Tara McKenna created the blog The Zero Waste Collective and is the author of Don’t Be Trashy: A Practical Guide to Living with Less Waste and More Joy.
“Why bother? We’re screwed anyway.” That’s a common sentiment you might hear if you start working toward a more sustainable lifestyle. But the thing is, our individual actions do matter when it comes to the environment – especially when they become global movements. It’s these massive campaigns that put pressure on governments and large corporations to address important issues such as plastic waste and climate change.
Take Greta Thunberg, Time magazine’s (youngest ever) Person of the Year in 2019 when she was just 16 years old. Ms. Thunberg’s seemingly simple and lonely climate strike from school was a solo activity in 2018, but became a global movement just a year later. Next she was meeting with world leaders to discuss ways to combat climate change.
Though we won’t all become a Greta, we can still inspire our co-workers and friends. Choosing reusables – such as shopping bags, travel mugs and water bottles – helps to normalize their usage and can motivate others to do the same, shifting demand away from single-use products. Littering is another great example. If you’re around a group of friends who don’t litter, and you choose to do so, your behaviour will likely be frowned upon. In that situation – and hopefully others, too – you wouldn’t be likely to litter again.
But individual actions don’t just serve society – they also benefit you. What I didn’t quite realize when I embarked on my zero-waste journey was all of the ways that reducing my garbage would enhance my life. Side benefits from my more sustainable lifestyle include eating healthier (package-free foods tend to be unprocessed, whole foods); making new friends (on social media and in real life through events); getting involved in my community (joining a public liaison committee); learning to budget better (shopping less and saving money); making calculated purchases free from buyer’s remorse (choosing quality over quantity); simplifying and decluttering my home (and reducing the inflow of more stuff); being empowered by making mindful decisions (supporting local and sustainable brands); and feeling grateful for having the opportunity to inspire others to live more sustainably (even if it’s imperfect). Everything in my life feels more streamlined and intentional, and that brings me joy.
Low-waste living is a balancing act, and I’ve come to terms with the fact that not every decision I make is going to be perfect. I’ve taken my fair share of criticism for not being sustainable enough, and you might, too. Your journey toward reducing your waste and becoming more sustainable is just that – yours – and once you decide which approaches fit your lifestyle and which ones do not, there’s no point in beating yourself up about what other people think. Reducing waste is not a contest. It’s not about keeping up with the zero-waste Joneses on social media. It’s about learning to make choices that work in the context of your life.
I’m not saying I believe governments and corporations should be let off the hook. Large-scale and structural changes are essential. But when I encounter people who believe individual actions don’t matter and won’t make a difference, their arguments are often cynical or fatalistic. They say that placing the onus of sustainability on individuals is propaganda used so that big, polluting corporations can keep doing what they’re doing to destroy the planet. That focusing on individual action distracts from government accountability. Or that picking up litter won’t make up for the tons of trash that enter our oceans every year.
These statements read like excuses to justify personal inaction. And choosing inaction because the problem is the responsibility of someone or something else, such as governments or corporations, is a form of avoidance. Yes, it’s inappropriate for companies that produce plastic bottles to organize antilitter campaigns that put the onus on individuals to clean up their communities. But given that people are buying more than one million single-use plastic bottles each minute worldwide, surely consumers are also part of the problem.
Individuals don’t live in isolation. Humans are part of society, and when our actions spread, they are compounded – and that’s when we get results. One small decision inspires another, then another, and before you know it, millions of people have decided that they don’t need to use plastic straws. That leads to the avoidance of other single-use plastics – and that’s when we see a paradigm shift. And then one day, being more sustainable becomes the normal way of living.
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