Trying to fit a zero waste and minimalist lifestyle together can seem to be impossible.
As someone living a zero waste and minimal life as best I can, I absolutely disagree. After all, isn’t the first R of zero waste refuse? And one of the main tenets of a circular mindset simplicity?
The opposition of zero waste and minimalism seems true at first. That is, if you subscribe to the type of minimalism that encourages a willy-nilly discard of everything non-essential. But in fact there are ways to gracefully, non-wastefully give away your items… and after that, use zero waste practices to reduce your consumption.
One book I read really put my half-formed thoughts into perspective: New Minimalism*. Written by two women who work helping people declutter, it’s a thoughtful look at minimalism. It thinks about more than just the inside of your house.
There are a lot of books on minimalism out there. Very few include environmentalism as one of the first points in their book, and continue to weave a low-waste lifestyle throughout the book. If you’re interested in cultivating a life that’s both zero waste and minimalist, check out this New Minimalism* review.
How are zero waste and minimalism related?
As I mentioned, zero waste and minimalism both advocate for a conscious reduction in the things we consume. And while the book doesn’t advocate for zero waste in explicit terms, the link is clear:
Minimalism is inherently a form of environmental activism… you choose to buy less overall with a focus on purchasing quality, long-lasting goods… when you refine your consumption habits to support your pure needs and selected wants, you are, in a small but significant way, decreasing your demand for the manufacture of new items.
That’s on the third page of the introduction. So important!
Both zero waste and minimalism focus on a conscious reduction of consumption to leave room in your life for more meaningful things.
I also love that this book was extremely thoughtful about what would happen to the items after you decide they no longer serve your purposes. They devote a whole section to how to gracefully let go of your unwanted items. (I’ve also written about how to declutter as a minimalist here.)
Aren’t zero waste and minimalism just for the privileged?
Yes and no.
Yes, because it’s a privilege to think beyond the basics of day-to-day survival. It’s also a massive privilege to be able to invest in fewer, higher quality items rather than many cheap items. The barrier to entry for zero waste – and to a lesser extent minimalism – is restrictive to many people.
There’s also the fact that many people live without any number of things because they must, not because they can make a conscious choice. For more thoughts on the subject, there are plenty of articles on the subject. (And just to hammer home the privilege aspect, I has to do extensive googling to find an article by a BIPOC author.)
No, because they’re both movements that focus on a lack of consumption. Looking into your habits and dividing your wants and needs is an activity anyone can indulge in. Whether you’re able to change anything or not, becoming aware of how culture and media affects your thought process is a powerful act.
But it is a function of privilege as to how deep you’re able to delve into the process of both zero waste and minimalism.
Simple ways to insert minimalism into a zero waste lifestyle
Just being mindful about the the things you think you want and need is an amazing start to both lifestyles. Here are a few more concrete examples from the book:
Use existing storage before adding more
One of the important ways that zero waste and minimalism intersect is by consuming less. New Minimalism does a great job of reminding us of this. “We work with the space as it exists in this moment. Rather than imagining how a longed=for space or furniture item might be, we use the existing closet space, furniture, and decor before recommending that our client add anything new.”
Chances are we already have more than we need. It may be imperfect for the space or our needs, but it’s almost certain we have the items we need for a functional house. By changing your mindset from “I need ____ for my house to be perfect” to “I already have ____”, we stop bringing unnecessary items into our lives.
Not only do I love the pushing of using what you already have rather than buying new, their action tips for this principle are buy bulk and compost! Because reducing waste and our landfills is totally minimalist.
Find and understand your archetype
New Minimalism has a whole section on archetypes. They list four: Connected, Practical, Energetic, and Frugal. You may be one or more of these, and your category may chance depending on the category of things you’re addressing.
I love that each archetype has a shadow side (ie. the negative value), block (the thing that makes it difficult to let go of things), and a list of valuable questions to ask yourself. When you understand your motivations for consuming too much or consuming things you don’t need, you’re able to separate emotions from the process.
This allows you to “to coach yourself… to let go of the items that no longer serve you.” That’s minimalism. After you’ve let go, you can stop the cycle from happening again. That’s zero waste.
Remove your dependence on ‘perfection-creating’ supplies
In the section on household supplies and toiletries, there’s talk of the overwhelm of messy cabinets but also the emphasis on perfection. Acknowledging that a stainless home or a spotless face isn’t realistic allows you to let go of many unnecessary, environmentally harmful products.
I love this message: “To be fully human is inherently to be messy. In missing out on those changes to show up as your completely human and vulnerable self, you miss out on the chance to experience the deep connections, growth, creativity, and fullness that are our birthrights.”
Obviously this doesn’t mean tossing out all of your cleaning supplies, shower items, and beauty products, but it does urge you to take a step back and evaluate. What items do you have that A) are safe to use B) truly make you happy and C) serve a real function?
Stop and step away from the messages that your house, face, and body need to be perfect or they’re inherently unworthy. (And when you’re ready, I have a whole post of zero waste cleaning recipes when you need a budget-friendly eco-alternative.)