Zero-Waste: Is That A Helpful Term?

The other day, our kids were at school, so my husband and I took a rare walk just the two of us. Like many couples these days, our conversation turned to current events and the upcoming election. We discussed climate change and the need for the United States to re-join the Paris Climate Agreement. He said that big, government moves must happen in order to make a difference. I immediately thought of GreenLifeNH and our aim of “Inspiring Positive Change Toward a Greener Tomorrow.” Sure, strong federal policies are imperative, but we can also do things on a personal level. Collectively, we can make a difference. For example, think of how many plastic bags have been avoided since bringing your bags to the store has became more mainstream. It’s not a law in many places, but it stills happens and helps the Earth.

It would be dishonest to say that all of my home’s earth-friendly habits were immediately welcomed and embraced. It took a while to get this house on-board with composting, dousing everything in castile soap and saying goodbye to paper towels. We still keep a few paper towels on hand for “emergencies” (they’re hidden away in order to avoid thoughtless use) and sometimes Windex really does work the best. But, nevertheless, our routines have evolved over the past few years, one step at a time. As I mentioned here, sometimes people initially balk at new ideas and then slowly grow to accept and enjoy them.

Take-out has been a source of happiness for us during the pandemic. We order-in about once a week and recycle and compost a lot of the packaging. I also think we should be supporting small, local businesses during this time. But is it zero-waste? No

During our walk, my husband also shared that he finds the term “zero-waste” unrealistic. Does it make people afraid to embrace this type of lifestyle? It might. No matter how hard we try, waste and trash happen because we live in the world and can’t be perfect all of the time. Not to mention, we are also living through a global pandemic. Protecting our mental health is important too.

A recent morning after I’d been working and the girls had been playing. Some of our toys were handed-down, others were purchased new. Honestly, some broken pieces will likely end-up in the trash. But we will also pass a lot onto others.

So what can do? Should we change the term from zero-waste to less-waste? Maybe we should! Take one step at a time – do a trash audit, buy some fabric napkins, eat less meat. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. And if the term “zero-waste” makes you uncomfortable, say good-bye to it! Embrace the term “less-waste” instead. Or, better yet, call it nothing and just keep truckin’. – Rachel

*The “Real Change” photo was borrowed from @sherylsandberg

6 thoughts on “Zero-Waste: Is That A Helpful Term?

  1. Good post, Rachel! I like “less waste” for the reasons you describe. I also like it for another reason: I frequently see a sort of thoughtless classism infecting both the “zero waste” movement and the “green” movement more broadly. Although many waste reduction/carbon footprint reducing/etc. strategies save money in the long term, they often require an up-front investment. Sometimes it’s relatively small (e.g. buying reusable containers to pack kids’ snacks in) and sometimes it’s relatively large (e.g. putting solar panels on your roof). Depending on a household’s circumstances, some or all of these measures are out of reach. Plus, often lower-income households *already* have lower carbon footprints because they simply consume less than higher-income households, whether it’s by not taking airplane trips or heating a smaller house or purchasing fewer toys/clothes/etc. I see people share their angst about observing others using disposable coffee cups on Main Street and then share pictures of their international travel! There’s a disconnect there. I don’t think the historical and present relationship between wealth and environmental impact should be greenwashed away – “less waste” seems like a much better way of capturing the sentiment that we all ought to do our individual best. Finally, “zero waste” is so absolutist that it tees up absurdities in the vein of “oh, all these people at the climate marches DROVE there and made signs out of PAPER, they don’t really care about the environment.” We do indeed need the big solutions that only government(s) can accomplish, and I think “less waste” acknowledges that right now our economies are simply not constructed for individuals to “zero waste” our way to a livable future planet. So – yay to “less waste,” and yay to “progress not perfection,” and yay to “do your best.”


  2. Love this idea. Thanks for keeping it real. I sometimes feel like a fraud for using the term zero waste when my house looks more like yours after a busy working morning than the minimalist houses you see on zero waste blogs and books. Thanks!


  3. I think it’s always nice to give ourselves the grace of how things have an effect on our mental health. I love how inclusive much of the ZW community is. Reducing waste should always be the goal—not being so perfectionist that it sets us back in other ways. Great post!


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