Pursuing Perfection / The “Zero” in Zero Waste

Hello everybody! I feel like this is something we have to continuously talk about. First of all, because new readers are coming every now and then and maybe they haven’t heard yet, if that’s you, hello. But generally, I also think this is a healthy talk to have amongst both new and old zero wasters/people pursing various degrees of sustainable living.

We tend to focus a lot of perfection and many of us experience guilt when we fail to meet our own or other people’s insanely high expectations for us. When we choose to act or live more sustainably we demand more of ourselves, we often demand more of others as well, but what I actually want to talk about is how other people demand more of us.

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When you state that you act according to what is the most sustainable, whether that is related to how you shop, how you eat, who you live, how you travel etc., you sometimes put a target on your own back. The criticism I receive comes from two places: online it comes from other people who believe that their idea of sustainable living is better, that the information they have is superior to mine and therefore that I am failing to be the best I can be. The criticism I receive in real life is often coming from people who do not pursue sustainability themselves but simply what to “quiz” me about various random subjects. Often these questions show how little they know about the subject themselves: “do you know soy production is killing the planet, so that tofu burger is actually worse than beef” is a classic. No, it’s not. If you really worry about the impact of soy production you should stop eating meat, 86% of all soy is used as feed in animal agriculture. A very little amount is used to make actual tofu – most of our processed foods contain soy as well – so that’s probably another place to start. However, I was being quizzed by someone who did neither.

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Another example, I have heard literally thousands of times is: “you say you’re plastic-free, but there is plastic in your cellphone and in your laptop. Didn’t know that did you?” No, this is brand new information, haha not. Then I have to explain in detail the difference between that plastic in my laptop and single-use disposable plastic while they are drinking a milkshake out of a Starbucks plastic cup with a straw. A few years back I called out Aalborg’s local sustainability festival for giving about balloons and plastic-wrapped sweets and as a response, they shamed me for having a computer. Okay, I say “called them out” I let them know that perhaps there were other ways to go about that would suit the “sustainability brand” a bit better. I was really tired haha. So the amount of raw materials like oil (plastic) gold, aluminum, silver, lithium, etc. it takes to make a single cellphone usually weighs about 230 kilos and e-waste is the fastest-growing category of waste in 2019. Of course, if you choose to do without the luxuries of electronic devices you are completely free to do so, but shaming people for having them is the absolutely wrong way to have a discussion about sustainable actions.

The problems when it comes to consumer electronics is related to replacing functional devices, planned obsolescence, supporting crap companies that use child labor by buying from new rather than second hand, and throwing devices away with normal trash. Just to be clear.

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But what is the effect of being quizzed and corrected over and over again? I guess it’s different depending on who you are, but I can feel myself getting defensive in certain situations simply because I know the skepticism is coming. I also sometimes choose not to disclose the fact that I try and live sustainably because I don’t want to explain or discuss whether or not I am making a difference, I don’t need that negativity in my life. And yet it is often there anyway, when I go over the possible social situations and how to defend myself. This is one of my worst habits.

See a lot of people like to make it sound like what I am doing differently does not matter because then it would mean that not caring or acting differently is okay because that does not matter either. A lot of people test me because they want to find the flaws, they want to make sure that the “zero” in zero waste is a lie. I mean, it is a lie, which I very open about. There is no such thing as “zero waste”, we all have an impact, but I refuse to let that sentiment become a lazy alibi for people who don’t even what to try.

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If I get a plastic bag or a straw that I did not expect, if I buy a product that has some plastic packaging, I feel guilty, I feel like I am failing at life. This is partially a self-constructed moral which I maintain daily by trying hard to avoid these things. But we also hold each other to incredibly high standards, and we often expect others to care about all the same issues as we do, completely ignoring the fact that it took us years to gather the necessary information we needed in order to change our behavior. I cannot expect anything from others that I was unable to myself. I did not go vegan overnight, it took me years. I did not go zero waste overnight, I am still evolving and working with my goals. I did not reflect upon the impact of palm oil, fast fashion, new electronics, energy supply, fossil fuels, streaming, soy production, single-use plastic or what else all in one day. So far it has taken 5 years for me and I am still not done.

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My point is that we should never expect “zero” from anyone, it’s not possible, and also it’s not the goal at all. I believe that the zero waste trash jar is a lie, I don’t actually believe that you can present years of trash in a jar because that’s not all you produce. To do that you have to ignore the impact of a lot of products and services. Physical trash only represents a fraction about what your impact is as a consumer, so instead of focusing so hard on that “zero”, just try and reduce as much as you can. If you really produce no trash that’s amazing, great, but don’t let an entire days’ worth of efforts be ruined by the guilt of a plastic bag.

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