On Minimalism and Zero Waste

How zero waste and minimalism are related | Litterless

There are folks who think minimalism and zero waste are inextricably linked, that one without the other can't exist. There are other folks who posit that the current minimalism trend is in some ways antithetical to zero waste: as anyone who's read about Marie Kondo's decluttering style of literally throwing away as many trash bags of possessions as possible to achieve a tidy home can attest, it's a fair point.

As with most philosophies zero waste, I fall someplace in the middle. The fewer resources we can use to live happy and healthy lives, the better for the planet, undoubtably. And unused things lying around are in some ways just waiting to become trash. If you clean out your bathroom cabinet and find a jar of six-year-old body lotion, you're probably not going to want to use it; into the trash goes the lotion (and into recycling the jar), when if you'd found it four years earlier it might have gotten used up just fine. The examples in favor of a more minimalist home being more conducive to zero waste are legion: elastic stretches beyond repair on clothing left in drawers too long, spices wither and get flavorless. And so on.

Using something yourself in its prime eliminates these possibilities, or passing unused items along to someone else allows them to be useful while they can be. Where I find minimalism problematic is in some of its most vocal proponents' assertions that it is IT: the path to happiness and peace and a calm home and life. Owning less certainly can be a path to that, but more likely you'll still be the same person with the same worries before and after you get rid of your toaster.

Getting rid of things you'll use isn't necessarily more virtuous than keeping things you'll use. Our things can get devalued when passed along. You know the history behind your favorite skillet, which kept you company in your first apartment; given to a thrift store, it's just another stained piece of cookware in a stack of stained pieces of cookware. I own three wooden spoons, and after putting two away to make more space in my current tiny kitchen, found I could actually make do with one. But the other two are beloved to me; I remember the farmers' markets where I purchased them in college, and the turmeric tint reminds me of years of past meals. I'd hazard that if given to a secondhand shop or a friend, someone would scoop them up and use them, but might later discard them more cavalierly, as the spoons would lack the sense of history for them that they hold for me.

I've found balance in, well, a balance. I'm good about passing along things that I truly never use or no longer want, but have no compunction about keeping extra things tucked away if I know I'll find them useful in the future. Extra bars of soap, bamboo toothbrushes, wooden spoons, tea towels: though I don't actively seek out extras, when I find myself with extras, I'm okay with having more than I actually, truly need at any given time. I think that's a perspective that's rare in the zero waste world, where we often hear that we need to get rid of every single thing we don't use at a given time. To me, that seems unrealistic and a little austere. (Though it certainly does work for many people). I've found I like life better with a little cushion. But not, of course, too much.

On minimalism and zero waste | Litterless

This month, I've been playing a twist on the Mins Game. Created by the some of the same vocal proponents whose strident statements rub me the wrong way, it's nevertheless become a tool in my zero waste arsenal that I appreciate. Have you heard of it? The idea is that you give yourself a month to take the time to sort through your possessions and find what you can get rid of. The first day of the month, you get rid of one thing; the second day, two; the third, three, and on until you hit thirty-one.

A friend of mine started the game among a group of our friends in February of last year, and when the same month rolled around this year, I was pulled again to the idea of a fresh start. The game is a good motivation to tackle the big task of getting rid of the clutter, the unused, that can be easy to put off nearly-forever until that jar of body lotion slinks to the back of your cupboard, not to be discovered for another six years.

However, as zero wasters, we play the game with a few twists. Repairing, cleaning, or otherwise getting an item back in circulation in your home counts just as much as getting rid of something. Of course, we also take the time to get things to their proper homes: rather than stuffing it all in a trash bag, items get donated to the right places, recycled, and composted. (A guide to sustainable decluttering, here). And, we stop when we're finished; if we don't have enough items to get rid of sustainably, we can end early. Simple as that.

For me, the game is a way to take stock of all the small odds and ends lying around. I rarely get rid of larger things en masse anymore; I'm happy with my wardrobe, the items in my kitchen have earned their place there, and just generally there aren't really many big items in my home that don't deserve to be there.

But I can admit to a penchant for buying new lotion or making new body butter before my current stash has run out, and to a reluctance to dig my fingers way down deep to get at the last bit in the jar when the new jar is so pleasingly, temptingly full. I have a few used-up bamboo toothbrushes waiting to have their bristles removed and their handle composted. Junk mail piles up in a corner before I can get around to emailing the companies that I'd like to be taken off their mailing list. If I can use up the last bit of lip balm in a tin, I can use that tin for something else. A game that takes on tackling the small tasks of caring for small objects enables me to periodically give everything a total once-over. I like it.

Want to play along? Other thoughts on the zero waste and minimalist divide? I'm fascinated: please share.

Previously in Home: Waiting to make purchases, parts one and two.