We Need To Stop Using The Term ‘Zero Waste’

Photo by Laura Mitulla on Unsplash

The zero waste movement is taking off. This time a year ago there were 800,000 posts on Instagram using #zerowaste. Today there are 3.3 million posts using the same tag.

The idea of the movement is to eliminate all waste and packaging from your life, sending nothing to landfill. It began as a movement within design, and specifically fashion design. It meant to study a garment design and measurements, and ensure that all pattern cuttings could be taken from one piece of material, to reduce scraps and waste material.

It has since been popularised as part of the movement against plastic pollution. Influencers such as New York blogger Lauren Singer, who famously wrote about fitting her rubbish from one entire year into a small jar, and Bea Johnson, who began living waste-free with her husband and two sons in 2008, have become prominent on social media.

Lauren Singer and her jar of waste

As a basic premise, going ‘zero waste’ seems like a great idea. We all know the vast extent of our plastic pollution problem. We also know that the consumer society we live in today generates a huge amount of unnecessary waste. The zero waste movement aims to eliminate this, with a focus on shopping packaging free and making your own products.

12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans every year. By 2048 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

But zero waste also has its issues.

As with social media as a whole, and especially Instagram, being zero waste has become the ‘ideal’ of environmentalism. Fitness influencers have us training glutes every day at the gym in a desire to get that perfect tiny waist and huge bum body. Zero waste influencers have us dreaming of the perfect kilner jar filled kitchen cupboards and being able to carry our annual rubbish around with us in a tiny jar.

We start feeling environmental guilt if we produce any waste whatsoever.

The zero waste movement demands perfection. It’s centred around the word ‘zero’ and bringing your waste down to nothing.

Yet the reality is that being zero waste is virtually impossible for most of us at the moment. Most towns and cities don’t have a zero waste shop, and travelling to your nearest one is likely inconvenient — plus you might end up doing more harm than good in that travelling. Some of us work weekends and can’t get to the farmers market to get our loose fruit and vegetables. Plus, packaged items are almost always cheaper. If you are able to live zero waste, you have to acknowledge that you’re in an incredibly privileged position.

Photo by Laura Mitulla on Unsplash

The sheer amount of plastic used in the modern world and the waste that humans produce is overwhelming.

One individual eliminating packaging from their life isn’t going to solve our plastic problem

But one individual eliminating plastic packaging from their life isn’t going to change that. To me it’s better that lots of us reduce our waste, than one person meeting that perfect ideal. And it’s even better if we can persuade a business or manufacturer to change their packaging, or persuade a policy-maker to introduce a policy change around waste or packaging. That’s going to have much more impact in the long run.

If we expect all environmentally motivated people to fit those zero waste ideals, we risk them burning out when they can’t keep up, or when the guilt gets too much. So until every supermarket in the world has packaging-free options at less cost than packaged, we need to stop focusing on the term zero waste and start focusing on how to really solve our environmental crisis.

If you liked this, you may also like my post on: Why I’m No Longer Plastic-Free.

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Tabitha Whiting

Tabitha Whiting

Ramblings on communication and our climate crisis🌱