. Someone with health conditions is going to have a different Zero Waste practices from someone in perfect health.

AND THAT’S OKAY.

What works for me might not work for you, and what’s working for you might not work for me.

At the end of the day, what matters is that we are reducing our collective waste and normalizing Zero Waste behavior, that we are slowly building a cultural shift away from waste into re-found practices of reuse and respect.

Your efforts matter, and we all have something to contribute.


If you would like to contribute with a guest post, recommendation for resource, doing an interview, or to talk about your Zero Waste journey, we’d love to hear from you.

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