My failure to go zero waste

Striving to live waste-free as a student often isn’t realistic

Personal garbage adds up.

Three years ago, I tried to go ‘zero waste’ and failed. Miserably.

I remember sitting in class, scrolling through Facebook and seeing a video about the pile of trash in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, the one that is twice the size of Texas. I wanted to help—but being an undergrad student with little income, there was no way I was going to be able to go to the Pacific and fish for garbage.

That was when I decided I was going to reduce my garbage at a personal level. 

The first thing I did was buy  a new travel mug to replace disposable cups when I went out for coffee. This was my first milestone on the path to becoming zero waste—a process which started out small but escalated quickly.

My second goal was to stop using straws and plastic cutlery. This task was particularly challenging given I worked at a grocery store where I often ate lunch from our hot bar or diner.

After a week, I still felt as if I wasn’t doing enough. I decided that I wasn't just going to slowly transition to a zero waste lifestyle—I was going all in. I’d done my research and watched a video on Buzzfeed of a girl proudly presenting a jar of garbage that represented all the trash she’d produced over a few years. Feeling inspired, I went out and bought more supplies.

I started with making homemade soap. Sitting on my kitchen floor, ignoring my midterm prep, I concocted a soap mixture and proudly put it in my bathroom for myself and all future guests to use. I ordered a compost bin and bought compostable bags.

I ordered reusable cotton period pads, my most extreme purchase.

They were gross. I don’t recommend going this route unless you want to carry around a used pad all day until you can get home to wash it. 

My favourite purchase was the matching mason jars I bought for my cupboards to give the impression that all of my dry food came without plastic or cardboard packaging.

Things were going well until I forgot to bring my reusable bags grocery shopping. Next, I forgot my travel mug while getting coffee. From that point on, things began to spiral.

The zero-waste grocery store was an hour away from me by subway, and after a day at school or work, I didn’t have the energy to make the round trip.

The waste began piling up. Whether it was a chip bag from a late-night snack binge or an old essay that had been returned to me, it seemed like I couldn’t avoid garbage no matter how hard I tried. 

There were a handful of barriers in my way too. I have a number of allergies and therefore specific dietary restrictions. My food doesn’t come packaged nicely in beeswax and most times, unless I wanted to make everything from scratch, it had an outrageous amount of plastic packaging.

I’m also on thyroid medication, meaning every few months, I get a new orange plastic pill bottle, not to mention the supplements I take when I’m not feeling well. The waste added up.

About a month after I started on my zero waste journey, when I had full kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom garbage, I realized there was going to be no little jar of garbage for me at the end of two years. I’d put so much pressure on myself to be zero waste that I stopped going out for fear of using plastic.

I had to come to terms with the fact that becoming zero waste was going to be an impossible feat, at least for me.

That’s when I made a pact with myself: I’ll do what I can for the environment without pushing myself too hard to be perfect. I still use reusable bags when I can, bring my own travel mug for coffee, buy low-waste shampoo and conditioner bars, and, in general, shop for sustainable items. But I don’t guilt myself if I have to occasionally throw something away.

The reality is, unless you have a lot of time and money, becoming entirely zero waste is unrealistic. I put myself out over $500 just to assemble my zero waste starting kit.

It’s important to be conscious of our choices when it comes to the environment—the things we use and buy play a big part in the size of our personal impact. However, although we all have a responsibility to make sustainable choices, it’s important do so within reason. Advocating for big companies to reduce their emissions can do more for the climate than making the switch to paper straws.

Don't worry if you failed at being zero waste. I did. What matters is we still try our best to do our part to decrease our waste and protect the environment.


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