Living a zero-waste lifestyle seems impossible. I read Bea Johnson’s book Zero Waste Home around maybe 2011, and at the time I thought she was an OCD person who had nothing better to do with her time than can tomatoes and unravel silk shirts for dental floss.
Have you seen the people claiming to have only one mason jar of trash for a full year?!? Considering all the packaging that comes with yogurt or cheese or lightbulbs, it has seemed totally unreachable to live a plastic-free, packaging-free life! I gave up before I had even begun and gave the book away before moving to Paris.
So, have things changed?
Fast forward to 2016 when I came to realize that if the global temperatures rise higher than a degree or two, we could alter the planet so much that it becomes inhospitable to human life. Sounds extreme right? It is!
Global leaders are worried about the rising temperatures due to carbon dioxide (CO2) and other chemical emissions, which is why 196 countries agreed to the COP21 Paris Climate Agreement back in 2015.
Only 2 countries in the world didn’t sign: Syria and Nicaragua. And, according to US Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the only reason why Nicaragua didn’t sign is because the Paris Agreement “wasn’t tough enough”!
Most of the countries that signed also went on to ratify the agreements in their national governments, a required next step to enforcing the agreement at the national level. Here’s a map of the countries that have ratified the Paris Climate Agreement.
At the local level, mayors of the world’s megacities have acknowledged the critical risks of global warming. In fact, the nonprofit organization C40 Cities fosters networking between 90+ megacities in the world to share ideas and solutions to reduce their CO2 emissions.
Will a Zero Waste lifestyle really help the environment?
On the one hand, plastics leak chemicals into our food, water and home environments, and those toxins are not good for our bodies. There are some 80,000 untested chemicals currently found in plastic food packaging, prepared foods, cleaning products, and personal care products. Some of them even cause cancer! Eliminating products that have toxins would be great for our personal health.
On the other hand, the overall effect of eliminating packaging and waste on global warming is not really that significant compared to, say, refusing to travel by plane or driving alone in a car, becoming vegan, or not having any children.
While living a organic, non-toxic, zero waste lifestyle is very good for our health, it only makes a moderate impact on the environment. (Leading a vegan life, however makes a fairly substantial positive impact on the planet.)
Real and fake efforts to save the environment
Spending a fortune on ecologically friendly home care products and organic food, or making all of these products yourself like Bea Johnson, is called “conscious consumerism” and it’s what a lot of zero waste advocates say will help our climate crisis.
However, one of these low-waste bloggers recently titled an article, “Conscious consumerism is a lie.” In it Alden Wicker explains that buying eco-friendly products and reducing one’s waste are just ways to feel better about ourselves and in reality they make only a minuscule impact on reducing global warming.
Conscious consumerism drains our bank accounts and our political will, diverts our attention away from the true powerbrokers, and focuses our energy instead on petty corporate scandals and fights over the moral superiority of vegans.
So if you really care about the environment, climb on out of your upcycled wooden chair and get yourself to a town hall meeting. -Alden Wicker
In her article she gives great suggestions for actions that are simple and make long-term impacts on global warming. She explains that the number one thing that a person can do is speak up. Tell companies and your elected officials how you feel through Twitter and emails. Show up to demonstrations as a show of solidarity. And above all continue to educate yourself.
Still want to go Zero Waste?
Alden Wicker wrote another brilliant article about the challenges of individual climate action and ended it with a passionate and very moving declaration of why she’s not giving up. She’s going to continue to live her zero waste lifestyle, aiming for ethically sourced and low-toxin products.
As I mentioned back in January, I’m really interested in this, and mostly for the health impact of reducing toxins. I’d like to reduce my plastic use and consumption, choose personal care and home cleaning supplies with no toxins, and buy organic products to eliminate my intake of pesticides. Below, I’ve compiled a list of the first steps to adopting this lifestyle.
On the hike towards this lifestyle, I’m about 3 miles behind her, breathless with aching calves and sore feet. I have some catching up to do…
Here are the essentials tips for a non-toxic, zero waste, ethical and sustainable lifestyle as far as I understand them right now:
If I’ve missed any of the very basic elements of conscious consumerism, please let me know and I’ll add them!
Zero carbon footprint through conscious consumerism:
- Stop buying newly manufactured products at all.
- Use what you’ve got.
- Have fewer things.
- Buy food that’s in season and locally grown.
- Grow your own food.
- Eliminate beef and cow-based dairy from your diet. (Or go vegan!)
Invest in the Circular Economy:
- Buy second hand clothing, home décor, furniture and kitchen items.
- Invest in reusables (second hand reusables are great too!), like handkerchiefs, a metal water bottle, a bamboo coffee cup or a metal coffee cup, cloth napkins, moon cups, a metal safety razor, cloth cleaning towels, reusable spork, knife and chopsticks (there are great options in bamboo or in ultralight metal but you can also just use the utensils you already own!), kitchen brushes, and a stainless steel spray bottle.
- Borrow things. Become a member of your local tool library, toy library and book library.
- Make things yourself. Attend DIY workshops to learn how to make your own makeup, yogurt, toothpaste, clothes detergent, dishwasher powder, and beeswax fabric food wraps.
If you must buy new:
- Buy fair-trade, ethically produced items that are non-toxic and organic; for both food and non-food items.
- Buy local. Try to find “made in (the country where you live)” to support locally made goods.
- Some zero-waste personal care products include: bamboo toothbrushes, soap bars, shampoo bars, moon cups, baking soda deodorant, DIY toothpaste (pictured above in my travel jar), coconut oil moisturizer, raw apple cider vinegar face toner and hair conditioner, sugar waxing, silk dental floss, etc.
Zero waste means zero packaging (even zero recyclable materials).
- Buy in bulk, and refill your own containers. Use the Zero Waste Home bulk store locator app to find stores in your area that will sell in bulk. It is not a comprehensive list, but gives you some options that are available.
- Buy whole foods rather than processed foods.
- Learn to cook! Avoid disposables and single serving containers. Ask for meals “for here” even when they are to-go, in order to get less packaging.
- Use the reusables mentioned above (under Circular Economy).
- Buy things locally rather than from Amazon or any company that requires shipping.
Non-toxic means zero plastic everywhere for all things.
- Stainless steel, recycled paper, bamboo, linen and hemp are all sustainable materials. Cotton requires a lot of pesticides and water to grow, but if it is organic and ethically sourced, it is healthier for you than plastic! (It’s important to note that BPA-free plastic does not mean non-toxic.)
- Silicone is ok for absolutely necessary products, like baby bottle nipples.
- Bring your own reusable vegetable bags and grocery bags to the store.
- Learn to say a few key phrases: “no straw in my drink please,” “I have my own bag,” “no plastic packaging please,” “no chopsticks please,” or “no (paper) napkin please.”
- Wash and reuse plastic bags shipped to you.
- Swap out the plastic shower liner for an organic cotton shower liner (or a cheaper non-toxic cotton alternative).
- Use beeswax covered cloth food wraps instead of plastic food wrap.
Non-toxic means choosing different cleaning and personal care products.
- Vinegar (in a glass jar), baking soda (in paper packaging or a refillable container) and castile soap (in paper packaging or unpackaged in bulk) meet nearly all home cleaning needs. (Video on non-toxic zero waste cleaning here.)
- Personal care products are filled with toxins, and even brands that seem to be very environmentally friendly can include chemicals that are not healthy for you (i.e.: hormone disrupters, neurotoxins, or carcinogens). I look to the hard-core enthusiasts to do the research and recommend products to me. See below for a list of the websites I trust.
Extend the lifecycle of your “waste.”
- Compost things that are compostable.
- Iron the wrinkled paper that comes in shipping containers and make a notebook from it. Go beyond recycling to re-USE-ing.
- Go to a Repair Cafe with your broken electronics and clothing.
- Darn your socks, patch holes in clothes, and if you can’t DIY, a good tailor can do it for you! Shoe cobblers are excellent at repairing shoes.
Here are even more impactful decisions you can take to help curb global warming, going beyond conscious consumerism:
Don’t have any children, get rid of your car (walk, bike or travel with public transportation), never travel by airplane (overseas international travel by boat only), become a vegan, retrofit your home with energy efficient options, use only renewable energy, get rid of your refrigerator (Here’s a short video on living without a fridge here, just click “not now” if you’re not signed in. The language is French, but you can watch and totally understand the basic elements of the approach.), get rid of your air conditioner and clothes dryer.
As I learn more about the health and environmental impacts of my own choices, I have learned to rely on others who do a bit more digging into the science of things and have more experience with zero waste and sustainable lifestyles.
Here are my favorites:
Eco Boost by Kate Arnell is both a blog and a very chipper YouTube channel where she posts videos with a very realistic and forgiving approach to zero waste.
Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson is the mother of all zero waste living. She has simple recipes for home cleaning products, personal care products and food stuffs we typically buy (like mustard). She has a bulk store locator app.
Trash is for Tossers by Lauren Singer is a great resource for how to live a zero waste lifestyle. She’s accumulated only one mason jar of trash over 3 years. She is the owner of the Simply Co, which makes non-toxic laundry detergent, and she also just opened up a shop in Brooklyn, NYC with zero waste supplies.
Eco Cult by Alden Wicker is a very frank blog that gives a strong dose of the harsh reality with excellent tips and suggestions.
What do you think? Will you try out any of these tips? Leave me a comment below!
Some links in this post are affiliate links which means I could earn a couple of pennies if you buy something from those links. All the money goes to pay for the BonjourAdventure website hosting fees (fingers crossed I’ll someday move into a positive cash flow…).