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7 Things I wish I knew before starting my low waste journey

Words By Tena @ Thinking Threads  

I remember looking at my plastic, old food containers and wondering how much would it cost to replace them with the bamboo-and-glass containers that seemed to be in fashion. 


I will be completely honest with you here.

When I first heard about zero waste, I thought it was a totally crazy idea. 

Some 6 years ago, when I just started learning about our impact on the environment, zero waste as a lifestyle was relatively new. All I could see back then were Instagram-perfect pantries, expensive but minimalistic products, some suspicious DIY skincare that I knew my skin wouldn’t tolerate, and, of course, the trash jars. Who could forget a series of YouTubers and bloggers showing proudly how they can fit their entire trash for a week, month, or even a year (I kid you not) in a single mason jar! 

Not only was this overwhelming, but it was also simply out of my reach. Somehow expensive too. I remember looking at my plastic, old food containers and wondering how much would it cost to replace them with the bamboo-and-glass containers that seemed to be in fashion.

Was this the wrong idea of what zero waste is?

Yes, definitely!

But it was the dominant narrative. Luckily, things have shifted since. 

Zero or low waste has moved away from perfection and aesthetics. Focus now is on reducing our individual waste, our communal impact, and learning to value and cherish the things we own. 

Following, are the 7 things I wish I knew before starting to live a low waste lifestyle. I hope they can help you, wherever you may be on your journey.

zero waste

The origin of zero waste

This was a game-changer for me.

Originally, the term “zero waste”  was coined for the industry, not the individuals. As usual, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment a zero-waste movement started. However, decades ago, the movement started around the ideas of maximising material recovery and minimising waste by reusing, recycling, and composting everything currently being wasted. It was primarily focused on the manufacturers and businesses since this is where the majority of waste happens.

Later, it became a synonym for a certain lifestyle and most of us encountered the idea this way. Does this mean that focusing on an individual effort is wrong? 

No, not at all!

But it does mean that we need to remember to look at zero waste holistically, which includes both the individuals and the businesses. Which brings us to...

Individual vs. collective is a misguided debate

Knowing that the majority of waste happens during resource extraction, manufacturing, and transporting, we might wonder what’s the point of individual effort?

This feeling of helplessness brought me to give up on my efforts more times than I care to admit. Until I realised that I was thinking very narrowly.

The individual vs. collective debate is misleading. It’s rooted in an illusion that these two are opposite or separate. They are neither. Simply put, an individual doesn’t exist without a collective and vice versa. 

Individual action matters not because it can change the world or the wasteful system we live in. But because, by creating new habits, ways, and daily actions, we directly influence those around us. This process takes time but I was surprised when I saw my family adopt some eco-friendly habits. (The last people I expected to participate in anything eco-friendly.) Here lies the true power of individual action!

low waste lifestyle

It’s not about reaching zero waste really

You might have noticed that I’m using the terms “low waste” and “zero waste” interchangeably, so let me explain.

I personally prefer the term “low waste” since this is essentially the point of the movement: to lower our waste, as individuals, businesses, and society. On an individual level, it is pretty much impossible for any of us to reach the state of creating zero waste. However, we can all do something to reduce waste. Focusing on realistic goals and actions takes us further than reaching for something impossible. Not to mention it’s less intimidating.

I also use the term “zero waste” simply because it’s a term more people have are familiar with and will look for. Is it incorrect? Perhaps. Yet, I’m a strong believer that we should meet people where they are and if “zero waste” spikes more interest than “low waste”, then I'll be using it.

Reusing and reducing is more important than swaps

Remember those glass and bamboo food containers I mentioned at the beginning? I wanted those for a long time before learning something important.

There’s nothing more sustainable than using and caring for what we already have. Sure, my plastic boxes might not be the best but they served their purpose. Choosing to use them until they cracked or lost their shape completely was a far better option than prematurely buying a bunch of new ones. The same goes for anything else, from utensils, clothes, notebooks, electronics, or furniture. 

I always try to remember that everything we make requires resources and labor to exist. Therefore, it deserves care and use. And once we cannot use it anymore, then it’s time to consider investing in something better. For example, I only recently replaced some of my plastic boxes with glass containers. I still use the remaining ones regularly!

zero waste

Your needs are different to somebody else’s

So reusing comes first. But once in a while, you might want to look for some zero waste swaps. Through the years, I made some that I’m very happy with. I replaced plastic foil with bees and soy wax wrappers, plastic sponges with brushes, plastic bags with cotton bags, and so on. 

But I also ended up buying some things that I didn’t need.

For example, I bought a set of bamboo straws. Now, I’m not saying that these are bad and you shouldn’t buy them. But I rarely used straws before this and I bought reusable straws simply because everyone else was buying them. The set now sits on my shelf and every once in a while, I’ll remind myself to use them. But essentially, this was an unnecessary purchase for me. I was fine without it too.

What I’m saying is that the low waste swaps should reflect your actual needs and lifestyle. Observe well what you are using daily that can be replaced. Start there rather than going for trendy things that everyone seems to own. It will save you some money too!

One thing at a time is the key

Start with your daily habits and see what you can do to reduce your waste. It sounds simple until we try to analyse our routines. Food, cosmetics, shopping, clothes, commuting, electronics…There is just so much!

Instead of getting overwhelmed (I definitely did), choose to focus on one thing at a time. Be it your kitchen, bathroom or closet, decide where you want to start, and start with small things. Challenge yourself to change something else every month or even every couple of months. Remember, habits take time to develop and that is ok. When we give them the time, they also stay!

It’s ok to change your mind

Living a more sustainable lifestyle is a process of constant learning and adaptation. We all start somewhere and with time, we learn more and more. Sometimes, we learn that we might have been wrong. And that is ok.

My example:

When I started focusing on fashion and reducing my fashion waste, I discovered the extent to which we overproduce clothes.  There are simply too many clothes on this planet. Being familiar with the world of second-hand clothing, I was certain that it’s the only way forward. We should all buy only vintage and second-hand fashion. 

Well, I was wrong.

I still believe that buying second-hand (not only fashion but also furniture, electronics, decoration, and more) is important, however, I don’t believe that it is the only way forward. The more I learned the more I understood the importance of small, ethical businesses. They have the biggest power to change the industry and the way we manufacture our stuff today. Supporting them is equally important as buying preloved items. Sustainability never has a single, ultimate answer!

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Thinking ThreadsTena Lavrenčić - Thinking Threads.
Tena is a cultural anthropologist, a researcher, and an active advocate for sustainable and ethical fashion. 
You can find her on instagram at @thinking.threads