How to Deal with Recycling Guilt

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I tend to approach new endeavors with an excess of enthusiasm, and when I get into something, I get really into it. An environmentally friendly lifestyle was one of those things I embraced with zeal, and I’ll readily admit that I went a little overboard at first.

Honestly, it’s kind of hard not to. When you begin to educate yourself about environmental issues, it can be challenging to not turn every tiny decision into an agonizing situation where you imagine the negative environmental impacts of your choices. Getting a coffee to go brings to mind the hundreds of thousands of years that plastic lid will languish in landfills. Being served a drink with a straw reminds you of that horrific video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw embedded in its nose. Shampoos are filled with phthalates and SLS. Conventional sunscreens may actually cause cancer. Organic food is better for you and the environment but gets flown thousands of miles to get to you, potentially negating any positive effects.

It’s completely overwhelming and seems to prove definitively the adage that ignorance is bliss. Even when you begin making positive changes — composting, biking to work or making your own home and beauty products — it can be far too easy to focus on all the ways you could be doing better. The car that you still own. The plastic-wrapped products you still buy. The things you can’t recycle. Or, sometimes, after reading zero-waste blogs, even how much you’re recycling.

It’s been more than eight years since I began consciously choosing a more environmentally friendly life, and I feel as though I’ve finally found the middle ground between ignorance and agony. I’m now able to feel good about the decisions I’m making and continually strive to do better, without needlessly beating myself up in the areas in which I fall short. Here’s how I got here:

5 Ways to Beat Recycling Guilt

Photo: Shutterstock

1. Start slowly, continue sustainably

Sustainability is an important concept in environmental policy, but it’s also an incredibly valuable concept to integrate into your own life as you begin to make changes. It’s far better to make slow, gradual changes that will stick rather than doing a massive overhaul of your life all at once. When you run out of paper towels, begin using rags instead. Switch to recycled toilet paper when you finish your last roll of the eight-ply cushy soft stuff. Learn to make products only as you use up their store-bought versions. Keep your plastic Tupperware until it breaks or wears out and then replace it with stainless steel or glass alternatives.

Set yourself up for success by making changes gradually and they’re less likely to overwhelm you. Although it’s tempting to charge gung-ho into this new eco-friendly life, by adopting new habits one at a time as your life requires it, you’re actually more likely to continue these new positive habits.

2. Remember that guilt doesn’t motivate

Think about those commercials on TV featuring malnourished children in foreign countries or abused animals in shelters. Have you ever picked up the phone to donate to their cause? Or are you like most people, who simply feel terrible for a few seconds before quickly clicking away to escape that feeling?Guilt doesn’t motivate people to change, it just makes them feel bad about what they’re doing.

Depression rarely motivates, it typically inspires inaction instead. So, instead of beating yourself up about all the things you aren’t doing yet, try to focus on how far you’ve come. What are you doing now that you weren’t doing a year ago? How many plastic bags have you avoided using? How many coffee cups have you saved by bringing your own reusable travel mug or jar? Take a moment to tally your successes and let the positive effect of your efforts inspire you to continue.

3. Live by the 80/20 rule

I used to view environmental choices as very black and white. If I forgot to bring my reusable coffee cup to the coffee shop, I simply wouldn’t get coffee. I’d feel ashamed every time I drove somewhere. I’d feel guilty for using a conventionally made lipstick or mascara when the natural ones I’d purchased simply didn’t work.

Now, I allow for some gray areas and I call these areas the 20 percent. Here’s what that means: 80 percent of the time, I made very environmentally conscious choices, as you probably do, too. I recycle, compost, use a drying rack instead of a clothes dryer, make my own body care products, opt out of paper bills and so on. I’ve decided to be happy with an 80 percent success rate, and I’ve chosen not to berate myself for the 20 percent of the time where I may make less-environmentally-friendly choices due to poor planning, unavoidable circumstances or convenience.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t continually strive to improve or make better choices, it’s just a way of acknowledging that I’m not perfect — no one is — and I refuse to hold myself to unreasonable standards. Expecting perfection just makes my life miserable, and who wants to be miserable all the time? And on that note…

4. Recognize that perfection doesn’t exist

Sometimes there just isn’t a perfect choice, like the example above of deciding between organic produce flown in from a foreign country or local produce that’s been conventionally grown. Sometimes you don’t have a bulk store available to you. Sometimes your child won’t use the natural toothpaste. Sometimes you won’t be able to recycle things you wish you could.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Yes, your homemade toothpaste may be perfect from an environmental standpoint (unpackaged! natural ingredients! fluoride-free!), but if your child refuses to use it, the branded toothpaste is actually better. Understand that the “perfect” choice isn’t always the good one for you.

5. Don’t compare

If, when I was first starting out eight years ago, I had compared myself to my current lifestyle, I would have felt inept and inadequate. Right now, I feel the same way comparing myself to those who live carless, zero-waste or in tiny houses. There will always be someone greener than you. Refuse to compare, take your journey at your own speed, and make the right choices for the environment and your life, rather than trying to copy someone else’s.

Have you struggled with recycling guilt? Do you have any tips for assuaging it? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

Feature photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Read More:
Study Finds Women Are ‘Recycling Enforcers’
How to Convince Non-Recyclers to Ditch the Trash Bag
8 Easy Ways to Start Being Green

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Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.