On Zero Waste and Simplicity

On zero waste and simplicity | Litterless

These days, I think a lot about how to slow down the pace of my weeks. They’ve been very full, full to bursting, so much so that I haven’t been able to show up here on Litterless as much as usual. I’m working on it, and trying to get back into the swing of things here while also remaining in the swing of things elsewhere.

I had the pleasure of being interviewed for Erin’s Simple Matters series over on Reading My Tea Leaves today. (You can read the piece here). Since then, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which zero waste has made my life simpler, and the ways in which that sentence might seem almost oxymoronic. Zero waste, especially to people who might be newer to it, may seem daunting and complicated and, most of all, very time-consuming. I wanted to share both why that is true and also, why it isn’t. 

Zero waste certainly requires a large investment of time at the start. A beginner’s checklist might look like: figuring out how to compost, learning more about local recycling ordinances, finding where to shop for bulk foods nearby, researching reusable alternatives to single-use items, and purchasing those alternatives (or scouring secondhand stores for them).

While I’m a proponent of a strategy that changes habits slowly and one at a time (more on that here), that’s a list to daunt even the most enthusiastic. But once you’ve made those changes, they by and large stay made. The upfront work fades, and I think what is left is less time-consuming than what came before.

On zero waste and simplicity | Litterless

Since much of practicing zero waste is about replacing disposables with reusables, your home becomes stocked with things to wash and reuse again. Once you’ve got your handkerchiefs, your kitchen rags, your water bottle, your reusable food storage containers, your cloth napkins, whatever you decide will be part of your toolkit, then, pretty much, you’re set. For me, it feels much easier to throw something into the washing machine than to write it on the grocery list. I’ll happily stand over the sink washing a piece of Bee’s Wrap, but I won’t happily run to the store to replace a box of plastic wrap. I feel less frenetic never having to think about buying paper towels, tissue boxes, water bottles, tinfoil, plastic wrap, parchment paper, paper napkins, cotton balls, razors, tampons, and a host of other disposables that now have nearly eternally-reusable replacements at our house.

Replacing disposables is only one part of zero waste, of course. Alongside may come cooking a few more things from scratch. We don’t make our own tahini, for example, but we do make our own hummus (usually). We don’t buy cans of beans anymore (usually), but cooking dried beans takes no more than five minutes when you have a slow cooker (ours is from a secondhand store) and the headspace to think about dinner a day ahead. Sometimes you just have to throw in the towel and get take-out, in which case, we might go to Chipotle for the compostable bowl, or get food to go at a local spot in a container brought from home.

My point is that routines become, well, routine. I don’t much miss the convenience of pre-zero-waste because I don’t much remember it; these are just our routines now, same as any other.

The equating of zero waste and simplicity isn’t true for every household, most likely. For you, dishes and laundry may be your particular bugbears, in which case having to wash more things rather than just go to the store for new ones may fill you with anxiety. I don’t mean to sugarcoat the matter and imply that zero waste is your ticket to a blank calendar and a calm frame of mind; I just think aiming to make less trash has the potential to simplify routines and strip away a few of the tasks on our to-do lists.

There are aspects of zero waste that remain complicated and time-consuming to me, and they likely always will. Making sure hard-to-recycle items do get recycled takes effort and research. I spend time looking up where to bring lightbulbs and electronics and gift cards and fabric scraps for recycling, and then making sure these things get where they need to go. (I’ve compiled some of that information, here).Right now in our apartment we drop off our compost at a local site, but eventually we’ll probably move somewhere that dictates setting up a backyard compost bin. We’ll also at some point have to replace our handkerchiefs, cloth napkins, beeswax wrap, and other reusables as they wear out. But replacing them less often than their disposable counterparts continues to feel like a plus.

I would never say that my life is simple, but I do think my zero waste practices have become so. Each day, my routines are rarely more complicated than remembering a metal fork when I go out to eat, grabbing a few produce bags on the way out the door to the grocery, and putting food scraps in the compost bin while making dinner instead of in the trash can. We’d have to take out the trash, anyway; now we just take out the compost, too.

How about you—simple, complicated, easy, stressful, somewhere in the middle? 

More essays and thoughts like these, here.

(Photographs by Anna Zajac for Litterless).