5 ways a zero waste lifestyle could be harming the planet


If it becomes all about the packaging

There are many factors that determine how sustainable a product is, and packaging is only one of these. It’s what’s in the packaging that makes the most difference. There is some logic to this – there is simply more product than packaging, therefore more resources will go into producing it.

Some businesses are taking advantage of this narrow focus to greenwash their products and services. I recently visited a food outlet which made a show of promoting it’s ‘sustainable’ packaging, but the man behind the till told me that the amount of  unsold food they throw out at the end of the day is ‘crazy.’ Much of it was meat and other resource-intensive foods. There is really no type of packaging that will make this kind of business model sustainable.

If you end up buying mountains of new stuff

Consumption is the major driver of environmental destruction. There can be benefits to buying new things if you invest smartly in items that will help you to you reduce your consumption in long run. But many sustainable lifestyle tips seem to be little more than shopping lists for more stuff, and the most frequently promoted items are not exactly gentle on the environment.  Stainless steel is an insanely wasteful and co2 intensive material to produce, while cotton has an enormous water footprint. While I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t use things made from stainless steel or cotton, I would suggest that if your goal is to reduce your environmental impact then accumulating piles of resource-intensive stuff is not the way to do it. Buy just what you need.

Perhaps the most extreme example of excess consumption in the name of waste reduction is buying electronic gadgets like food processors and soup makers for the sole purpose of avoiding packaging. Electrical goods take a lot of materials to produce (much more than meets the eye) and are very wasteful and co2 intensive to manufacture, while electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world. I am not suggesting that we should not use food processors. What I am saying is that investing in several kilos of metals and hard plastic to avoid the consumption of packets doesn’t add up.

If you end up increasing car use in order to shop zero waste

If you increase the amount you drive in order to shop, the environmental damage from car use could outweigh the benefits of buying more sustainable goods. Driving (at least for conventional vehicles) causes climate change, which is more problematic for the oceans than plastic waste, and is also a major cause of air pollution, which contributes to around 40,000 early deaths per year in the UK and is known to make children sick (though strangely, this doesn’t seem to cause the same levels of anxiety and outrage as turtles and plastic straws).

The good news is that zero waste shops are increasing so rapidly that you may now have one near where you live. Some even offer a delivery service with electric vehicles – a great way to reduce congestion and carbon emissions compared to everyone driving to the shops. So see what is on offer local to you.

If you simply swap one type of consumption for another

I recently visited a ‘zero waste’ grocery store that simply swapped plastic packaging for paper bags. Unless there was something very different about its supply chain, it’s hard to see how it was reducing packaging waste. It could potentially even increase the environmental impact from food packaging, as paper bags have higher carbon footprints than plastic ones, and since they are less durable cannot be reused as many times.

In general, the more a business is about reducing waste (rather than simply avoiding plastic) the more it will have an eclectic, down to earth feel. These are the places that encourage their customers to donate old jars and plastic bags for other customers to use and furnish the premises with second hand and repurposed stuff.

If a preoccupation with small details distracts from the bigger picture

Once you have made the changes that have the biggest impact, perfecting every last detail of an eco-conscious lifestyle has diminishing returns. Making everything from scratch and researching every single thing you buy are very time consuming, and it is not always certain that this has a lot of benefit for the environment.

To be clear: I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t take small actions to benefit the environment. I’m questioning whether actions that involve a lot of effort, energy and focus but have very small or dubious benefits are the best use of time given the scale and gravity of the environmental crisis. Nor I am I suggesting that you should not cook from scratch, make your own beauty products, or anything else if that is what you like to do. I am suggesting that if you feel duty-bound to do these things for the sole purpose of avoiding packaging, then this is something time and energy consuming which has relatively small environmental benefits and could be taking your time away from more effective actions.

Put it this way: if everyone reduced their consumption of animal products, energy and stuff, it would have enormous benefits for the health of the planet. If everyone volunteered or campaigned for the environment, even in small ways, we could achieve something big. But if everyone collectively avoided jars with plastic lids, the difference would be hard to spot.

We need volunteers to collect and redistribute the vast quantities of surplus food that would otherwise be thrown away. We need people to bother their MPs about fracking and taxpayer subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and to demand better waste and transport infrastructure. We need bodies on the ground to protest. We need litter pickers. We need everyone to divest their personal finances from fossil fuels and encourage their institutions to do so too. We even need clicktivists.

Note that some of these actions could take 5 minutes. The movement to defend the environment is weakened when those of us who care are absorbed in the search for plastic-free ingredients for homemade toothpaste and travelling to distant shops that sell pasta in cardboard packaging.