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What is the Low-Impact Movement? How It Compares to the Zero-Waste Lifestyle

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Dec. 30 2020, Updated 2:43 p.m. ET

With the climate crisis continually looming over planet Earth, concerned citizens are often looking for ways to take things into their own hands and reduce their environmental impact. So over the past decade, the zero-waste movement has gained mainstream traction, with bloggers, environmentalists, and influencers inspiring people all over the world to reduce their plastic use — but criticism for the movement has led to a recent rebranding.

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Now, many environmentalists instead subscribe to the low-impact movement. But what exactly is the low-impact movement, and how does it compare to the zero-waste lifestyle?

What is a zero-waste lifestyle?

zero waste low impact
Source: Getty Images

The zero-waste lifestyle aims to lower one’s environmental impact by forgoing as many single-use products — especially plastic ones — as possible. The zero-waste lifestyle involves lifestyle changes such as replacing single-use products with reusable ones (everything from cotton rounds to straws to paper towels), shopping for plastic-free groceries, buying personal care and cleaning products without any packaging, composting food scraps, and consuming less. 

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Basically, zero-wasters aim to produce as little “waste” — aka trash — as possible, instead opting for reusable, compostable, or recyclable. While some zero wasters really go for the gold and store any non-recyclable trash they produce in a “trash jar” rather than send it to landfill, that practice is far from required. 

Contrary to the picture-perfect reputation that trash jars have given the zero-waste lifestyle, most zero wasters don’t actually produce zero trash — they just produce far less trash than they did before their eyes were opened. The idea of creating zero trash is simply a goal that guides those participating in the lifestyle.

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Many zero-wasters take reducing their footprint on this Earth to the next level by focusing on elements other than trash — which has inspired the recent rebranding of the zero-waste movement.

What is a low-impact lifestyle?

The low-impact lifestyle is similar to the zero-waste lifestyle, but instead of focusing on waste, it focuses on holistically reducing one’s environmental impact. So in addition to producing less waste, those who participate in the low-impact movement may also shop secondhand, eat a plant-based diet, shop locally, shop ethically, lobby their local government for environmental policies, and more. It’s kind of next-level zero waste.

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The term “the low impact movement” was coined in February 2018 by Immy Lucas, the influencer behind the blog Sustainably Vegan, in hopes of helping people realize that trash is far from the only area to look at when trying to live sustainably. In addition to making habit and lifestyle changes, the low-impact movement is about intersectional environmentalism, climate justice, and social justice, according to the low-impact movement’s Instagram.

What are the differences between low-impact and zero-waste lifestyles?

There really isn't much of a difference between living a zero-waste and low-impact lifestyle — both have the same ultimate goal of reducing one's environmental impact. However, using the “low impact” label is a bit more accurate for most people, as it encourages people to reduce their overall environmental impact (and tackle larger climate issues), while the phrase “zero waste” implies that the lifestyle is just about reducing waste and trash.

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That said, many people who proudly identify as zero waste engage in many of these practices that have nothing to do with trash, such as eating vegan, shopping secondhand, and petitioning the government for climate-friendly legislation.

No matter which phrase you prefer to identify with, dipping your toes into both the zero-waste and low-impact lifestyles are great ways to reduce your footprint on the Earth. Check out our guides to reducing your waste in the kitchen, the grocery store, the bathroom, and around the house.

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