Is the Zero Waste Movement As Sustainable As We Think?

Danielle Alvarado

November 3, 2020

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Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Zero waste has become a social media hit over the recent decade, ever since Bea Johnson published her book A zero waste home and revealed the concept, which, up until then, was mainly used in organisational and governmental contexts, to the public.

Since then, the zero waste movement has taken to social media, especially Instagram, where it has grown big. But how sustainable is this zero waste movement, really?

Just because it’s zero waste does not mean it’s sustainable

Firstly, let us address the main issue with the sustainability of a zero waste lifestyle – just because something is zero waste does not mean that it is sustainable. That is why we should be careful and assess other elements of sustainability before deciding on a purchase, not just the waste production which is concerned.

Here’s an example – you might purchase an animal product, such as beef or leather, which may be zero waste, but still have a massive carbon footprint and consumes large amounts of water. Many zero waste products usually tend to be sustainable overall – but it is not a rule and we recommend always checking the other factors before you buy anything.

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A privileged image of sustainability

The zero waste movement owes its quick growth mainly to social media, which has done wonders for the sustainability community but has also produced a perfect, privileged, photoshopped image of sustainability. You do not need to have a lot of disposable income to live zero waste – but looking up #zerowaste on Instagram may make you feel like you do.

Seeing people equating a sustainable lifestyle and zero waste to ownership of expensive products like travel cups, stainless steel bottles or glass straws may make people feel like this is something they could never afford.

Unachievable standards

Additionally, striving for a zero waste lifestyle may prove to be an unachievable challenge for some – perhaps because they live with people who are not on board or because they live in an area where zero waste alternatives aren’t available.

On top of that, some waste is just simply beyond our control. Maybe you ask for no straw at a restaurant, but the staff forgets and still brings you one. There’s nothing you can do at that point and often, you might find yourself consumed by guilt.

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Considering waste in the supply chain

For zero waste to be truly effective and sustainable, we need to consider waste produced in the supply chains of the products we are buying. Sometimes, this can be much more important than focusing on the trash going through your home.

For example, industrial fishing is the biggest contributor to ocean plastic. However, you might very well be able to find its products in stores unpackaged. The final product then gives off an illusion of being sustainable while there’s a lot of pollution being produced where we don’t see it. 

A balanced low-waste sustainable lifestyle

That being said, a zero waste lifestyle has a lot to teach us all, while we maybe strive for a more balanced, low-waste lifestyle and consideration of a variety of different factors that make up a sustainable life.

We don’t need a handful of people going completely zero waste. We need the entire world to be more conscious in its purchasing and consumption choices – that’s how we’ll make global change.

What is your view of zero waste? Let us know in the comments and share your experiences!

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