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low impact vs zero waste (or, why I’m team “low impact living”)


The idea of ‘going zero waste’ has taken the world by storm over the past several years, and for good reason.

It’s hard to hear about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (a swirling mass of plastics three times the size of France floating in the ocean), or see a viral video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck up its nose, or watch the last episode of Planet Earth II and not feel a bit sick. People are concerned as they recognise the state of the world and feel that they must do SOMETHING to mitigate the damage that has been done by past generations and by ourselves to this planet that we call home.

But to be honest I find the term ‘zero waste’ provocative, and not in a particularly good way. I’ve taken part in many a discussion around the phrase that devolved into semantics because the other person’s immediate response was “but it’s impossible to be zero waste!” and you know what? That’s true! And why is it true? Because we don’t live in a circular economy.

low waste living and the circular economy

A circular economy implies that things are restorative and regenerative. We currently do not live under this model. Right now it’s more of a “take, make, dispose” system. Our economy is linear, and with that comes waste as an end product.

Waste is a human creation, and an inherently human problem, because nature does not produce waste in the way that we do. Everything in nature has a purpose and a use, even in its decomposition. But humans have created a way around that (much of that due to the introduction of single-use plastics in recent generations), and it is our chronic over-consumption of finite materials that leads us to this position of watching the amazing technological progress humanity has made come back around to bite us on the ass.

Nature, for example, is a circular economy. Even the waste produced by the deaths of plants and animals return to the ground, fertilising it and preparing it for the spring that is to come, when new things are created, which will consume other things, or be consumed, and then die. Animals prey and are preyed upon in a delicately held balance. The cycle continues.

So zero waste as an ideal is about trying to get to that, and finding that balance and a place for humans in that balance. In reality we can never reach zero, and ‘zero waste’ has become more of a marketing term or buzzword than anything else.This industrial term has become something that people are using as a yardstick for their day to day lives and it does not compute.

However, that doesn’t mean producing less waste can’t be a goal for more of us.

why low waste/low impact?

I believe in making less trash. I believe that most people can, somehow, someway, in their day to day life, make less trash. And so I am a proponent of low waste living as I believe it is a more inspiring, inclusive term that doesn’t immediately turn away those who recognise straightaway that ‘zero’ just isn’t a thing we can do. I want to be part of an inclusive movement with achievable goals, and ‘use less’ is totally achievable.

plastic is political - but you should still care

The planet is zero waste on its own, and it wasn’t so long ago that our resources and materials were valued more deeply - or at least not made specifically to be used once and then tossed in a landfill. But more than that, it’s not about what people value (convenience, mostly) it’s about the power that large corporations have over both our day to day lives and the products that we bring into our homes.

Today the vast majority of people bear no responsibility for climate change or the overproduction of plastics. Just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 and the average person’s personal behaviour cannot compete with that. Recycling more and using less won’t end the crisis our planet faces right now.

A single large conglomerate such as McDonalds, Tesco, or Walmart would make more of a difference in the first day of going plastic-free than one human could by swearing off plastics for the rest of their life. And that’s a truth we have to be okay with.

don’t give up - it’s worth it

When it comes down to it, we must all do what we can because the only other option (doing nothing and watching the world burn!) is entirely too cynical. Making individual effort is paramount while we collectively continue to pressure the big guys to get their acts together. Not to mention every little bit really DOES make a difference to your local community.

back to low waste

So that’s that! Corporations are producing huge amounts of plastic, and it’s not really possible for each of us to individually produce nothing, but it is still imperative that people take action and try to use less of the resources that we are currently burning through at astronomical rates. And If we’re all going to agree to try, I believe that by refraining from using the phrase ‘zero waste’ and opting instead for the more inclusive ‘low waste’, more people will feel empowered to make better (ie lower waste) choices in how they consume.

If you’re a zero waste proponent, more power to you! I think it’s fantastic, obviously. But this is why I think low waste living, and the low impact movement, is more in line with my beliefs, my abilities, and my goals for worthwhyle.


2 comments


  • Amelia

    Whole heartedly agree with focussing on the ‘circular’ nature of recycling, rather than ‘zero waste’, which is almost impossible for most of us in this plastic world. The Circular Economy is going good work on this paradigm. If it can be achieved we would be living as you say, as the Earth does naturally, through birth and death cycles.

    PLASTICS is the largest area of focus currently, and rightly so as it is found in every area of the oceans. ‘Turn The Tide Plastic’ , a yacht on the 2018 Volvo Ocean yacht race, proved this with tests in the Southern Ocean. Micro plastics are changing the ocean water: plankton are being destroyed by it, right at the bottom level of the ecology chain. Ocean Cleanup by Boyan Slat has a great new boom collector launching and testing.

    Good point made about the corporations being the greatest culprits. The pharmaceutical companies who provide the chemicals for plastic production are the worst culprits. We are living in their CHEMICAL PROFITS paradigm

    In UK for instance, they gave a Knighthood to INEOS boss Jim Ratcliffe who proposes to frack the country and then make plastics with the gas energy. ANYTHING profiteering from plastic should be discouraged, and until we get a government that keeps this in mind, I see no reduction in plastic production; drink bottles alone produce mountains of plastic each day.
    Despite the knowledge of the waste plastic entering the oceans constantly, we still have supermarkets selling fruit and veg in plastic; BECAUSE they are providing out of season produce from all over the world, and plastic ensures ‘freshness’ and ‘cleanliness’ I presume. More has to be done to provide biodegradable wrappings, such as hemp or rice starch if we want to continue living a ‘global’ lifestyle.
    Waste is very much an end product of over producing globalised industries.


  • Ellen

    Totally agree with this sentiment. If we say ‘zero waste’ but mean ‘low impact’, I think that’s OK, because ‘zero waste’ is so, so much catchier. As long as it doesn’t put anyone off getting started, I don’t think the terminology matters much. We have a bit of an obsession with ‘going’ things – ‘going vegan’… ‘going gluten-free’. It’s that catchy, magic bullety, buzzwordy thing that we do, when really it’s OK to eat less meat and dairy, or be more aware of our carbon footprint and take steps. The main thing about sustainability is – it has to be sustainable! Oops, I’m rambling. I feel a blog post of my own coming on…


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