“Discovering the Joy of Zero Waste Living” by Beth Vande Voort

When we first started the Green Team at Shambhala a little over a year and a half ago, I thought of myself as a pretty environmentally conscious person.  After all, I recycled. I tried not to waste food. I turned out the lights when I left the room. Little did I know, however, how much being a part of the Green Team would wake me up to a whole new way of being in the world.

It all began when Hélène DuBois introduced us to the concept of “Zero Waste.”  I had never heard of Zero Waste let alone the Zero Waste movement, but coming from a frugal “Waste not, Want not” Dutch family, I thought it sounded like a good idea.  Besides, I thought I kind of had this down already – after all, I recycled! But then I started learning about the 5 “R’s” of Zero Waste:

Up until then I always thought of recycling as pretty high on the list of what environmentally conscious people do, but now I was starting to see it more as a last resort.  As I learned more about the reality of recycling, I started to understand that recycling still uses huge amounts of resources and energy, and that in truth only a fraction of what gets put in our recycling bins actually gets recycled.  The majority ends up in landfills, in our oceans in the form of toxic plastic pollution, and in developing countries where they often don’t have the resources to deal with the overwhelming amounts of waste generated by other countries. The first step, then, is about rethinking our patterns of consumption so there’s less need for recycling in the first place.

The more I learned about Zero Waste, the more I began to think consciously about diverting other items, too, from landfills, incinerators, or the oceans.  I started to think about all the disposable paper plates, paper napkins, plastic silverware, plastic bags, plastic straws I used without thinking twice about it – in fact, I began to realize we live in a society that actively encourages us not to think about it.  We just throw things in trash cans and away it goes – an “away” most of us have never had to deal with.  I also started thinking about where these things came from – these paper plates came from trees, for instance, and these plastic cups came from petroleum.  These are all precious resources, and in this case they’re used once and then sent off to a landfill – I started to think, there’s got to be a better way!

And the same goes for food waste.  After watching the film “Wasted! The Story of Food Waste” and learning how every year 1.3 billion tons of food is thrown away, and how food waste in our landfills contributes to methane gas in our atmosphere, a gas even more powerful than carbon dioxide in contributing to global warming, I became passionate about composting.  I began to realize that small things add up, and even if I couldn’t save the world from environmental destruction, I could certainly take responsibility for my part in it.

And so slowly I started making changes.  I brought reusable produce bags to the grocery store with me so I no longer had to use disposable plastic bags.  I started carrying a set of bamboo silverware in my backpack so I wouldn’t have to use plastic when I was eating on the run.  I stopped buying disposable facial tissue and started using good old-fashioned cloth handkerchiefs. I started bringing a cloth napkin with me in my lunch bag so I wouldn’t be dependent on paper napkins.  I started using old rags at home to clean instead of paper towels. I started shopping in the bulk food section where I could use my own reusable bags. I started bringing glass jars with me to the store where I could fill up on bulk almond butter, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.

I also started to learn the art of refusal.  Every time someone tried to bag up my purchase in a plastic bag, I refused and let them know I brought my own.  I started refusing to buy food packaged in plastic containers. And I started refusing all the freebie knick-knacks, magnets, leaflets, flyers, buttons, etc. that I’m constantly bombarded with every time I walk out the door.

And to my surprise, living a Zero Waste lifestyle didn’t feel like a burden – in fact, it felt great!  I felt energized to be living in a more conscious, awake way in the world, aware of the choices I was making and the impact those choices might have.  And the more I learned, the more I wanted to learn more. I started reading every article I could find on plastic pollution and food waste and landfills and our current state of recycling, and I started sharing them with others.  It just felt so good to be awake in the world.

I also learned on my Zero Waste journey that it’s easy to fall into one of two extremes: “I’m just one person and my actions don’t matter” or “My actions do matter and I’m a terrible, horrible person every time I forget my reusable produce bags at the grocery store, use a plastic straw at a restaurant, eat off a paper plate, etc.”  The truth is we don’t need to beat ourselves up when we’re not able to live up to our ideals. We’re on a journey of awakening, and continuing to take steps in the right direction as best we can is far more important than perfection.  As the saying goes, “Perfection is the enemy of the good.”

At the same time, our actions do matter.  Not only do we have power over our own choices, but we also have the power to influence those around us.  Every time we choose to bring reusable produce bags to the store or opt not to use disposable plates and dishes, we’re opening up the possibility of another way of living and being in the world, a way in which we relate to the world and its resources as sacred and precious and worthy of respect.  And even if no one else witnesses these acts, we can feel a sense of dignity and elegance in how we’re relating to our world.


US produces far more waste and recycles far less of it than other developed countries – The Guardian



The U.S. Recycling System is Garbage – Sierra Club



Where does your plastic go? Global Investigation reveals America’s Dirty Secret – The Guardian



Website of Bea Johnson – pioneer in the Zero Waste movement



Wasted! The Story of Food Waste – film



A Plastic Ocean – film