Thursday, March 28, 2024

What ever happened to the zero-waste movement?

Back in 2016, I quietly decided to try a lifestyle experiment: zero-waste living.

This project originally came about due to Older Daughter's influence. She was working as a live-in nanny in New Jersey, if you recall, and it opened her eyes to a grim realization about garbage; specifically, the contrast between her frugal upbringing on a rural homestead and the affluent lifestyle of an upscale suburban family.

No doubt you've heard of the zero-waste movement, which encourages people to produce as little garbage as possible. Dedicated adherents proudly showed off their yearly pint jar's worth of trash while giving sage advice on how to make deodorant or toothpaste from bulk ingredients.  Yawn.

Older Daughter became involved in the zero-waste movement and encouraged me to try it as well. I dipped my toes in, became obsessed, and never looked back.

Zero waste, as you may recall, is based on five principles: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (and only in that order).

• Refuse what you do not need, everything from avoiding the mall to declining the freebies at the dentist’s office
• Reduce what you do need (this includes decluttering)
• Reuse (stop using disposable items)
• Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse
• Rot (compost) the rest

There is a certain level of sanctimonious superiority among hardcore zero-wasters I always found annoying, but it's worth noting we're still living zero-waste eight years after embarking on the experiment. I'll admit, it's addictive.

Because we phased out disposable products years ago and cook our meals from scratch, our garbage output was already significantly lower than average. It wasn't much of a push to take the next step into zero-waste, particularly since the focus of our homestead has been food self-sufficiency. We're not minimalists – we don't live in a sterile-looking all-white house (thank God!) – and you'd never guess we follow this lifestyle by visiting. It's just ... a lifestyle.

We're not perfect – our yearly garbage can’t fit into a pint jar – but considering the average person produces 4.5 lbs. of trash per person per day, we're not doing too badly in producing that much trash (as a family) in about a month.

I no longer obsess over the topic as I did at the beginning, but I do continue practicing zero-waste principles. Interestingly, though, it seems not many others do – any more.

It occurred to me a few days ago that I hadn't seen anything about zero waste in the news lately. Why not? Zero waste, it seems, was "the" movement of the 2010s, but now it so passé.

Consider this article from July 2023 entitled "Influencers popularized the trash jar. Now they’ve moved on." The author observes, "Unrealistic expectations and real-world problems like unwanted gifts and the temptation of 'wishcycling' turned the trash jar from zero-waste influencer emblem to 'elitist' cliché."

Quoting from the article: "Trash jars [meaning, pint jars filled with a year's worth of trash, which became the "status symbol" of the movement] inspired dozens of profiles in outlets like New York Magazine, the Washington Post, and CBS. Entire zero-waste brands sprang up around them, such as Package Free Shop. But then came the backlash – or, rather, a gradual falling out of favor. A few years in, people who were inspired to adopt zero-waste practices because of the trash-jar trend began renouncing it as exclusionary and unrealistic. They argued that focusing on the jar sapped energy from more systemic actions they could take to address plastic pollution. Some likened it to extreme dieting, calling it the 'skinny supermodel of zero waste.'"

The article continues: "While the trash jar remains an emblem of the zero-waste movement, it's lost much of its cultural cachet. Today, in 2023, many sustainability influencers are relieved to have entered into a softer, more forgiving era of the zero-waste movement – one that recognizes the impossibility of 'zero' and welcomes a spectrum of waste-reduction efforts. Some have pioneered alternate slogans, like 'low-impact,' 'low-waste,' and #ZeroWasteIRL."

I suppose this is the category in which we find ourselves. We don't strive for perfection, we strive for reduction.

One influential zero-waster went to extremes to the point where the lifestyle was "definitely stressful." The article notes, "In 2017, she finally called it quits. She now uses her old trash jar as a bookend. ... Others feared that their trash jar missteps would undermine their credibility as influencers – but so would not keeping a trash jar at all, since they were such an emblem of the movement."

Many also recognized the futility of individual actions when compared to global output of plastics and other non-compostable trash. It's the reason many, if not most, simply gave up the effort.

Incidentally, the reason we first embraced "disposing of disposables" and then later the zero-waste movement was purely as an aspect of preparedness. If garbage services go down, waste will become an enormous problem for society. We just figured it would be a challenge we'd tackle now rather than later.

So, even though the zero-waste movement is no longer trendy and/or has softened into something less rigidly perfect, we'll continue the lifestyle. It's second nature now, and – what the heck – I still enjoy the challenge.


  1. I guess we would consider ourselves in the "low waste" column. We cook as much fresh as we can. We'll eat that down to the point where there's not enough for a meal, and will give what's left either to the dogs or the chickens. Kitchen green waste goes onto the compost heap. Whatever the chickens and the resident humongous desert tortoise don't eat becomes a part of next year's garden plot. We keep well-stocked with Folgers coffee. The plastic cans it comes in serve MANY purposes on the homestead, from plant pots to countertop kitchen compost containers. By the way, they fit really well inverted onto the tops of "BBQ" and "40-pounder" propane tanks to keep the business ends of those dry and clean.

    Personally, I never heard of the trash jars. Lowering our waste generation has been a natural side benefit of eating better, not buying what we don't need, buying used instead of new, and our already established "Drive the wheels off of it" mentality when it comes to "durable goods" like cars, lawn/farm equipment, clothing, and the like. Yes, changing the oil in the tractor and the cars religiously generates a little more waste oil, but that's offset by having cars and a tractor that are over twenty years old, still running fine and not sitting in the wrecking yard; that kind of thing. Buying it once and treating it like you'll never be able to get another one goes a long way in reducing waste! "Making it last" used to be pounded into our heads as kids. Now it's overtly discouraged! Why else would electric cars that last about ten years be being jammed down our throats instead of vehicles that will essentially outlive the likes of us if taken care of?

    As far as those "influencers" are concerned, I think they're more hung up on the "Look at me" than they are on actually "making a difference!"

  2. I work for a trash hauler. Recycling actually costs more to dispose of than trash. It used to be reduce, reuse, recycle. I have hanging on my wall: reduce, reuse, repurpose, refuse, & recycle. Recycle is always the last on the list. Refuse stands for refuse to be items with lots of packaging.
    Debbie in MA

  3. I think the concept of zero waste has been replaced with "net zero carbon." The focus has shifted from practical things average folk can do, to a global crises that only the "big players" can do something about. The best we little people can manage is to do what we're told.

  4. My opinion… 2020 really ruined zero waste thinking. Disposable everything and no one cared about the environment one bit because GERMS! Remember when it was all about the ozone? Now “carbon emissions” are the new thing to care about. Don’t try to keep up. It will be something else after that.

  5. I found this fascinating. We certainly produce less garbage as a couple than we did as a large family, but I think I can do better. I do try to reuse and reduce, but I'm not much of a recycler.