Going zero waste: Why is it so hard? … and how to do it anyway

I’ve been thinking a lot about effort, and privilege, these days.

I had someone ask me the other day why I didn’t cloth diaper when J was a newborn. Honestly, the newborn period was really challenging for me, and the extra bit of effort that would go into cloth diapering was just completely beyond me at the time. That’s the honest truth. Knowing what I do know, and knowing what to expect from the newborn period, I believe I could do it if I have a second child one day.

Then I had a friend tell me that sometimes depression creeps in and it’s hard to put in the work to become zero-waste. I understand what she means: sometimes it’s just too much. Reducing your waste is important, yes, but it’s crucial to prioritize your mental well-being.

This is not laziness. This is doing what you need to, in order to get through challenging times.

I recognize that being able to put the thought and effort into reducing plastic and other waste is a privilege. I’m fortunate to be able to do so, and I am grateful for the chance. I also certainly don’t want to shame anyone if they’re not able to do it all. Certainly, if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you don’t care if it’s wrapped in single-use plastic or not.

Even for middle- or upper-class people, many are so stressed and busy with work, taking the time to completely overhaul one’s way of life is unreasonable. It’s even harder when you’re juggling young children, daycare schedules, night shifts, and family obligations.

For myself, I do find aspects of it very challenging. I’m not exactly close to any refill store, and I have no car during the day, so going on public transit, carrying lots of heavy jars for a grocery shop, can be tough. Add a toddler in tow and it’s darn near impossible.

But this all makes me think: why is it so hard? It shouldn’t be so hard! We need better systems in place. We need better laws (such as the EU’s recent ban on single-use plastics). We need grocery delivery services that offer refills. We need more cloth diaper services–at affordable prices. We need zero-waste lifestyles to be as easy (or easier!) than the status quo. We need everyone (companies and the government) to be on board, so it’s not always so hard. And our planet needs this too.

So what do I recommend to people who are struggling to find the time and effort? I’d suggest making really easy swaps, one at a time, until our habits and routines have shifted. Is it harder to wash your hair with a shampoo bar than liquid shampoo? Of course not. But it might be harder, at least at the beginning, to find a store than sells solid shampoo near you. But once you find one near you, and it becomes routine, it won’t be any harder. Take it slowly, and remember that every little bit counts.

If it’s too hard for you to carry a heavy water bottle, a heavy travel mug, and a set of cutlery with you when you head out for the day on foot, try to make other changes that will be easier. Everyone talks about the travel mug, but that’s not the be-all-and-end-all, and it certainly doesn’t need to be the first step. Maybe it’s easier to ask for your coffee “for here” and drink it in a real mug at the store. Maybe it’s easier to carry cloth bulk bags to the grocery store for your bread, veggies, and bulk trail mix. Maybe it’s easier to switch over your bathroom routine.

Here are some of my favourite, easy swaps:

  1. Use compostable silk floss instead of plastic floss
  2. Use solid shampoo and conditioner instead of bottles (or liquids at refill stores)
  3. If a product comes in glass or metal, choose that instead of plastic
  4. Bring your own bags whenever you go shopping (tuck a tiny one into your purse or car)
  5. Bring your own bulk bags for produce, bulk goods, and bread
  6. Buy in bulk
  7. Use cloth cosmetics rounds instead of disposable cotton balls or rounds
  8. Choose bulk coffee and loose-leaf tea
  9. Shop at your local farmer’s market (make it a fun family outing!)
  10. Use a bamboo toothbrush instead of plastic
  11. Start a small garden, even just for herbs (involve the kids!)
  12. Go meat-free once a week
  13. Avoid skincare products that contain microbeads
  14. Buy second-hand (cheaper too!)
  15. Use your own travel mug
  16. Bring your own water bottle
  17. Ask for no plastic straw at restaurants
  18. Bring your own straw to coffee shops
  19. Say “no thank you” to free promotional items
  20. Omit plastic wrap (I use this instead!)
  21. Reduce your use of foods in crinkly bags (that means chips and toddler snacks) and returning the bags to the store
  22. Use cloth pantyliners or pads instead of disposables (or try a menstrual cup)
  23. Switch to lip balm and deodorant in paper tubes
  24. Hang your laundry to dry
  25. Choose to buy clothes made from natural materials
  26. Buy recycled or bamboo toilet paper
  27. Use cloths instead of paper towel
  28. Say “no” to receipts when you can
  29. Bring your own containers for takeout and restaurant leftovers
  30. Repair rather than replace
  31. Use cloth napkins
  32. Switch to a metal safety razor and blades
  33. Visit your local refill store
  34. Do more DIY or homemade products (baking, cooking, cleaning products, etc)
  35. Compost
  36. Learn to recycle properly
  37. Use compostable bin liners
  38. Cancel unnecessary mail
  39. Stop using disposable plates and cutlery
  40. Make a vow to never buy bottled water
  41. Use your local library
  42. Use a reusable coffee filter
  43. Use a lunchbox and reusable snack containers
  44. Use both sides of a piece of paper before recycling
  45. Give away gently used items to others in need
  46. Put a jug of water in your fridge for drinking, rather than running the tap
  47. Buy sustainably-packaged makeup and cosmetics
  48. Compost your used cotton swabs
  49. Keep a bucket in your shower to reuse water (such as for watering plants)
  50. Reach out and talk to others

Don’t let this list be intimidating! Instead, look through it and see if there’s one or two items that speak to you. Adopt them, and then wait until they become second nature. Then, adopt one or two new habits. It can be a slow and steady process, with a period of growth. It is for me, and I’m okay with that!

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What seems like the most manageable change for you? Do you find certain things challenging? What is daunting? What are you excelling at?

LeahStellaPayne-Sig-BLK

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