zero-waste-lifestyle

4 Toxic Zero Waste Lifestyle Problems (And How to Fix Them)

Jane Marsh - September 5, 2023

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The zero waste lifestyle movement, popularized by eco-conscious YouTube creators and bloggers, became household vocabulary in the last decade. It has a well-intentioned message — to inspire people to change their eating, living, and purchasing habits to produce no waste. 

Despite the meaning behind the movement, some online toxicity, privilege, and judgment prevented the zero waste lifestyle from having a perfect reputation. What were these blips, and how can environmental allies change the conversation to be more supportive and optimistic?

1. It Places Too Much Responsibility on Consumers

Individual responsibility is the changes consumers can make on a personal level to alter their carbon footprints and ecological impact. Corporate responsibility is the same concept but for companies. Logically, companies produce more carbon emissions and have a more significant adverse influence on the climate crisis. So, why doesn’t the zero waste lifestyle acknowledge this?

Because of its individualized focus, the zero waste lifestyle does not usually involve political action or participation. It generally revolves around habits and purchasing decisions alone.

This is not to say these individual changes do not make a difference or that those who live a zero waste lifestyle do not engage in activism. Personal changes must complement corporate initiatives for the planet to become genuinely sustainable. However, individual impact relies on buying replacements for single-use products or purchasing items to facilitate greener habits. 

Nobody can shop themselves out of a way of living that produces a lot of waste. Arguably, the zero waste lifestyle encourages unnecessary consumerism and funding companies potentially to manipulate and greenwash customers into buying products that claim to be more sustainable when it’s only a marketing ploy. Holding companies accountable and increasing standards can help these issues.

2. The Cost Makes it Inaccessible

Living zero waste isn’t cheap. Buying organic food without packaging is surprisingly more expensive. Plus, there is an upfront investment in purchasing all the containers and tools required to keep up the zero waste life. The movement frequently touts taking advantage of thrift stores or engaging with your local community to buy-sell-trade objects. But, this is a price paid in time that others may not have.

To be a successful zero waster, it usually requires living in a metropolitan area with an extensive recycling and composting program and many eco-conscious stores and bulk grocers to make it an easy choice to switch.

It takes more time and money to buy ingredients and make your own laundry detergent than to buy it cheaply in a plastic bottle. It could take some families an hour to drive to the nearest Walmart — a bulk store might not be within hundreds of miles. If less privileged communities do not have these networks or resources, it can put undue pressure on those already struggling. Ensuring the zero waste community contains no shame for those who are unable to participate is essential for fairness.

3. The Trash Jar Is Unrealistic

Influencers like Lauren Singer, the mind behind Trash Is for Tossers, demonstrated a zero waste lifestyle where it was possible to pack years of trash into a 16oz Mason jar. Personalities like hers proved it was possible to reduce personal waste production with research and determination. 

However, other environmentalists on a similar journey pulled away the curtain behind the mystical trash jar. The aspirational trash jar received backlash for not being honest, asserting that people must have omitted trash from it. Some admitted to doing so.

Unpacking stories like this reveal how a zero waste lifestyle isn’t accessible to everyone. Some influencers receive hateful comments for their behavior, while others are well-regarded. Instead of attacking individuals, zero waste enthusiasts and activists can provide nuance to the discussion.

Zero waste living is limited to numerous factors. For example, one of the central principles behind zero waste is shopping for food at bulk stores, where you bring your own reusable containers. It eliminates food packaging and waste because you can buy exactly how much you need. Countless regions need bulk stores, especially since they only come into fashion with environmentalist movements.

4. It Ignores Other Environmental Concerns

When a product gets to a customer, they only have control of the end of its life cycle. The upstream food and product waste from before is out of their control. Therefore, even if they purchase an eco-friendly dining set, it would have been better to thrift that than buy it from an eco-friendly company because most waste produced during manufacturing. 

The zero waste lifestyle isn’t primarily concerned with solving upstream waste problems but focuses on end-of-life, which misses most of the picture.

It also ignores solving hyperconsumerism at its core. People produce waste because they constantly buy things, whereas the simplest way to reduce waste is to buy less. It elevates the zero waste lifestyle into a place of privilege — because it’s expensive.

Intersectional environmentalism can help, as it considers how environmentalism looks and feels from everyone’s perspective, regardless of their background. Instead, allies of the planet can discover ways to help those from every culture and financial circumstance control waste streams as much as someone can in metropolitan cities.

Lastly, zero waste doesn’t explain how to emotionally deal with environmental concerns outside of your control, such as:

  • Clerks who forget your request not to include a straw or to use your container
  • A piece of tech or appliance dies, and you need to buy something new because it’s a necessity
  • Someone gifts you something you don’t know is zero waste, or it was packaged in non-eco-friendly packaging
  • An event forces you to wear a non-recyclable wristband
  • An airline provides you with in-flight amenities wrapped in plastic

It’s crucial to not beat yourself up when these situations occur, and try to convey grievances professionally when it happens.

Reimagining the Zero Waste Lifestyle

The zero waste movement has a positive message and has changed how countless people live their lives. Performing trash audits to remove personal waste streams greatly reduces how much trash a person makes daily. However, it is a narrow view of the eco-conscious problem. Reducing waste is not at its peak, and more work must be done. Combining the zero waste lifestyle with advocacy and collaboration is how to bring it back into a productive space.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.