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The case for 'minimal' over 'zero' waste

Arial view looking down on an outdoor recycling facility. There are various machines at work scooping and moving piles of shredded recycling.

In a perfect solar-punk utopia, we all live something very close to a true zero waste life: where we have resilient, productive, and efficient systems built into our society that enable us to meet our human needs and creature comforts without compromising our health (directly, or via environmental destruction).

Zero waste is the ultimate goal when building and visioning a circular economy.

But it's not true in practice.

Zero waste is defined as: “the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and manufacturing materials without threatening the environment or human health through land, water or air pollution.”

By the time control of a process or material reaches us (as the individual consumer) most of the waste involved with that material or process has already been produced. Between energy consumption, water usage, human labour resources, land usage, emissions release, rippling transportation impacts... waste and exploitation is occurring somewhere. Even when we go out of our way to do our due diligence as environmentally conscious consumers, almost never is the impact of a thing 0.

A purple circle formed out of crumpled plastic waste with a diagonal line through its center on a pink backdrop.

I have seen this be a devastating realization to folks who have invested time, energy, and often money into achieving the zero waste lifestyle they see projected online.

But it doesn't have to be! Your time, energy, and money are not wasted on habit change, intersectionally educating yourself, or waste reduction efforts. It's just that 0 isn't true.

Enter: Minimal Waste.

At The Sustainable Fox we use the term minimal waste to describe our approach to events and waste reduction in general. We trial and errored a few different terms... ultimately, minimal waste was the one that stuck for several important reasons.

Minimal waste:

  • Is a goal you can keep improving at and invite others to participate in

  • Allows folks at all stages of their sustainable journey to engage

  • Is transparent and encourages consideration of your waste

  • Acknowledges that sometimes there is going to be some waste

  • And, that sometimes there will be more waste than others

  • Removes shame for health or accessibility related waste

  • Reserves “zero waste” for its defined purpose

It's important to remember that environmentalism is in large part a social justice issue, which means the way we talk about it changes the way we think and therefore act about it. When we frame the goal as "create a minimal amount of waste" we can have way more realistic conversations about how to achieve that than if we frame it as "create a 0 amount of waste". It's pretty immediately obvious, even from a waste management perspective, that 0 is not feasible.

So why do we hear the term 'zero waste' everywhere these days?

Well, it's a buzzword -- but an important buzzword! Zero waste has come to be a shorthand for many of the values, actions, and products connected to an environmentally conscientious lifestyle: especially on social media, but also increasingly in policy and programming. This is a really positive thing; the traction behind the zero waste movement has become an essential motor in the fight to see systemic shift for the environment.

That being said, you won't hear The Sustainable Fox colloquially using the term zero waste.

I believe folks disillusioned from the buzz deserve a term they can turn to. A term that is inclusive, accessible, and honest. Minimal waste is here to pick up where zero leaves off.

With love,

Sadie, The Sustainable Fox

PS: AI made me this new waste gremlin headshot, what do you think?

A somewhat disturbing, vaguely bat shaped, AI generated gremlin built out of waste with aggressive green eyes and a top hat.

The Sustainable Fox logo features as the 'o' in a text version logo which reads "The Sustainable Fox"

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