Has Zero Waste Simplified or Complicated Life?

Something I have been wanting to find out since starting my zero waste project back in February is this: has zero waste complicated my life, or simplified it overall?

Advocates of the zero waste movement tend to claim that zero waste has simplified their lives. Bea Johnson’s book, Zero Waste Home, is subtitled The ultimate guide to simplifying your life by reducing your waste. She claims that for her family, zero waste has saved money, and saved time and energy for more important things. But of course, if I list all the things I now do as part of zero waste, it all sounds like just more complication: composting, bringing containers to the store, baking bread, trying to shop more secondhand, doing the laundry associated with cloth diapers (although I did that before zero waste), plus the time involved in researching options and making or acquiring the necessary equipment.

So let me say first that, yes, in some ways my domestic work is more complicated.

I have to plan shopping trips more carefully to ensure I have containers for what I plan to buy. I can’t necessarily swing by the store on the way home from somewhere else, because I may not have appropriate bags or jars with me. Buying certain things takes more time, like asking for cheese at the deli counter instead of picking up a package.

I now have the extra work of maintaining our composting system, including carrying out the scraps, emptying the filled compost buckets and dealing with their contents.

There is some extra laundry. As I mentioned, I already used cloth diapers most of the time, but we typically used disposables at night and often on the weekend. Since zero waste we’ve been trying to use cloth close to 100% of the time, and I’ve added an extra load of diapers to my weekly laundry. And since I air-dry most of our laundry, all the reusable cloths and diapers require the work of hanging to dry.

Although I was a frequent secondhand shopper previously, I think I am trying harder to source things that way now. I needed some exercise clothes recently, for example, and it took a few trips to Goodwill before I found them, whereas in the past that’s the kind of purchase I probably would have brought new, which likely would have taken less time.

So initially, I did not feel that zero waste was simplifying my life at all. I liked it and felt it was valuable, but was wondering whether it would prove sustainable.

However, along the way, I began to feel a change.

For one thing, once I got my shopping routines down, my decision-making while shopping was greatly reduced. Choosing from what’s available in bulk, or from the deli counter, reduces options. And I’ve mentioned already that it reduces exposure to packing and therefore to advertising. In the long term, I have found this a refreshing way to shop. It’s not faster, that’s for sure. But time isn’t everything to me, and ten extra minutes at the store in exchange for fewer decisions actually seems like a fair exchange. It takes longer, but paradoxically it can be more restful.

Similarly, if I’m going out for coffee or lunch – which I do about weekly – I’ve started choosing the places where I know I’ll get real dishes instead of disposable ones. Again, that reduces my options and actually saves decision-making energy.

More and more, I’ve also been reevaluating my perception of what I need to acquire. Initially I thought this was an effect of zero waste, but I wonder if it’s also a necessary step for moving forward: it’s impossible to live a zero waste life if you over consume. That is, the solution for waste is not only to find package-free or secondhand versions of what you want to buy, but in many cases, to decide not to buy at all. I think I shop less, and the time and energy saved make the extra effort (like hanging out diapers) feel less burdensome.

I have also found that there is a kind of conceptual simplicity to using items that are reusable, not disposable. Glass storage jars, cleaning cloths, cloth diapers, cloth napkins, handkerchiefs, cloth sanitary products (oh yes, a topic in its own right!) – each one represents an item that I don’t have to shop for, over and over again. There’s a whole section of the supermarket I almost never venture into. I don’t need ziplock bags, paper towels, napkins, tissues, cling film, waxed paper, diapers, wipes. I already have all I need at home.

It’s a small thing, but I should also add that I now spend a lot less time dealing with trash: rinsing meat containers to put in the trash, smelling the trash, carrying out the trash, cleaning spatters off the bin lid: nobody’s favourite jobs!

Overall, I think the first phase of zero waste will probably feel like a lot of additions to regular life: adopting a slew of new habits. But I reached a point where, those new habits having become more normal, I moved deeper into the changes that really do simplify life in all the ways I’ve described.

As a final thought, I’ve been rethinking my own criteria for evaluating simplicity. I feel that we – that is, Western society – tend to prize time as the main consideration. We want to adopt the practices that will reduce domestic work to the least amount of time. Lately I’ve been wondering if this leaves out other valuable considerations. My household work probably consumes about the same amount of time it used to. However, what am I spending my time on? I am spending less time on things like dealing with trash or reading labels at the store, and more on things like hanging diapers to dry. But which activity feels more valuable and satisfying? Dealing with something I’ll throw away, or caring for something I’ll keep?

3 thoughts on “Has Zero Waste Simplified or Complicated Life?

  1. Loved reading this. We used cloth nappies all along (except nights) and I’m seriously thinking of the family cloth route, although the family is horrified! On zero waste sanitary options… have you seen the moon-cup? I used it and it was brilliant! Also a question – do you refuse to accept receipts?? After i do my credit card bill checking, I rip and compost all receipts – just an idea 🙂 xxx

    1. Family cloth used to sound very extreme to me, but since doing cloth diapers it seems like an obvious choice! It’s not really any different from using cloth wipes on the baby.
      I’ve hesitated to write about sanitary products because it feels like discussing such a private thing on a public forum, but yes, I actually have a moon cup and I love it. I also have cloth pads, and love them too. I consider these things a total upgrade from disposables; I can’t see ever going back. The trash…the smell…the running to the store or running out…I love being free from all that!
      Receipts, ah yes. I just started refusing them recently after some dithering about it. I realised that I never actually used them and they created clutter all over the place in my house and purse. It doesn’t save them from the trash, because the cashier just throws them away – but it simplifies my life and perhaps makes a (very small) point that receipts aren’t always needed. I read that receipts often contain plastics or questionable compounds, so I decided to just get them out of my life instead of trying to dispose of them.

  2. This is a fantastic post. I don’t think zero waste has saved us time or money, either, but I do think it’s brought us closer to a simpler lifestyle, if you define “simple” as “getting back to basics.” And it’s awesome not to have to run to the store all the time because you’ve run out of pads or kleenex or lotion. I wonder about sustainability, too, but it seems like the longer we do this, the more set our routines get, and the more our mindset shifts — suddenly going out to lunch isn’t just about the food, and purchases are researched and evaluated. But it’s definitely an undertaking — I feel like I’ve got to be constantly vigilant (channeling Mad Eye Moody there) or it all falls apart.

    Really enjoyed reading this!

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