Four years ago, I found myself mesmerized by social media influencers who managed to fit all their trash from the past few years into one tiny jar.
After scrolling through enough photos of pantries filled with matching glass jars, plastic-free bathroom essentials arranged in picturesque flat lays, and snacks packed in stainless steel tiffins, I wanted in. I began going zero waste, and after a few months, I had eliminated most of the trash from my life.
But as I learned more about other ways to reduce my environmental impact, trying to be perfectly plastic-free started to feel a bit restricting. I realized that if I wanted to reduce my overall impact and become the most conscious consumer I could be, I would have to loosen the reins a bit when it came to producing trash, so I started to cut myself slack.
Ironically, a catalyst for my change in mindset was being inspired by more social media influencers. As the zero-waste movement has grown (and evolved into the low-impact movement — more on that below), more and more zero-waste influencers have been keeping things real by sharing their imperfect zero-waste habits with followers. Images of perfection can certainly be inspirational, but they can also be alienating.
To learn more about why embracing imperfection is so important in the zero-waste community, I spoke with a few zero-waste influencers who believe that living zero waste and creating zero waste are not the same thing.
Sustainable Sabs' perspective on trash has evolved since she first went zero waste.
Sabs Katz, better known as Sustainable Sabs, has been blogging about her zero-waste journey since September of 2016. The New York City-based Instagram influencer has amassed nearly 25,000 followers over the past few years, and during that time, her perspective on trash has evolved a lot.
“I was definitely one of those people who focused way too hard on the idea of 'zero,'” Sabs tells Green Matters in an email. “Any time I (or one of my roommates) brought home something in packaging, I would get unnecessarily upset because I wanted so badly to be perfect. I even got mad at my dad once for bringing home some bread in a paper bag, and now looking back on it I know I was going too far.”
“After relaxing the rules for myself, I lost a lot of the anxiety associated with living a perfect zero-waste lifestyle,” Sabs continues. “Now, I prefer to say I live a low-impact lifestyle — it encompasses so much more than just waste and gives me some wiggle room for the times I don't have control over packaging.”
The low-impact movement encourages people to decrease their overall environmental footprint. So in addition to trying to create as close to zero waste as possible, those who are “low impact” also consider things like buying locally-grown food, going vegan, shopping secondhand, switching to renewable energy, and more.
Shelbizleee let go of perfection when it comes to the zero-waste lifestyle.
Shelbi Orme, known as Shelbizleee on the internet, has also been blogging about sustainability since late 2016. “I have always been anti-perfectionism,” she writes to Green Matters, “but in 2017 and 2018, it seemed that in order to be a voice in the zero-waste community you needed to have the perfect zero-waste aesthetic.”
Since then, Shelbi, who has 284,000 YouTube subscribers, has noticed the online zero-waste community grow less concerned with being perfect, and more focused on making an effort.
“I am very happy to see the movement being more championed by average everyday people doing their best,” Shelbi says.
Based on what they share on social media, it seems like throwing something in the trash is still a rare occasion for Sabs and Shelbi — but when they do, instead of hiding it from their followers, they share them. For example, Sabs shared an Instagram post about why she purchased sugar in a plastic bag, something she “wouldn’t have even considered” doing a few years ago; and in a YouTube video, Shelbi explained to subscribers that she regularly buys plastic-packaged salt for her home’s water softener, since doing so helps save her pipes from mineral buildup.
“It feels inauthentic and fake to put on an image of myself just for the likes,” says Sabs. “This idea of perfection is impossible — we don't live in a zero-waste world, so you're essentially setting yourself up for failure if you try to live it perfectly!”
Sabs has also found that plastic-free purity sometimes comes at a cost (sometimes financially, but also in terms of time and emissions). “In some ways I feel like [avoiding plastic] ends up being more unsustainable, like driving three miles to a bulk store for one item, when you could have walked to a grocery store and gotten essentially the same product but in packaging,” she says. “You're still making waste, it's just in the form of carbon emissions rather than single use packaging.”
No matter what you buy, there is always behind-the-scenes waste, emissions, and pollution in the supply chain that the consumer doesn’t see — and Shelbi, who has a degree in environmental science, often educates her followers on that.
“I try to show the reality of our current systematic waste structure so that more people understand that they are not failing when they are not perfect,” Shelbi says. “I think having more people trying but not being perfect is far better than having a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly.”
For that reason, both women are not the biggest fans of the “trash jar” image. Even though it has certainly inspired many people to look into living zero waste, (myself included), Shelbi and Sabs think that rejecting the trash jar helps show people that reducing your impact is not as impossible as it seems.
“I truly believe the trash jar makes this lifestyle seem impossible for the average person,” says Shelbi. “I also feel the trash jar can be seen as a show-off of privilege and serve as a reason for many people to give up before they’ve even tried.”
“While on the surface [the trash jar] feels like a good source of inspiration, when you look deep down it feels deceitful,” says Sabs. “There are so many ways to live sustainably, and being able to fit all of your trash from the past few years into a mason jar is just one small way to do that.”
Not to mention, there are many people who would like to lower their environmental impacts, but simply do not have access to plastic-free groceries, composting facilities, or other zero-waste essentials. Just because they are producing trash does not mean their other efforts to reduce their impacts need to go unnoticed by the zero-waste community.
All that being said, Sabs or Shelbi’s practical points of view are not meant to give any eco-curious readers permission to continue filling their lives with plastic — they hope to inspire you to take the first step, even if you think producing zero waste sounds impossible.
Shelbi especially encompasses that attitude on her YouTube channel, where she closes each video with the quote, "You cannot do all the good that the world needs, but the world needs all the good that you can do." As she tells Green Matters, she shares the quote to remind her audience, “that I am not perfect and I do not expect anyone to be. I want my audience to know that I do my best and I ask the same of them in return."
“I come from a very non-eco-conscious area of Texas and I know what it’s like to not have the resources to be perfect,” Shelbi continues. “I want to be sure I can empower those who are just like my 16-year-old self.”
Even though the name "zero waste" implies perfection, Sabs wants her followers to know that being perfect is far from required when it comes to being zero waste.
“This movement isn't exclusively for perfectionists. There are so many things we can do to cut down on waste, and my goal is to empower people to make changes in their lives,” says Sabs.
“I hope that people who come to my page see me and say, ‘Hey, that's something I can definitely implement into my life to make a difference,’” Sabs adds. “If everyone did that, imagine how much positive change we could all inspire.”