Are minimalism and zero-waste living wasteful?

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I have been increasingly struck by the irony of how wasteful zero-waste living, as well as minimalist living, can be. Two recent articles have helped to reinforce this thinking; their focus is on minimalism, which I will tackle first. These two articles were written in response to the popular Marie Kondo Netflix series. Benjamin Leszcz and Katherine Martinko argue that we should not dispose of items based on whether they spark joy; rather, that we should examine our possessions in the light of “making do”, a deeply pragmatic philosophy. It means asking of our things the only question we should ever ask of them: “Can you fulfill your intended use for me?” (Leszcz).

When I declutter my home, my approach mirrors more closely the concept that Leszcz and Martinko propose. I’m a pragmatist at heart: If something doesn’t serve a purpose, I don’t need it. I’m actually more concerned about the waste that minimalism and zero-waste living can generate. In our rush to declutter our homes, how much of our possessions end up in the landfill? It could be argued, of course, that they are destined for the landfill at some point; we’re simply doing it now rather than later. At the very least, we should donate as many of our decluttered items as possible, which is what I have tried to do.

The move to zero-waste living can generate a large amount of waste. The graphic above for a zero-waste kitchen is an example of what I mean. I know that I have been guilty of buying “zero-waste swaps” instead of making do with items I already have in my home. So, for example, I’ve bought sets of travel cutlery, when it would have been simpler to use cutlery I already owned. It’s tempting for us to want the shiny stainless steel or bamboo items that proclaim “zero waste,” but aren’t we simply creating more waste when we do this? We have, in fact, fallen prey to zero-waste marketing.

I’m cautious about articles such as the two above because I fear that they will encourage people to not declutter their homes. The article could reinforce the “I might need it someday” mentality that continues our hoarding habits. Rather, I think we need to consider the “do I use it approach” when we assess our possessions, and the “do I need it” approach when we consider purchasing something new. This is where “making do” comes in. I think the bigger question we need to tackle is why we purchase so many items that we don’t need and that we never use. I’ve been fighting this tendency for the past several years; I’ve made significant progress, but I do need to constantly question myself. Let’s look at a recent case in point. While I was in Ottawa this past month, I stopped by a favourite store, Zone, which sells home accessories. I absolutely love home accessories and, in particular, linens, so this type of store is my achilles heel. I know this, yet I still went in, as I love to look. While there I came across these linen kitchen towels. I absolutely love linen, and the price of these towels was very good. I grabbed two and walked around the store: I forced myself to take this time to mentally run through my kitchen linen drawer. I could see the large stack of perfectly usable kitchen towels in this drawer. I already have far more towels than I need, thanks to my past shopping behaviours, so I put the towels back on the shelf. Yes, they were an excellent price, and they were pretty, but I DID NOT NEED THEM. Thankfully, I wasn’t shopping with a friend, because I likely would have been convinced to buy them. It’s taken me a long time to get here. I think I go to stores such as Zone to test my resolve; it would be easier, of course, to simply avoid the stores completely, but I love beautiful things and enjoy looking at them (hence my fondness for art galleries). It’s a dangerous line, however, and I have faltered once or twice.

Making do is a philosophy I want to continue to explore and embrace. Something I’ve considered doing is creating an inventory of certain items I own that are the most tempting to buy; in my case, this would be handbags, kitchen and bathroom linens, and makeup. I can check the inventory to see whether I already own it, or something like it,  e. g., do I need a third shade of this colour lipstick? I think all of us need to make a clear distinction between wanting something and needing it; just because something is pretty, or on sale, or a steal, doesn’t mean that we need to bring it into our homes. Can we reuse what we already own, or put it to another use? Case in point: When I switched to loose-leaf herbal tea, I explored tea infusers in the stores, but I found them all to be too fiddly and awkward.  I looked at the French press in my kitchen cupboard and thought “why not use this, instead?” In other words, I shopped from my kitchen and made do with what I already owned. I recently sewed old napkins into produce bags. I have turned into my grandmother Georgina and am perfectly happy with that.

2 Replies to “Are minimalism and zero-waste living wasteful?”

  1. We have a lot to learn from grandmothers…like this adage: use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. Thanks for putting into words, what I have also wrestled with in my journey to be kinder to the planet and more thoughtful in my purchases.

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