Living low waste might seem to be, from the outside, all about going without, exercising iron clad willpower, and generally living a spartan lifestyle.
Willpower is contextual, and changing a habit with brute force just doesn’t work for me. Which is a fancy way of saying, I don’t have a special amount of willpower. I just try to structure my day to day decisions to reinforce my overarching intentions for life.
Restructure your decisions ahead of time
One of my favourite ways to teach myself a habit is to look at ways I am repeatedly making the same decision (and struggling every time) to see if I can restructure and automate it with a healthy default.
We only have so many decisions in us in a day before we get decision fatigue.
This is the insight behind a work uniform. But here’s another example:
I sometimes go for a run in the morning before work. I want the endorphins and I love the energy it gives me through the day. But left to my own devices, I will often vacillate between getting up and going, and just lazing in bed until I don’t have enough time.
My simple automation is to set out my running clothes the night before – right down to my socks and undies. In doing so, I am committing, even in a small way, to following through with my run. This also makes the morning an overall smooth operation. No rummaging through my drawers to track down my sports bra or a pair of socks. There is nothing to derail me.
Rather than deciding whether or not to run, I’m deciding how far and in which direction.
A simple change to my surroundings helps me make the decision my higher self actually wants.
It’s the same thing with Zero Waste living. In the preparation, I am setting an intention and a commitment to a future behaviour. It’s a Zero Waste asana. It’s also creating an environment that supports my intention and sets me up for success.
Normalize low waste living.
Since the trash we produce has so much to do with our eating habits here are a few examples of how I set myself up for Zero Waste in the kitchen:
I make real food, at home // Making my own food is empowering and my absolute favourite way to practice creativity. Michael Pollan tells us to eat whatever we want, as long as we make it ourselves, which I take as permission to make and eat pie. He says this in the context of nutrition and eating habits (I can only make so much pie), but it’s also relevant to reducing household waste. In my own kitchen, I reduce, reuse, compost, recycle, etc. This means that if I made it, I know how it was made, and what was wasted (or not) in the process.
I shop in bulk // To automate cooking at home as my normal, I shop in bulk at any of the bulk whole food stores where I live. I stock up on seeds, nuts, beans, grains and other ingredients that can be made into a wide variety of dishes. I don’t have to channel my energy into avoiding processed foods or not eating out. Instead I cultivate joy in cooking and eating food that I make myself.
I hide my trash bin // A typical kitchen has a large garbage bin front and centre. Sometimes these are even battery operated, freeing us from the burden of lifting the lid ourselves. This teaches us to use it as the first choice. What if it was the last choice? What would happen if you gave more physical space and prominence to your compost and recycling bins? You’d remember to use them first, I guarantee it. By creating an environment where it is physically more difficult to throw things away, I throw less away.
I surround myself with fresh, local, organic fruit and veg // I order a weekly box from a fellow who is running a small business delivering farm-direct local organic produce, or I hit the farmers markets. This means I’m choosing from seasonal bounty by default. Bonus – no fruit stickers to deal with. Second bonus, I don’t waste time at the supermarket looking for organic or Australian grown produce from amongst it all. The less I shop at supermarkets, the less I expose myself to packaged foods. Since produce comes in its own biodegradable and usually edible packaging, the more of it I keep on hand the less often I turn to packaged foods and the less packaging waste I make.
I follow plant-based foodies online // Say what you will about the authenticity of social media, I still find that visual inspiration keeps me hungry for healthy, fresh food. I purposely seek out veggie Instagrammers to inspire me in exploring meat-free meals and thinking about new flavour combos.
I keep a ‘to eat’ list // I’m prone to overbuying, which can lead to food waste. So I write down a list of things I have on hand as a reminder of what I should plan my meals around.
Willpower is overrated.
If you want to reshape your life, reimagine your environment.
Living low waste can be so much more about abundance of the good than deprivation or extreme willpower. The good crowds out the bad, and becomes normal. What you’ll end up giving up will ultimately become irrelevant to your lifestyle anyway. Living without making so much trash will start to feel effortless.
If you are looking to start living low waste, start by creating environments that inspire instead of restrict. You’ll be more likely to succeed and more likely to enjoy the process.