Embarking on a "Zero-Waste" Journey...One Year Later
About a year ago, I published this post on my blog as a way to kickstart my ‘zero-waste’ journey. Galvanized by the sheer amount of plastic plaguing our supermarket shelves and struck by the contrast between that and the alternative of bulk food stores such as Live Zero, I felt the instant need to transition towards a more mindful, low-impact lifestyle.
Upon skimming this article again, I’ve made two quick observations:
My bold claim to “post weekly updates about my progress” has evidently slipped from my memory, but
reflecting on my habits a year ago, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve grown.
So, to compensate for my 50 missed reflections, I’ve decided to create one large compilation of my thoughts—including: my realizations, (unsolicited) advice, and goals for the future.
REALIZATIONS + ADVICE
There’s a problem with calling it a ‘zero-waste’ lifestyle.
Zero, like black or white, denotes an absolute. And absolutes reject the possibility of imperfection. By calling it ‘zero-waste’, we imply that there is no alternative to complete waste-free living when it comes to the practice of sustainability. But that’s impossible! Due to its allusion to perfection, the term ‘zero-waste’ often deters people from attempting to lower their impact at all. So, instead of saying ‘zero-waste’, maybe by labelling it as ‘low-waste’, ‘low-impact’, or ‘intentional living’, we can encourage others to view it as a mindset rather than a fixed goal.
A low-impact lifestyle is always going to be inherently paradoxical.
Up until recently, I thought that living sustainably was as simple as boycotting plastic and meat and propagating positive messages about the influence of individual action. However, it’s been brought to my attention that we who preach a ‘low-waste’ lifestyle are always going to be hypocrites in our own right. There is no possible way we can go about this lifestyle without contradicting ourselves—a responsible activist who’s travelling to speak at a climate conference can rack up just as much if not more, carbon emissions through a single flight across the continent; a person who volunteers their time to do weekly beach clean-ups can easily reverse their efforts by eating seafood or using a plastic straw; a person who attends a climate march may contradict themselves by riding a private car to school…the list goes on—but what we can do is put in our best effort. That is not to say we should disregard the downsides of our approach; instead, we should celebrate individual efforts to tackle issues as grand as climate change, while striving to improve our shortcomings. One thing I personally can and should work on is mitigating my carbon footprint through travel. The aviation sector, like meat production, produces abundant amounts of CO2. The industry on its own accounts for a large (every source reports a different statistic, but I know for sure that it’s not a small percentage) proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions. Travel, to me, has always (ironically?) been a source of motivation to preserve our environment. I do believe it is an essential part of understanding the world and addressing global issues, but certain aspects—such as minimizing our take-offs and landings—can be easily fixed. Since I will be taking a gap year and the foundation through which I’m taking it requires an ‘international component’ (i.e. traveling abroad), this will without a doubt be challenging. However, now that I’m aware of this, I hope to make a conscious effort to curtail (when possible) the aspect of my carbon footprint generated by air travel.
Environmental issues are far more complicated than I know.
Aside from these contradictions, the issues of sustainability, veganism, and environmentalism are also complexly intertwined with layers of politics, economics and environmental justice concerns. One’s well-intentioned “vote with your dollar” philosophy may be condoning a brand’s corporate greenwash and it’s worthwhile to wonder if a vegan world can ever be achieved under capitalism. Now, I’m just naming titles of videos and articles that I have yet to understand myself, but I’ll address this again below.
I did not need to invest in ‘zero-waste’ paraphernalia
I actually knew this when I began, but I went and bought produce bags, a bento bag, and Stasher bags anyway because a) I was lazy, b) the ‘zero-waste essentials’ on display were enticing, and c) I was succumbing to the aesthetic of sustainability. Do I regret buying these items? Not at all. I use them all on a regular basis and they have streamlined the process of reducing the waste I produce. But all I’m saying is that they’re not essential. Aside from the bamboo toothbrush (which I needed since my previous one was fully worn out) and the sanitary pads (which serve to reduce long-term waste), all could have been replaced by existing alternatives found around my house. For example, there’s no point buying a produce bag when I have plenty of fully functional cotton bags lying around at home. I didn’t need a bento bag when I could have use a container for my breakfast. And instead of Stasher bags, I could have re-used old plastic bags. ‘Zero-waste’ is not always about having the best tools, but learning to repurpose what we already have.
Evidently, there’s still a lot for me to learn when it comes to sustainability and environmental issues in general. While my intentions are in the right place, I believe that the least I could do is further educate myself. Whether it’s understanding the components of different plastics, tackling fast fashion, or grappling with food waste, there are several aspects of low-impact living that I have yet to comprehend.
So, throughout July, I will be kickstarting a 30-day awareness challenge, inspired by Immy Lucas (Sustainably Vegan)’s #ClimateStudyWeek. During this time, I will absorb as much information as possible around the topic of climate change and sustainability. Through videos, podcasts, books, and articles, I hope to develop a deeper understanding of these pressing issues and how we can address them in our daily lives. I plan to dedicate a minimum of one hour every day to learning (as they say, self-growth is the best investment, after all) and because it’s useless to passively absorb information, I also intend to post occasional reflections (under the “personal” tab) on this blog to share what I’ve learnt. While learning with the intention to teach, I’ll also be recommending insightful resources that I encounter, so that you may explore them as well.
Currently, these are some of my favourite channels, blogs, and podcasts which have been instrumental towards gaining a better sense of the movement. Most of these I only discovered recently, but all of them I love:
“Our Changing Climate is a weekly video essay series that investigates humanity's relationship to the natural world.” Some notable videos include: Here’s how plastic bags impact the environment and Greenwashing: A Fiji Water Story.
“This channel prove[s] that you don't need to be a hero to save the planet. [Levi] does this by showcasing the ideas, innovations and individuals that are making the world a better place AND giving you the information you need to be a part of it.” Love the philosophy behind this channel, and the casual, non-aggressive tone of his videos.
Everything I’d ever want in a Youtube channel, Sustainably Vegan creates videos covering the topics of veganism, vegan recipes, low-waste essentials, and easily-implementable tips that surpass the usual “bring a reusable container”.
Agnese’s blog is partially what inspired me to kickstart this ‘zero-waste’ lifestyle in the first place, and although she currently studies in Australia, her website (and youtube channel) contains many useful tips that pertain to Hong Kongers attempting to minimize their environmental impact.
And with that, I’d like to end this reflection with a quote that perfectly sums up my perspective on practicing low-impact living: “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero-waste perfectly; what we need is millions of people doing it imperfectly.”
See you in a few days!