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Zero Waste: The Pragmatic View

This is a re-publish of a post I did a few years ago looking at the concept of Zero Waste, but it’s still relevant and it’s April or Earth Month.

A couple, three weeks ago, I saw a blog post entitled “Zero Waste in 30 Days.” So, I read it. I am, after all, working my way toward reducing waste as much as I can. And the plan will massively reduce the waste you generate.

There was only one problem. It was grossly impractical and difficult to implement. Take bread, for example. Your options were to bake your own or run all over town to find a bakery that will put your bread into your own re-useable bag. And that’s assuming you have a store near you where you can get your flour out of the bulk bins.

Now, I do bake my own bread and I am making an effort to bake it more often so that I don’t bring more single-use plastic into the house and into the waste stream. But the part they don’t tell you is that while baking your own bread isn’t that hard or even that time-consuming, it can be a real drag to do week in and week out. I know. I’ve done it. And it does become yet another drain on what time you do have.

The extremes

I am very happy to see all the efforts to reduce waste, but things like Zero Waste (in caps) worry me. It’s too much all or nothing, and when it comes to things like reducing waste – a much needed part of environmentally sound living – absolute Zero Waste is not exactly realistic. Nor is it all that easy.

Reducing waste is hard. We have all that plastic and other throw-aways because they make life easier. People aren’t going to want to do things that make their lives harder – they have enough going on as it is. Also, people don’t like feeling guilty, and Zero Waste sets you up for guilt in a big way, because you’re going to throw something out.

I’m afraid people are going to see Zero Waste as too hard and/or too guilt-inducing and give up on even trying to reduce waste.

Another thing I’m seeing with the Zero Waste thing is elitism starting to happen. And that is a very bad thing for reducing waste. Consider, vegans are their own worst enemies when it comes to their cause because so many (not all) of them are so incredibly self-righteous (much like evangelical Christians, I might add). There’s a Buy Nothing group in our area, and I happened to overhear how some in the group were getting pissy because someone else had bought something. That is not a group I want to be involved in.

The problem is that it’s Zero Waste, it’s Buy Nothing. It’s the extremes that both those ideas imply, and the zealotry that extremes tend to generate. Yet neither is particularly practical – there are things I have to buy, such as the flour to make my bread. There will be some waste no matter what I do because jars break, note paper gets written on, paper tissues become necessary. And zealotry means if I’m not completely committed to Zero Waste, then I’m not committed. But when it’s all or nothing, guess what? I do nothing, as do most people.

Reducing waste as a process

Let’s try this instead. Let’s start looking at reducing waste as a process. You’re not going to be even mostly waste-free overnight. You’re not even going to do it in 30 days. It’s going to take time. And that’s okay.

Even better, rather than just a few of us going completely waste-free, wouldn’t we reduce a lot more waste if we encouraged people to reduce waste bit by bit? We’ve reduced plastic grocery bags by an enormous amount, and now, cities in California, at least, are banning plastic straws. Let’s just not forget that people with certain disabilities need them to drink stuff and not judge when we someone drinking with one. We can work on plastic tops and cups next.

I’m not saying stop your own efforts to get as close to Zero Waste as possible. I’m doing the same. But I also realize that I’m not going to do it as well as someone else, nor are you, and maybe we ought to focus on encouraging a larger group to do a little, rather than insist that everyone do a lot.

Please talk to me. I'd love to hear from you.

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