Portrait of a young woman sitting at home with pen and paper

Living an eco friendly lifestyle can be challenging at times. You’d think these difficulties would arise because of the constant composting or the sourcing of environmentally-conscious products; efforts to change the way we live, eat, and get around our cities. There are so many different facets to green living that it wouldn’t be surprising to come up against the occasional roadblock. Which got me to thinking; Is waste reduction an all or nothing game?

Waste reduction reimagined

These things do definitely happen, but more often that not, challenges arise from the expectations we have from ourselves, and the feedback – often unsolicited – we receive from others.

I encountered this early when at age 18 I stopped eating meat for ethical and environmental reasons. My older brother and I were close, but he just couldn’t pass up the chance to tease me. I was feeling pretty precious about this choice, having just finished a cold, hard look at the realities of the modern agricultural complex, when he started heckling me about why I was still eating eggs if I’d given up meat. I vividly remember him saying, “So you won’t eat an animal that has been killed – but you’ll eat their unborn embryos?!”

I cried.

Now, almost fifteen years later, I don’t cry when I face criticism for my choices – but damn do I feel like it sometimes, and I know that others do, too.

The issue at hand is whether doing anything is still worthwhile if you can’t do everything.

  • What’s the point of not eating meat if you still eat eggs and dairy?
  • Does recycling really matter if you still pollute by driving a car?
  • Yes, it’s great that you’ve shifted your diet to include more fresh fruits and vegetables instead of processed foods, but those veggies should be organic! The fruit should be non-GMO! And if you’re not buying your produce at the farmer’s market, why even bother?
  • You’ve reduced the amount of waste you produce to one small garbage bag a week? That’s cute. Check out this girl, though, she only creates a tiny jar full of waste or the whole year.

These thoughts constantly flow through our heads and come at us from others – it seems that whatever we do, there’s someone else doing it better. This comparison game can happen a lot, especially around the topic of waste reduction, and although some of these disheartening criticism come from others, a lot of it originates in our own minds. We can be so tough on ourselves.

Sometimes taking negative or intrusive thoughts and bringing them into the light can disarm them because suddenly they don’t seem so true, after all. So let’s examine these ideas. Is it true that if you don’t do everything to become an eco-waste warrior, you should just abandon the whole endeavor? If you don’t give up your car and live in a tiny house and wear only upcycled burlap and become literally zero waste, are you still having an effect?

Segregated paper products
Waste reduction begins with you. Image Credit: Eziutka / Shutterstock

In short: yes. I can’t say this emphatically enough. Everything you do has an impact, whether it’s just turning the tap off when you brush your teeth or developing a state-wide composting initiative. Each one of your actions adds up. Let’s look at how quickly that can happen.

  • According to the National Resource Defense Council, if every family in the United States replaced just one roll of toilet paper with 100% recycled toilet paper, we could save 420,000 trees.
  • If every household in the U.S. replaced a burned-out bulb with an energy-efficient CFL bulb, it would prevent greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to that from nearly 800,000 cars. It would also save enough energy to light 2.5 million homes for a year.
  • If every family in the country shortened their showers by just thirty seconds over the course of the year it would equal twice the amount of freshwater we withdraw from the Great Lakes every day

These are massive changes. And what have we really done? Switched one roll of toilet paper, replaced one light bulb and spent half a minute less luxuriating under the shower spray. These are tiny, tiny changes. Just imagine the effect you having when you compost and keep hundreds of pounds of food waste from landfills each year, or make an effort to print all of your documents double-sided.

And, in terms of the waste reduction game, it’s truly incredible to be able to fit all of your waste into a single mason jar. As I found out recently it requires a type of research, dedication, and organization that I can’t help but admire.

But, you truly don’t have to fit all of your waste into a mason jar in order to have an effect and you’re not a failure if you can’t. Currently, each individual in the U.S. creates approximately 2.89 lbs of garbage every day, or 1, 054 lbs each and every year . The mason jar goal represents roughly a 99.9% reduction in waste, but even if you just reduced your trash by 25% you’d prevent over two hundred and sixty three pounds of garbage from heading to the landfill each year. And that’s just you. One person.

Even if we all reduced our waste by just 10%, the cumulative effect of this shift would result in the elimination of 32,000 pounds of garbage.

At the risk of sounding like a motivational speaker, in the zero waste game you don’t have to be the best, you just have to do your best. Even those who have successfully devoted the time and energy to reduce their waste by 99.9% earn the wrath of armchair critics. Not doing it all is not the same as doing nothing.

Start small, and make incremental, sustainable change. It’s the only way.

Feature image credit: mimagephotography / Shutterstock

By 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.