7 Low- & Zero-Waste Mistakes to Avoid
Don’t take cues from fashionable accounts
Initially in my low-waste journey, I too bought into its aesthetic, quite literally. I thought being low- or zero-waste equated to beautiful new sets of sustainable ware, from bamboo utensils to stacks of stainless steel Tupperware, and I wanted to buy it all. I had access to some of these as I was working at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) then, where I received sets of bamboo utensils and reusable straws for free. This fed my desire to accumulate more of such ware and dispose of what I saw as unaesthetic, unsustainable goods.
I personally didn’t have any plastic containers anyway but my now-husband and then-fiancée did. Hot tip: it’s not the most sexy move to overwhelm your partner with hectic disposal of any and everything they own that’s not sustainable. We donated bagfuls of Ziploc containers to Goodwill, leaving us without containers. I was left with a deluge of guilt for having flung my finger at my partner’s habits then having to tell him that we now needed to buy new ones. Note that buying something new is paradoxical to living a low-waste lifestyle. Don’t get sucked into this marketing scheme that will leave you, your bank account, and potential loved ones in a sour situation.
Don’t throw away your plastic
On that note, don’t throw away plastic containers if you have them. They are hardwearing, so you can use them for other things. Use them as an organisational tool, such as for electronics and cables, if you’re concerned about BPA and other chemicals leaching into your food. Respect the stuff that you have rather than going off of your privileged ability or assumed ability to trash what you have and buy new ones.
Also, if you’re committed to shopping sustainably anyway, you will begin to accumulate glass containers, such as from salsa jars. Reuse those rather than buying new mason jars or fancy containers. If you need more, you can also find them at thrift stores for much cheaper.
Don’t limit your perception
It’s not just about consumption; it is also about the way things are produced. Everything, from your food to your clothes, is produced by someone and something. We cannot separate ourselves from the source of production; low-waste living requires us to see the broader picture. There’s an impact of the ingredients you buy for your meal and the fabric that is sourced for your shirt. This widening of perspective can feel overwhelming, as it did for me initially. However, you can perceive it to drive your intentionality and actions. It can allow you to see what you’re willing to sacrifice or compromise on to still continue to have an enjoyable life adhering to these values.
For instance, you might be a mother who wants to commit to a low-waste living but have a newborn that requires unavoidable wasteful products. Perhaps that’s baby wipes or another good for which you currently can’t afford the more sustainable option. Or you might have a puppy, like me, and need to poop bags. Although there are biodegradable bags, they’re still wasteful. I remind myself of the former point and that I’m doing my best by choosing the most eco-friendly option in this & other areas of my life.
Bulk bins are not the only option
There will always be uncontrollable waste with food packaging. Even bulk bins are re-filled with bulk packaging, which aren’t a resource available for everyone. When we lived in in isolated border town in West, TX, we only had one small grocery store. I ended up buying the largest package of our most-consumed foods so we ended wasting only one bag rather than multiple ones. I still do this if there’s no bulk option for certain foods near me. You can even reuse the bag, especially if it’s paper, to wrap or carry other stuff. If you don’t have access to bulk, buy in cardboard, paper, or eco-friendly packaging. Cardboard can be recycled and even composted.
Think beyond visible consumption
Think about where your food comes from and the waste or carbon footprint created through its travel. When and if you can, shop local and seasonally, which not only reduces your carbon footprint but also supports local agriculture and farmers. If this is not a possibility for you, socioeconomically or environmentally, try to at least stick to buying what’s in season at your grocery store. Seasonal foods are also most often cheaper.
And if you do buy locally or shop at farmer’s markets often, consider a market share. Our favourite local option for the D.C. Metro Area is Community Foodworks (CFW). They not only pop up at farmer’s markets and provide market share to provide local foods but also champion food equity. Community Foodworks’ Market Share is one of the only CSA’s in the region that offers discounted memberships for residents facing food insecurity. Families who rely on SNAP (formally known as Food Stamps) and WIC (supplemental nutrition assistance for Women Infants and Children) are able to purchase Market Share bags at a 75% discount. We even deliver subsidized Shares to childcare centers across the city. Plus, the Market Share is the only CSA to offer delivery for seniors for whom getting to the market can be challenging.
Read and research
Don’t limit your understanding of the climate change crisis and low-waste living approach to social media. Many, including myself, start out by limiting ourselves to Instagram accounts or YouTube videos. Supplement that by reading books or research on sustainability rather than a regurgitation of work. This will also allow you to widen your perspective as many research papers, books, and academic work reference various other counterpoints or considerations.
Need vs. want
This goes back to my initial point regarding the increased consumption that starting a low-waste journey can trigger for some. Many come to this movement from a history of over-consumption or, dare I say, addiction to shopping. So, it’s crucial to not see low-waste living as a paradoxical gateway into another shopping outlet. This point is also certainly a blurred line, depending on disposable income and what’s available. If this is the case for you and you are more socioeconomically able, still consider whether the additional purchases are necessary to reduce your environmental impact. Most likely, they’re not and you already have what you need to being your low-waste journey. Remember necessities: we need food but we do not need a fancy container to carry it in. We can reuse what we have. If all you have is plastic bags and you cannot buy new cotton ones, reuse those until you can or make your own from cotton scraps.
About the Author
Almila Kakinc-Dodd is the Founder, Editor-in-Chief of The Thirlby. She is also the author of the book The Thirlby: A Field Guide to a Vibrant Mind, Body, & Soul. She is currently pursuing her Master’s in Nursing as a Dean’s Scholar at Johns Hopkins University. Her background is in Anthropology & Literature, which she has further enriched through her Integrative Health Practitioner training at Duke University. She lives in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area, where she regularly contributes to various publications. She is a member of Democratic Socialists of America and urges others to join the movement.