One of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2019 was to go *mostly* zero waste.

I specify mostly because I knew I wanted to do a long road trip and I wanted to leave room for mistakes.

But let’s back up. What is zero waste?

To put it simply, it’s about rethinking the way we consume: send nothing to the landfill, recycle as little as possible, then refuse, reduce, repair, and rot everything else.

During the first half of 2019, I was doing well—audited my trash, bought naked produce, chose resuables, diy’d body care products—but I started to recognize challenges beyond my means. I live with roommates who are against composting and who lost all the kitchen towels I bought to replace paper towels; I have a cat whose litter goes to the landfill; I would not compromise local, in-plastic food for imported, but naked food; and many times, I just plain forgot.

But most of all, I began to recognize how inaccessible the lifestyle was for me.

I realized going “zero waste” was embedded in privilege.

Oof. Let me unpack that.

The first time I heard about zero waste was from a Buzzfeed video of a woman that had contained all her trash for the past x years in a single jar. So, so cool, right?

It didn’t take long to realize this was a horribly inaccurate depiction of waste. Perhaps she lived trash-free, but the transportation she rode to work, the internet she used, and the electricity that powered her lights created far more waste. Those invisible wastes did not fit in a cute little jar.

As I attempted to duplicate her methods, I found that there were things I liked to eat that I couldn’t get in bulk. Worse, if I got it in bulk and it spoiled, I’d have to landfill it. I boycotted shampoo for a month to Remi’s dismay. A barista or waiter would ignore my request for no straw. Where am I supposed to get [insert household item here]? I can’t afford [insert all-natural product here]! How do I recycle deodorant? Why does everything new come wrapped in six layers of plastic??

*cue zero-waster crisis*

Tushy grumpy as hell.
Same, Tushy. Same.

The most common obstacle I kept encountering? Lack of time.

When I first started this journey, I was working two jobs with occasional freelance work on the weekends. I didn’t have enough time to make food from scratch instead of going through a drive thru. I didn’t have time research sustainable initiatives in Tallahassee like Compost Community or Buy Nothing groups. Most of my solutions were sourced from the first couple articles that popped up on a Google search or pretty Instagram accounts.

The second obstacle I noticed? Cost.

Now there are lots of promises a zero waste lifestyle makes that are cheap. Shopping secondhand, for example, will always be cheaper than buying new. But buying food? Anything at Whole Foods will be cleaner and perhaps in less packaging, but I certainly paid waaay more for it. And at the time, most of what I could afford was saran wrapped out the hoo-ha.

Now take my challenges and multiply them tenfold for people who live in food deserts, with disabilities, without access to composting, facing stigmas and violent prejudices of being a POC, LGBTQ+ folx and/or lower socioeconomic class…the obstacles start to stack. Zero waste is unrealistic to downright impossible for so many people.

I also realized ‘grammable zero waste (like the header stock photo) paints the wrong picture.

Did I buy things that I thought would solve my trash-ridden problems? Yes. Were plenty of them unnecessary? Admittedly…yes.

While I made some swaps that did reduce waste—such as wool dryer balls and loofah scrubs—I did NOT need to buy a whole box of Mason jars. It took me a couple jars of jam to realize that I was already purchasing what I needed.

I will unapologetically blame my purchasing mistakes on “pretty” zero waste. Instagram worthy shots were my introduction to the lifestyle: wooden utensils, matching hand towels, and trash-in-a-jar zero waste. But a zero waste kitchen can also be made up of cut-up t-shirt towels and regular old metal cutlery that already live in our drawers—not as pretty, but very zero waste.

And truthfully, a zero waste life that looks like it was pulled straight out of an affluent, white neighborhood erases the hard work poorer communities have been doing and living for decades. I was ashamed of shopping in thrift stores growing up—but when pretty white ladies show off their finds that were made by choice and not by necessity, it’s cool?

(I’m not saying all white people who practice zero waste are bad. In fact, many of them recognize their privilege and use it to amplify marginalized voices and sustainability initiatives. I’m just commenting on the way it’s portrayed in the media.)

Zero waste isn’t for me.

In fact, I don’t think zero waste is for most people. But LOW WASTE is definitely more accessible! This journey has made me far more mindful of my purchases—I now consider how long I will have something and where it will go when I can no longer use it. I’ve quit fast fashion completely, I create almost no food waste, and I don’t make impulse purchases anymore. I have successfully reduced a great deal of my trash…in other words, I’ve unlocked a low waste lifestyle. Without the pressure of eliminating ALL waste, many people can adopt a low waste lifestyle by simply being more mindful of their purchases and opting for reusable swaps (reminder: you don’t have to buy swaps—you may already have what you need!)

An undeniable truth this journey has brought to light is how broken our current capitalist system is. While it is important we make individual changes to live sustainably, we can only work with what is available to us. The biggest burden belongs to corporations who dictate our options and a government that allies with corporations more often than people.

If it is possible for you, I recommend giving low waste a try—perhaps you’ll be surprised at what you learn.

4 replies on “I failed at zero waste. Here’s why.

  1. Thank you for this beautiful post. I agree zero waste is so inaccessible to most people because of access and privilege, it does cost more in MANY areas, and at the end of the day is waste as important as GHG emissions, as you mentioned? I love that you prioritized local produce over zero waste, I do the same thing! The burden should not be on the consumer, but on the producers to fix their packaging. When there’s no other option I’m still going to get that pack of local blueberries in the squish-resistant PET clamshells they come in XD. This was a beautiful and needed post, Mary. I’m thankful I get to follow along with you on your exploits!


    1. Hi Chelsea! This year-long experiment has taught me that zero waste should be used as more of a guideline to changing a lifestyle. There’s so much more to sustainable living than just trash. Thanks for reading and commenting, it’s always appreciated!


  2. It’s tough isn’t it, in theory zero waste is great but the majority of people would never be able to achieve it for many reasons like the ones you suggested which is why we should be more focused on low waste which is something that everyone is able to do without many problems.


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