Sometimes you Need to Think Bigger Picture than Just Zero Waste

Everyone that i’ve ever read about our watched who is aiming for a zero waste lifestyle is doing so for environmental reasons. Thus the goal should always to be to do what is most environmentally sustainable, creates least negative impact and greatest good wherever possible. Possibly in part due to the fantastic branding and encapsulation of the concept by the term ‘Zero Waste’ and it’s often association with the other term ‘Lifestyle’ there a risk of the concept becoming hijacked into an ideology or dogma. This is an issue if people make a choice to do something just because it is ‘zero waste’ but in doing so create great negative environmental impact than if they had gone the other way and done something that did create waste. The issue really becomes when we stop thinking critically about our choices and rely too much on a prior choice to ‘just be zero waste’. Also if we prioritise a reduction in waste over all other areas of environmental impact.

I don’t think that the original creator of the Zero Waste Lifestyle movement Bea Johnson does this at all – i’ve always been very impressed at how critically she considers her choices and discusses them in detail in her lectures and blog. But now this movement has spread far and wide and amazingly a look at the google trends data on search terms shows that ‘Zero Waste’ has far more searches than ‘Sustainability’.

Let me give you some examples of when it may be be WORSE for the environment to chose the zero waste option.

  1. A study of the overall impact of washing machines has shown that continuing to use an older (over 5 years was given as the age), less energy and water efficient washing machine has far more negative environmental impact than purchasing a newer more efficient washing machine. This is because the majority of impact a washing machine has is from use, not the construction of a new machine. Likewise you would be better off disposing of your old incandescent light bulbs now before they have actually broken and purchasing new LED ones as the energy savings are enormous.
  2. If someone has to travel a long distance to buy food package free then the carbon emissions from their travel, even if using public transport could offset the benefit of producing less waste. Obviously this is a balance thing and could be assisted by taking fewer trips and buying large quantities less frequently but it is something to consider.
  3. I used to live in a remote part of Australia that relied on the limited resources of the Great Artesian Basin (ground water) which underwent energy intensive desalination prior to use. It thus was a very previous resource. This town also used to have its own landfill, and the local geological conditions meant that it was an incredibly stable environment that would not cause water contamination, leakage etc. So stable that a nuclear waste facility was being considered for the area. Using disposable diapers over cloth ones in this situation therefore may be the better option as cloth diapers would require greater water use which was the more limited resource. Note that this all changed when the local landfill facility closed down and waste was then transported by truck for around 6hrs to another waste facility. This entirely changed the situation and then cloth diapers became the far better choice on balance.
  4. Buying package free beef has a far greater environmental impact than purchasing packaged lentils due to the methane emissions, resources involved in creating feed for the cow and amount of water used to produce the beef.
  5. Purchasing a ‘package free’ item online which is shipped to you (which will have to be in some sort of packaging anyway to be posted) where as you could have purchased the same kind of items in packaging locally reducing overall transportation impacts.
  6. Buying bio-plastic or other compostable type disposable items for example compostable diapers, plates and cutlery etc when you do not have the ability to dispose of these items correctly. These items need long, very high composting temperatures to break down – much greater than can be achieved in a home composting system. A lot of municipal composting systems also do not keep their piles at the required temperatures for long enough to break down these materials and very few households have access to these kinds of green waste disposal services anyway. The issue is you can’t put these items in the recycling bin as they cannot be recycled with other plastics. Thus the only appropriate place for them for most people is in landfill. You would be better off purchasing regular plastic or paper items that can be recycled using normal methods – or far better use reusable items.  If you have a green waste disposal system that accepts food waste then check with your local council if it can handle these types of bio-plastic items before using them.
  7. Using large amount of drinking water to grow vegetables in an arid climate so you can be package-free whereas importing them from a location with more rainfall may be better choice (if this is you though look into grey water use and wicking beds as possible ways to change this around).

So that’s just a few examples. Basically in all these circumstances ‘Systems’ thinking or lifecycle analysis is the best way to critically analyse the true impact of the choices we make. This takes into consideration all of the ways in which our choices have an environmental impact, on fauna and flora, water resources, air quality, carbon emissions as well as waste.

Ok… i now know what you are thinking – it is soooo complicated then so how can someone possibly make choices, it’s it just easier to go zero waste. Well yes, and the majority of time that will be the right choice. It though should be obvious to you too if you are travelling very far to make your purchases zero waste or getting a lot of these through the post and therefore may need to reassess. It is also only occasionally we need to make big purchases like white-goods so definitely for these types of big choices then you should do your research into what is best. The reality is though that we tend to do the same things over and over again, so it is only really once you need to make an assessment on if what you are doing is the right choice. Also keep in mind to think bigger picture and care about other things you can do to be more sustainable like dietary choices and energy and water use.

So let this just be a little reminder to not get too hung up on achieving a goal of only fitting your trash in a glass jar etc. but of living the most sustainable, environmentally responsible life you can live given your unique local circumstances.











Source of Info about the washing machine:


3 thoughts on “Sometimes you Need to Think Bigger Picture than Just Zero Waste

  1. Great post! There was one point where I was obsessed with zero waste but the more I learned about it the more I also learned about other issues like water conversation, carbon footprint, fair trade, issues with the meat industry and more. It would have been a ton to learn at once, but it’s helpful to remember that there’s always more to learn.

    That said, my husband and I have a washing machine that’s older than 5 years. As much as I hear that according to some metrics it would be better to replace it, I haven’t yet gotten around to investigating them for myself as well as the options for a responsibly manufactured machine and the best way to dispose of the old one. With any large purchase, I err on the side of not buying it until I’m confident that it’s the right decision. But I’m always learning (and in the mean time just avoiding washing when not necessary).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you have the money to upgrade which obviously not everyone does, it is extremely easy to compare the water and energy use of different models of washing machines. We did get a front loader after we realised it would use half the amount of water as our old one and we were living in a desert with a baby on the way who was going to wear cloth diapers so we’d be doing a lot more washing. So it was the right choice for us. My old washing machine went to my sister who couldn’t afford one when she just moved back to Australia from living overseas so it wasn’t a matter of recycling or not for us at the time. Luckily though washing machines are mostly metal so really very recyclable and because metal is worth a lot in the recycling world it is definitely in the interest of the place you send it to, to recycle it properly. That being said i think i’d always donate something like a working washing machine even knowing that it was causing more environmental damage than new ones because there are plenty of people in the world that can’t afford a new washing machine so i’d rather it go to use to them. It is not as though if they can’t get my older machine they are some how magically going to end up with a newer one instead. People matter as well. This just illustrates how decisions are not just made based on one value or factor like the environment but multiple like finances and human welfare as well. The analysis that came up with the result we were all better off just recycling old washing machines clearly is an ideal situation that only looks at one value: environmental impact. The reality is of course far more complex for real people making decisions. The point of discussing it though was just that what is more environmental isn’t always what we assume is the case once the lifecycle analysis is done. Thanks for the comment! x


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