If you are just starting out, what do you do? You go Google-crazy and look up as many tips, tricks, and swaps as you can. That’s what I did anyway. But what about looking up zero waste mistakes?
Some people say the best way to learn to do something is to learn what not to do. By familiarizing yourself with these top zero waste mistakes, you can learn from them without dealing with the setbacks or consequences that come with making them yourself.
Over the past two years, I have seen a lot of people getting sucked into the same handful of mistakes. I’ve made some of them myself and now want to help others not make them in the first place. Below is a list of 7 mistakes beginner zero wasters making on a pretty regular basis.
1. Setting Unrealistic Goals
Setting goals is one of the first things you do when going after something new, which is why setting unrealistic goals and being discouraged when you inevitably miss them is first on my list of zero waste mistakes.
When I find something that interests me, I often dive in head first. I want to go all in, right away. I really wanted to be a “trash jar” kind of zero waster. So I set goals to start buying all zero waste foods in bulk and at farmers markets, growing my own food, and making my own products all within a short period of time.
But even now, I am not doing those things.
Why? Because there weren’t realistic (yet).
I am still working toward lowering my trash. I perform trash audits every now and again (sign up for my email list to get a free trash audit worksheet!), but I certainly couldn’t fit my trash in a little mason jar. This is mostly due to food waste and food packaging.
I don’t buy in bulk because my budget can’t justify spending 2-3 times as much on bulk items like rice and beans. For example, we can get rice for under a dollar a pound in a plastic bag, but bulk rice that I’ve seen has always been somewhere between $1.50 and $4.00. Instead we try to buy the biggest bags we can find as this is less total packaging than multiple smaller bags.
An apartment with very little natural light isn’t conducive for growing plants. And I’m still trying to use up all the body washes and lotions I’ve had stockpiled (and kept receiving as gifts).
But I set those goals anyway and often got down on myself for not achieving them. It was not realistic for me spend so much money on groceries. It isn’t realistic to go plastic free just yet.
I still have these goals, but their deadline has been changed to “eventually”. Instead, I focus on the changes I can make now, even if they are smaller in comparison.
I suggest taking it a lot slower and start with smaller accomplishments. Change takes time, and you need a strategy. Instead of saying “I will go plastic free by three months from now”, try “I will reduce my plastic by doing X, Y, and Z during the next three months.” In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing a series about How to (Finally) Start Going Zero Waste filled with advice and tips for beginners. Stay tuned!
2. Throwing Out Useful Items
There are countless “Zero Waste Swap” lists online, and with how aesthetically pleasing a lot of them look, it is easy to be tempted into buying them. But what about the three bottles of shampoo under the sink, that brand new roll of paper towels, and your set of Tupperware? Throwing them out is the antithesis of living low waste.
By all means, switch to low waste options, but use up what you have first. Do NOT throw them out just because there’s a sustainable alternative on the market. The most sustainable option is the one you have.
I understand the draw of new items, and I feel the annoyance and guilt of waiting. I, too, am still trying to work through my long list of disposables, including a few disposable razors, a bunch of freebie boxes of floss from the dentist, and cleaning products. Until then, I can’t justify buying replacements, even sustainable ones.
It is annoying to wait. I feel like I have been waiting since I started my journey. But I keep reminding myself it is better to use these items up instead of getting rid of them right away just because I can.
And when those items do reach the end of their lives, recycle as much as you can. When transitioning away from plastic for health reasons, repurpose containers to organize non-food items and dry goods, or donate them to someone who will use them (classrooms, thrift stores, etc.).
3. Becoming A Sustainable Shopaholic
There are posts and videos about things zero wasters regret buying that became popular a while back. As I have said, it can be so tempting to buy up all the cute sustainable swaps, but you have to think before you buy.
Minimalism and sustainable living go hand in hand. You should not go out and buy an item if you already have something that serves that purpose. I repeat: The most sustainable option is the one you have.
Try looking for items that serve multiple purposes. For example, mason jars can be used when purchasing bulk foods from certain stores, storing all types of foods, freezing and heating up foods, organizing toiletry items, as a drinking glass or a bowl… the list goes on.
If you are up for a challenge, pare down your wardrobe into a small capsule wardrobe and donate the rest or live by the “One In, One Out” rule where a purchase means getting rid of another item.
Check out my 50 (FREE!) Little Changes To Live Sustainably post for cost-free ways to be zero waste.
Did you do your research on the items you’re buying? What are the values and practices of that company? Could you have found them secondhand? Will you really use this item often enough to miss it if you don’t have it (e.g. Keep Cup if you don’t drink much coffee or metal straws if you never used plastic straws to begin with)?
In summary, be mindful of your purchases and vote with your wallet.
4. Comparing Yourself To Someone Else
I have fallen victim to this mistake time and time again, and I think it’s one of the biggest zero waste mistakes. I’m not as good as “Blank” is so why should I even bother? Answer: Because some day you might be.
Everyone started somewhere, and no one is in the same exact situation.
If you are on page 1, how can you compare yourself to someone on page 100? There is a reason many call this a “journey” toward sustainability. Lowering your impact is a marathon, not a sprint.
Some people are further ahead solely because they got a head start. They are leaders and experts for a reason. They have had so much time to make some of these zero waste mistakes (or others), learn from them, and change their lifestyle before you even thought about joining the movement. It doesn’t make them inherently “better” than you are. Change takes time, especially large lifestyle changes like this one and especially after we’ve spent years or decades living with a completely different mindset.
In addition to when we start our journeys, everyone lives in a different situation whether that means where we live, how much money we have, who we live with, or what options are available to us. Put simply: it’s apples and oranges.
By comparing yourself to others instead of your past self, you risk lowering your self-esteem and motivation to keep pushing forward toward a better life. Focus on the changes you personally make and how you are better than you were last week, last month, and last year.
5. Thinking You Can’t Call Yourself “Zero Waste”
I see this over and over and over online. “I’m not zero waste, but…” Zero waste is not an exclusive club for those who fit trash in a jar. I honestly dislike the term “zero waste”, mainly for this vibe of exclusivity and perfection it gives to newcomers. Zero waste is a utopic goal, not a literal practice, but so many people take it as such and think it is incorrect or lying to refer to themselves as zero waste.
By excluding yourself from zero waste because you aren’t zero waste enough will lower your motivation and self-esteem. Zero wasters are just people who are trying to reduce their waste, not people who literally create zero waste (which is totally impossible by the way).
Call yourself whatever you want. I personally love Immy Lucas’s Low Impact Movement, which was started for this very reason. We can’t be perfect trashless beings. We still live in modern society where disposables are a fact of life. Not all of us have access to zero waste stores. She created this movement to be welcoming and inclusive and to celebrate whatever changes you can make in your own life, no matter how small or how few.
6. Thinking Only About Your Personal Trash
I see this a lot too. It’s a major reason why trash jars are pointless. A lot of people take lowering their own personal waste too seriously and can forget about the bigger picture of economy. You must also consider the upstream waste created to bring a product to market.
How were your package free groceries grown? Did they cut down forests for that land? Were lots of pesticides used? What about your clothing? The fashion industry wastes around 15% of its materials. Where did the fibers come from? How are workers being paid? How far did these items and their raw materials need to travel?
Bulk bins are NOT “zero” waste. And not every bulk bin is created equal. Food items will be shipped to the store in very large bags and then transferred into the bins. Some places like large grocery stores may get items in big plastic bags and just throw the bags away in the dumpster. A small zero waste shop may get paper bags and compost or recycle them. So it really all depends.
This week I’ll also be posting 7 Zero Waste Tips That Don’t Help The Environment. Some people take produce that doesn’t have a sticker or I’ve even heard of people peeling off the stickers and putting them on another piece of fruit so theirs was “zero waste”. That stops the waste from entering your personal home, but the waste still exists.
You have to look at the larger picture of production practices and which choices create the least total waste, not just the lightest bag of trash in your kitchen.
7. Giving Up
Last on my list of zero waste mistakes beginners make is full-on throwing in the towel, giving up, and returning to the way you lived before.
Once you open your eyes to our planet’s situation, you find so many reasons to feel like working toward sustainability in your life is hopeless and worthless. Every news cycle seems to contain stories on climate change, pollution, and mass extinction. Nearly 70% of all waste is created by just 100 companies. The IPCC report that came out in 2018 says we have just 12 years before we cause irreversible and devastating change to our planet. And what about Mistake #4, feeling like you could never be as good as someone else?
Let me tell you a story: I fell victim to this as well. I dove in to zero waste and was so excited to make all of these major lifestyle changes. When I found myself running into obstacle after obstacle and really stagnating in terms of progress, I felt like it was worthless to keep trying.
I kept doing what I was currently doing, but I made little to no effort to do anything beyond that and eventually started to regress into wastefulness. I stepped over litter on the sidewalk, bought packaged snack after packaged snack, and stopped doing any research or following the experts I look up to.
Then I realized that we all must try our hardest. Because we only have a few years to bring about big change, because animals and forests are dying every day, because we all deserve clean air and clean water, and because we can all make a difference, individually and together.
The planet needs every one of us to speak for her and protect her in whatever ways we can. Because it does matter.
When you run into obstacles, try something else. Maybe you have no access to bulk, but you can talk to your government, reduce energy use at home, vote with your wallet, or pick up litter on the side of the road.
Most importantly, spread the word as far as you can reach and do not give up.
As someone new to zero waste and sustainable living, it can all sound overwhelming. So many changes, so little time. But what all these mistakes boil down to is this: Think about your choices on a larger scale, celebrate all of your progress even if it’s slow, and do the best you can.
Seasoned veterans, what are some other zero waste mistakes you have made on your journey? Newbies, what are you struggling with?