I think we can all agree our individual zero waste goals are not enough to reverse the damage humans have inflicted on the planet.

The problem is we – even those of us practicing zero waste – are operating within a system that rewards corporations engaging in economically destructive behavior. Our system encourages consumers to make poor decisions. No matter who we are or where we live, our lives and lifestyles have been commodified to the point where it’s very difficult to truly make a change while operating within the system.

But despite that overly pessimistic message, I think individual exploration of zero waste is critical to the success of a bigger change. BUT. Only if we turn individual action into zero waste community action. What better way than to take your small zero waste changes and apply them to the bigger picture?

Zero waste helps people grasp the larger issues and how they affect their day-to-day. It then becomes easier to square up, join a community, and begin fighting the larger fight. (If you’re ready for that step, see the end of this post for ideas on how to take your zero waste practices beyond the individual.

Zero waste vs. more effective actions

It’s true: worrying over plastic packaging doesn’t have as much initial impact as other actions. But zero waste is an accessible stepping stone into greater eco-consciousness. Compared to other alternatives – going vegan or not having children or never driving a car – making major zero waste efforts can seem like a walk in the park.
Because is it fair to expect everyone to go vegan? No, because there are almost 23 million people living in food deserts across the USA, which means that they may struggle to even get to a store with food, much less find fresh produce. Veganism doesn’t have to be expensive, but to do veganism on the cheap requires time and access to multiple grocery stores which many people don’t have.

Is it fair to expect people to give up their cars? This negates the experience of many for whom a car is a necessity. It also doesn’t account for the fact that public transit in America is failing us miserably, especially the poor.

Is it fair to expect people to not have children? I won’t even get into this one; suffice it to say it’s just as wrong for me to tell people they shouldn’t have children as it is for people to tell me I should.

But it is reasonable to expect everyone to be able to refuse plastic bags from the store once they have a few good reusable bags. It’s entirely reasonable to ask everyone to make several small, meaningful zero waste changes – and ask those privileged and already on the journey to take their individual explorations into zero waste community actions.

Why zero waste needs to turn into community action - Green Indy Blog

The truth about what zero waste really is

Zero waste is bigger than it seems on the surface to those keen to talk about its faults. Lumping zero waste in with the failures of “conscious consumerism” is wildly short-sighted. Because zero waste isn’t just me being picky about a plastic bag or whining about a straw in my drink.

(Also, zero waste isn’t zero.)

It’s about people becoming aware that low-income folks often don’t even have access to anyfresh produce and beginning a dialogue with their community about how to change that.

It’s about realizing people rely on cars because they don’t have easy, affordable access to public transit and petitioning your local government to allocate more money towards improving routes.

It’s about people realizing money can’t solve this problem and creating spaces for a circular economy to flourish within the community with clothing swaps, Freecycle, and other initiatives.

It’s about realizing not everyone can refuse plastic straws, being sensitive to that fact, and choosing other issues to tackle.

The idea that someone interested in zero waste is doing so in a walled-off microcosm without a bigger picture view is short-sighted. Zero waste can – and almost certainly does – lead to those “bigger things”. Onward to reducing car use, veganism, or even system tackling! Bring your own realizations and discoveries into zero waste community action once you’re comfortable with the concept on an individual basis.

Individual steps and how to go beyond them

Here are just a few examples of individual zero waste steps and how to take them beyond your front door. I’m sure you can identify other opportunities based on your own approach to zero waste and your specific community. I encourage you to brainstorm and implement your own ideas!

Support local plastic free stores

Support local stores with zero waste option options.

When shopping – whether for food, toiletries, clothes, or otherwise – try to choose locally-based companies that provide bulk or unpacked options. This is the base of all consumption as a someone practicing zero waste, whether you’re able to find everything unpackaged or have to make do with what options you have available.

Go beyond the individual.
  • Say your thank yous in person and through positive reviews. We’re quick to condemn stores that don’t align with our values, but rarely reward those that meet our expectations. Make a conscious effort to thank the cashier, send a quick e-mail, or leave a positive review on their platform of choice. Google, Yelp, or Facebook are good places to start.
  • Start a petition for other companies to provide package free options. While great to send to larger companies, petitions are more effective with local businesses. Please feel free to use the form letter and suggestions I created as a jumping-off point for your email or petition. I’d suggest gathering a group of friends to all send a similar email at the same time. Let the company know there’s more than just casual interest from one consumer.
Grow your own food.

Not only will growing your own food help you maintain zero waste on a budget, it allows you to neatly circumvent plastic packaging and non-organic, worker-abusing produce often in stores. Growing your own food also gives you a greater sense of what kind of foods should realistically be available in your region at any given time. Whether you have a sunny window or an entire yard, grow something.

Go beyond the individual.
  • Get involved with established community gardens. Most mid-sized and up towns or cities have at least one community garden set up. Offer your time or money to support a garden in a low-income neighborhood. Studies have suggested “garden programs provided opportunities for constructive activities, contributions to the community, relationship and interpersonal skill development, informal social control, exploring cognitive and behavioral competence, and improved nutrition.” Share food, improve a community.
  • Use your own space and create an informal neighborhood CSA. This is my method this year, a little bit of guerrilla community gardening because I have so much unnecessary yard space. Tear up your lawn, toss in some seeds, and see what happens. Find friendly neighbors willing to help for some fresh produce and distribute your excess to anyone who wants or needs it.

Swap commercial toiletries for DIY options

Swap commercial toiletries for DIY options.

A simple way to drastically reduce your waste is by switching from commercial toiletries and makeup to DIY options. (Even if you can’t always source the ingredients 100% package-free, you’ll likely produce less waste over time.) See this post for a list of DIY recipes for products like lotion, mascara, and more.

Go beyond the individual.
  • Create a product buying and making collective. Have a few friends or colleagues also interested in low-waste DIY products? Buy in bulk and make products at a monthly (or so) meetup. Not only will you reduce waste by ordering larger amounts, you’ll save money by splitting costs.
  • Hold a DIY workshop for the community. If you’re feeling particularly bold and have a recipe you’ve honed, find a local eco-conscious organization to help you host an event. They – or another local business – may even be willing to pay for or donate the products needed or you can charge a small fee to cover costs.
Get annoyed about a public issue.

Engaging in policy is an important way of changing your community. For my own example, the city of Lafayette doesn’t allow you to get paperless billing for your utility bill. Annoying, but is apparently because the system they use can’t process that. Fine, but the city also sends a blank envelope with the paper bill adding additional waste. If not motivated by waste, they could at least save money by not sending a blank envelope to each household every month.

Go beyond the individual.
  • Attend a local town council meeting and present your issue. Each town or city council meeting should have a time at each meeting for public comment. Just be sure you can speak on any topic and not just the ones presented!. Prepare a 2-3 minute – max – comment about the issue you’ve found and offer a simple solution if you see one.
  • Reach out to local press. If the issue is serious and the local government doesn’t want to address the issue, talk to the press. See if a local newspaper or TV station would be interested in the piece. If you can show that a group of citizens is concerned (versus just one) you may have more luck in pushing your case.
Stop buying new items.

A great way to opt out of consuming more resources is to stop buying new. With the massive amounts we consume, there is more than enough already to go around. When you need something, consider asking friends and family on Facebook. Post on local free sharing groups and search on Craigslist. Hit up your local second-hand stores. Good, usable second-hand items are everywhere, you just need to look.

Go beyond the individual.
  • Start a “Really Really Free Market”. A no-money market is the perfect highlight of what a circular market within your community could look like. Invite people to bring things to trade (no-longer needed clothes or household items, services, DIY products, etc) and get to know your community! More on creating a really really free market here.

There are many ways to spread the word of zero waste and address your community’s wider interests. Start a zero waste group, volunteer with a local group, donate extra money to environmental protection groups… use your skills, interests, and resources to make this world just a little bit brighter.

More ways to turn your individual steps into zero waste community actions coming soon. Take your zero waste practices even bigger and better.

  1. These are all fab suggestions. I am still learning myself but I am hoping to share our zero waste journey to help inspire others to be more conscientious. I love that these are all positive ideas that are achievable! Little things make a huge difference. We have just borrowed a wallpaper remover instead of buying one!

    1. Oh man, having access to a sharing community is SO helpful in a zero waste journey! Exciting to follow along with your progress!

  2. Some great points. I notice through my food choices I look at every ingredient where your average meat eater just picks something from a shelf and eats it. I think its the same with Zero Waste we have to become thinkers and think about all aspects of what we comsume and buy.

  3. Something I thought of when I read the title of this blog… I read in a Swedish sustainability newspaper that recent research shows that norms are a bigger motivating factor than competitions. I.e. avoiding social disgrace is a bigger motivator than winning a competition. The research had nothing to do with sustainability originally, but I found it interesting that the sustainability-oriented newspaper brought it up. I can definitely see how e.g. changing social norms on recycling rather than doing “recycling competitions” would be more effective in getting more people to recycle long-term.

    1. That’s really interesting research, and that makes sense to me when I think about it. Challenges (reward & impact) are much more finite than something ongoing like social norms. Very cool!