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What is “minimal waste?”

The Zero Waste Movement has been gaining a lot of traction in the past few years, thanks to several high-visibility advocates shining the spotlight on wasteful consumerism.  And while this is wonderful, should definitely happen, and is having a noticeable positive effect on consumer behavior, it often leaves some people out of the conversation entirely.

This can happen for several reasons:

  • Being on a tight budget.  The expensive and often greenwashed products make transitioning to a zero waste lifestyle cost prohibitive.
  • Living in a “zero waste desert.”  Bulk goods stores often cluster around urban, upscale neighborhoods and leave rural and smaller communities behind.  Food deserts also lack the resources to provide consumers with healthy, low-waste products.
  • Culture.  Some of the more militant zero-wasters can be off-putting to newcomers.  Bulk stores are often intimidating if you’ve never been in one before, don’t know how they work, and don’t feel comfortable asking for help.
  • Medical limitations.  Some products are not and should never be reusable, such as sterile medical supplies.  People who live with and manage chronic illness and disease are unable to transition to a fully zero waste lifestyle.
  • Waste disposal limitations.  If your city doesn’t have municipal services for recycling or composting, you don’t have reliable donation drop-off sites nearby, or Craigslist is simply too unsafe or unreliable, disposing of waste that might not otherwise be waste is much more challenging.

Here, we advocate for something else, a more moderate approach: minimal waste.  Everyone has one area where they choose not to or are unable to alter their habits.  Truly zero waste living is often impossible for people with limited energy and other resources, so the best approach is to reduce waste where it makes sense to do so.

How does that relate to chronic illness?

Every jar of pills, vitamins, supplements, and other medicines comes with a tamper-proof seal.  The lids aren’t always recyclable since they contain mixed plastics, and liquid medicine bottles must be disposed of appropriately since they often still contain traces of the medicine.  Every sterile medical device is packed in airtight, single-use plastic.  And, let’s be honest, when every single day feels like you have the flu, it can be a challenge to take the extra few steps here and there to minimize one’s waste footprint.

So, the balance between the goals of a minimal waste lifestyle and maintaining one’s health often comes down to this: what can I do to reduce my waste footprint as much as possible while not exacerbating my chronic illness?

Not everyone can cook every single meal from scratch every single day.  Not everyone has the kitchen space, cooking equipment, freezer space, or stamina to prep a month of meals at a time.  And not everyone has the luxury of being able to replace shampoo and conditioner bottles with solid bars, when poor hand function and coordination can make that slippery bar a safety hazard in seconds.

If all you’re able to do is switch to washable rags instead of paper towels, do that.

If all you’re able to do is use a washable coffee travel mug instead of a disposable cup from the cafe, do that.

Do what you can do to make a difference, and accept the areas where it doesn’t make sense to change your habits.  It’s a tiny, tiny dent in the grand scheme of things, but landslides start with pebbles.

About the author: Stephanie

I became interested in sustainable living mostly by accident. A few years ago I started getting what I usually refer to as “sick” for simplicity’s sake, because the more accurate explanation involves a lot of long, complicated words that tend to make people’s eyes glassy. Several lifestyle changes hit me all at once, including the shift from Nalgene water bottles and Tupperwares to glass replacements. I also discovered that having a chronic illness that affects my nervous system makes it, uhm, interesting to clean all that new glassware. I may have gone through a few replacements while I figured out how to not wash my dishes like a gorilla.

It didn’t take long for my health needs to push me toward minimizing my waste footprint and living more sustainably, in all aspects of my life. Currently these include playing the cello, drawing, video games, working on my Miata, fiddling with electronics, and all of the joys and annoyances that come with being owned by two cats. I can’t say my cats are crazy about some of the changes I’ve made, given their reaction to a few of the cat litters I’ve tried with them, but we’re making it work. They’re more patient than I give them credit for.

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