When Can I Call Myself “Zero-Waste”?

When Can I Call Myself “Zero-Waste”?
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I’m starting off a new blog post format today – answering the questions I get asked via email and social media on the topic of sustainability. Let’s kick it off with this one. Got a question – email it to moralfibres@gmail.com and I’ll try my best to answer it here.

Dear Wendy,

I’ve been working hard over the last six months to eliminate single-use plastic from my life, and I’m wondering at what stage can I call myself zero-waste? Is it when I’m not producing any waste? I’m feeling disheartened by it, because I haven’t been able to cut out all single-use plastic, and some days I despair over the amount of plastic that has entered my life just while I’m going about my daily business; whilst zero-waste YouTubers make it look so effortless.

Anon, Darlington

Dear Anon,

Aah, the age-old when can I call myself zero-waste question.

I have many thoughts about zero-waste.

What despairs me the most about the zero-waste movement, as it stands at the moment, is that by in large it shifts responsibility from producers, manufacturers, and retailers to reduce their plastic packaging, or to shift away from single-use plastic.

Instead, the onus is on us consumers to become plastic-free super-consumers. Super consumers that have the time, money and ability to research and seek out plastic-free options; to travel further to buy food essentials; to often pay considerably more for a product than it’s plastic packaged counterpart; and then be able to make everything from scratch.

Fail at any of these points and there’s judgment abound. If you’ve spent any time on Instagram or in some (not all) of the plastic-free Facebook groups then that judgment can at times be pretty free-flowing.

The thing is 100% zero-waste living is not possible. Our society is currently set up in such a way that zero-waste could not become mainstream any time soon. There isn’t taxation in place to punish retailers who use plastic packaging; there aren’t widespread recycling facilities to efficiently recycle every bit of waste. Questions on how we make zero-waste affordable, inclusive and accessible for all haven’t been answered.

This is not to discourage – this is to say that because of this everyone’s version of zero-waste looks different. As an able-bodied white woman in her late 30’s, with two young kids, living semi-rurally with my partner, and an income that gives us enough to pay our bills but with not an awful lot leftover means our version of zero-waste looks different to, say, a childless single professional in their 20’s living in a city served by many zero-waste shops; or to a person in their 60’s living with a compromised immune system, who can’t shop in bulk shops because of contamination risk but still wants to minimise their waste.

Comparing oranges to apples isn’t helpful, nor are fleeting statements proclaiming “anyone can go zero-waste”, when zero-waste doesn’t have a universal meaning applicable to all, or an agreed goal – visual or otherwise.

Some might say, isn’t zero-waste being able to fit a year’s worth of rubbish into a glass jar? That visual, after all, is social media catnip. I would disagree – zero-waste absolutely goes beyond being able to fit a year’s worth of rubbish in a glass jar; or any other visible benchmark.

There’s all the stuff that doesn’t look good on visual dependent sites, such as YouTube or Instagram – the visually uninspiring stuff. The reusing a carrier bag until it falls to bits? That’s zero-waste. The using a clothes horse in a spare corner rather than using the tumble drier: that’s zero-waste.

My own visually uninspiring version of zero-waste is that as I write this post, I’m sitting at my desk with a hot water bottle on my lap because I’m the only one in the house and I don’t want to put the heating on just yet. I don’t see that making it to YouTube any time soon, but I’m saving gas and potentially making a larger carbon saving than driving for me what would be a 30-mile round trip to be able to buy some packaging free pasta. The message here: you do what you can.

My advice, Anon? This has all been quite a long-winded preamble to say that I would ditch the zero-waste label. I use these kinds of labels on the blog because they’re useful for people finding my blog and articles through search engines, but in daily life, I would say they’re unnecessary at best, and a hindrance at worst.

Instead, keep doing what you’re doing – it sounds amazing. That’s not to breed complacency though – do more where and if you can. If you’re looking for suggestions that go beyond a jar of waste, then some that are easier than others include voting for those with green policies; switching your financial products from those in invest in fossil fuels to those who invest in renewables; signing petitions; taking part in gentle activism (I liked this one from Girl Industries a few weeks ago); to sharing environmental articles with friends on Facebook.

Labels schmabels!

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