In particular in the western world, many of us are brought up quite spoiled. Sure, each parent raises their kids differently, but it’s often that I see kids in stores cry until they get the toy or candy bar they so desperately want. Once raised in a world where everything is up for grabs, it’s hard to steer away from these habits. Coming from such a culture, a zero waste lifestyle can feel like quite an arduous journey, especially when just starting out.
But it’s not just the difficulty of changing your habits, there’s a lot more that comes into play. From time to time we hence ask ourselves: Is it all worth the effort? Why should I care; my time on this planet is insignificant anyway in the grand scheme of Earth. As president Trump likes to think, we aren’t even able to influence our atmosphere when we all try so hard to do so as a group effort. Then how can my actions, as an individual, ever be of any significance?
The zero waste community always tends to be quite positive about the zero waste lifestyle. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a good thing! But this also means that the downsides of zero waste living are not as prominent. But how can you face, let alone overcome, your struggles if you aren’t even aware of them?
We’d first like to stand still and take a second to highlight some of the obstacles we experience in our day to day lives. And afterwards, share our thoughts on why we nevertheless continue on our path towards a zero waste lifestyle.
The weekly treasure hunt
If you live in New York you’ll probably not be familiar with this, but for those living in rural areas, the unavailability of zero waste products is a serious obstacle when trying to live zero waste. Brick and mortar bulk stores are nearly absent outside of large cities and can even be scarce in large cities, such as in Dublin. And nowadays, even established zero waste stores can go out of business.
The scarcity of zero waste stores makes the day to day, or weekly shopping quite difficult. Having to travel for more than an hour to a largish zero waste-ish store is not what I would call tempting. Not too long ago we spent a whole day going from shop to shop in Dublin. We tried to find some specific products needed to make some recipes, but ended up empty handed. Finding certain products plastic free, and preferably package free, can at times feel like participating in a treasure hunt.
Workarounds aren’t perfect
Luckily, workarounds for this exist in some places. For example, we recently discovered a delivery service in Ireland for boxes filled with fruit and veg. The produce is organic, plastic free, and mostly grown locally – three of the things we value most during grocery shopping. We’re so glad that we’ve discovered this delivery service. Not only does it save us an immense amount of time each week, it also allows us to explore the country on the weekends, rather than spending half of every Saturday grocery shopping.
There are however still some drawbacks. We still have to find products like spices and beans et cetera elsewhere. Our products are delivered just once a week and we have to adapt to the farmer’s product availability. We have to adapt and be creative in the kitchen at times now. We have to think of recipes in which we can use all of the vegetables. And we plan our meals so that we first consume the fruit and veg that easily spoils.
As long as we follow a zero waste lifestyle, we will not have the ability to pop in the store for that one thing we need for our dinner or to satisfy our cravings. And as everyone knows, things do not always go as planned. Maybe we’re just a little spoiled these days, but no matter how well we plan things, there’s always that one thing we’re missing or just crave.
Bags full of bags
Which zero waster hasn’t stood in a store only to realise they forgot their cotton produce bags? Or planned to pick up some meat from the butcher on their way home from work, but didn’t bring a container to put it in? It is difficult to be mindful at all times. We try to have reusable bags on us at all times, but sometimes they just don’t fit in our bag, or we simply forget.
When going out to get your zero waste groceries, you’ll always have to carry reusable bags, produce bags, and multiple heavy glass containers (some still halfway full). Taking everything with you each time can be quite wearisome and off-putting, especially when you’re just starting out in the zero waste lifestyle. We certainly needed an adjustment period. After a little over 6 months, I think we’re finally getting used to it.
Nothing comes for free
Money, the universal language. Many of us live on a budget, and so do we. On a daily basis, we have to make choices on what, and especially what not, to buy. This of course does not stop when doing our grocery shopping.
Before we ever stood still by the share amount of trash we were buying, we always tended to approach our grocery shopping as economically as possible. Present-day, we foremostly aim to find our products firstly without plastic and mixed material, secondly with no packaging at all, and thirdly we look for organic local produce. When all that is said and done, we take a look at the price. This is quite contradictory to how we previously approached shopping.
Although we now buy less, we do spend more money. By less, I mean buying no redundant packaging. Part of the increased expenses is probably due to the fact that bulk stores tend to carry organic products. Most people trying to live zero waste naturally also prefer organic produce as it’s best for both the environment and our personal health. Selling zero waste organic products is certainly a match made in heaven. However, sadly, it also means that the products are usually more expensive.
Take oats for example. Not too long ago we visited an amazing zero waste market stand for the first time in Dublin. At the stand they sell organic oats for 35 cents per 100 grams, which comes down to 3.5 euro for 1 kg of oats. At our usual grocery store however, we can buy a 1.5 kg paper bag of oats for just 99 cents. That’s just 0.67 cents per kilo, which is a substantial difference in price if you ask me. The oats are an extreme example. But in general, changing to a zero waste lifestyle has overall turned out to increase our expenses. That goes for groceries as well as clothing.
The scarcity of plastic free clothing
If you’re looking to buy a new outfit whilst trying to minimise your waste and plastic consumption, prepare to be disappointed. We have found plastic free clothes to be incredibly rare. Over the past months, we’ve spent a lot of time searching for brands that produce plastic free clothing. Sadly enough, we hardly found any – at least affordable ones that is. The other day I came across a site with mostly organic cotton clothing, which was great. But then I looked at the prices. 150 euros for a single shirt is just way too much for or us.
Finding functional clothing is even harder. We love to spend our time outdoors to hike and enjoy the views. Finding plastic free outdoor clothing however, is next to impossible. The brand Rojk Superwear makes great effort to create natural textiles. But they also haven’t come far enough yet to create truly waterproof clothing, let alone affordable items. When embarking on long hikes, having waterproof clothing is a must.
The unavailability of plastic free shoes in particular created a second issue for us personally as we follow a vegetarian diet. When buying new shoes, waterproof hiking boots in particular, we asked ourselves: should we go with leather or plastic? Both options have their own drawbacks. We settled on organic leather shoes with biodegradable rubber soles. This probably means we’re not true “vegetarians”. But luckily we aren’t too bothered to affiliate ourselves with a specific label and its accompanying constraints. How do you go about buying good quality boots that can support you throughout the day?
It is slowly changing, but there really still is a social stigma around all things sustainable. Considering to live more sustainably is, still to this day, thought of by many as an “odd hippy thing”. Even though this might not affect everyone who’s adapting to a more zero waste lifestyle, not all of us have developed a thick skin. It can still be scary at times to refuse the plastic bag when buying clothes; to bring a container with you when buying meat at the butcher; or to tell your family you’d rather not receive certain types of gifts.
Having a social stigma around zero waste living makes it all the more difficult. Something that’s by itself already challenging enough to do in our current society, can do without the extra struggle.
Is zero waste living worth all the hassle?
Trying to live more of a zero waste lifestyle has certainly turned out to be less convenient, more expensive, and scary at times compared to our previous, rather careless, lifestyle. Is the hill too steep to climb?
When looking at zero waste living on the outside, it seems to bring along more disadvantages than advantages. Why would you ever pay more; put in more effort; research what to buy; or cycle to a shop 10 miles away, just to have the same stuff but without the packaging? This is a difficult question to answer. For many, it’ll have to do with their personal values. Health, nature, children.
When thinking about it, I always tend to go back to the basics. What are our basic needs?
Looking at animals in the wild, all they basically do is find food and a shelter against the weather and enemies. When all that is said and done, and there is some spare time and energy, they might play for a bit. Sure, we’ve evolved further over time, but what do we really need each day?
To see the next sunrise, all we have to do is to put food on the table and find shelter against the weather. Concerning enemies, we luckily have few to worry about in Europe. Everything else is, as far as I see, a bonus. Having the possibility to watch a movie in the theater is not something I should demand or see as a given, but rather experience as something I should appreciate and cherish when given or earned the opportunity to do so.
Sure, there are many more things we have to spend our hard-earned money on. We have to pay for health insurance, transportation, school, and et cetera. But when all the fixed costs are paid, I’d rather spend a little extra on more environmentally friendly products than buy that bag I actually do not need, or that little cool new gadget.
Like many others, we had become entrapped in our current consumer society. And it was about time to snap out of it. It was time to go back to the basics and enjoy the simple things in life.
Instead of demanding that a store carries all products I want at any given time, and getting frustrated when they don’t, I’m now happy when I do find that one thing I was looking for after a few weeks of searching. I’ve come to appreciate the little things in life much more. This mindshift alone, has made all the hassle the zero waste lifestyle has brought about, more than worth it for me.