10 In Sustainable Living

The Huge Problem With Zero Waste

Last Updated on February 18, 2021 by Nina Ahmedow

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I’ve previously written posts about my attempts at going more zero waste and tips for zero waste travel, but today I want to address what I see as a major problem with zero waste. And that’s how unrealistic the idea of going zero waste is. But let me break this down into several aspects.

the problem with zero waste pin lemons and luggage

Producing Absolutely Zero Waste Is Impossible

Some people feel pressured into producing exactly zero waste. But that’s impossible. In today’s society, you can’t be 100% zero waste. Any attempt is helpful, but people can get caught up in details they can’t actually avoid. This discourages people from even trying to lower their waste production. I believe that people should try their best where possible. But they shouldn’t feel guilty about buying a product wrapped in plastic.


Zero waste can lead to a lot of greenwashing. As always, the industry wants to convince us that they are doing everything they can to make a positive impact. Some companies focus on sending zero waste to landfills. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, the problem with zero waste to landfill concepts is that this more often than not leads to burning waste. And that’s not a good solution either. Instead, companies should avoid even making products that create so much waste.

Difficulties in Following a Zero Waste Lifestyle

Zero waste like many other aspects of sustainable living depends on accessibility. I don’t live in a city where I can buy things like legumes in bulk. They are sold in 500g packs. I’ve said it in other posts, but it’s really up to the industry to provide alternatives to us. I can’t simply stop eating rice, legumes, pasta, or organic produce so that I can be more zero waste.

And if it’s difficult for me how much more difficult is it for others? We can’t really expect a single mother of three to travel to a different neighborhood to buy staple items that don’t come in plastic. Let alone suggesting that she simply DIY all personal care and cleaning products.

Even the seemingly easy act of carrying your own water bottle is a bit more complicated than people make it out to be. Or am I the only one who doesn’t want to carry a full one-liter glass bottle with me when I’m out and about?

Organic vs. Plastic-Free Produce

There’s always a conflict between organic and plastic-free. At least in supermarkets here in Greece, organic produce usually comes in plastic packaging. There are no organic farmers’ markets or stores in my neighborhood either. So I can either buy organic produce or have it packaged in plastic. And the concept of bringing your own produce bag is so foreign here that it can be very tiring to have to explain it at every trip to the grocery store.

Governments need to tackle this issue and not leave it up to consumers. The Portuguese parliament, for example, has voted to ban plastic cutlery and trays as well as plastic packaging for produce and bread. This will make it easier for the average person to reduce single-use plastic. And bringing your own produce bags will be normalized. The problem with zero waste as a movement is that the responsibility is often shifted onto the consumer instead of corporations.

Zero Waste Is Becoming a Product in and of Itself

I’m all for supporting sustainable and ethical brands. So if I believe in a product I will purchase and use it. For example, with something as wasteful as cotton rounds, I really believe that the reusable bamboo alternative by Net Zero Co. is a great investment. Regular cotton rounds come in plastic packaging, and I use them up really quickly. So this alternative saves me money as well.

But as with other things I have discussed on this blog, it’s simply not true that the consumer has a lot of power. This week, I read a comment criticizing Jane Fonda for re-wearing a dress to the Oscars. Why? Because supposedly, re-wearing items is not the solution. We should be buying from more sustainable and ethical brands to support them. Sorry, what? More production and consumption is going to solve our problems? Certainly not.

We have to learn to be more critical when new products are being marketed to us. You don’t need to buy every sustainable product that exists. And while I always prefer supporting small businesses whose values align with my own, I have to keep in mind that they are still businesses. They still want to make money.

We all have to ask ourselves how much we want to participate in a system where everything becomes a product. Wanting to buy fewer or more sustainable products is now a product in and of itself. If you already have something and use it you don’t need to replace it with an ethical or zero-waste alternative. Because waste is not only what we can see. It’s in the production and delivery processes as well.

Let’s Focus on the Bigger Picture

There is no entirely sustainable product, the same way there is no truly ethical consumption under capitalism. As always, it’s important to look at the bigger picture and avoid getting lost in our own little bubble of sustainable living. The problem with zero waste can be that people might overlook the bigger picture in favor of following a trend.

Let’s do our best wherever possible. But let’s not shift responsibility from corporations to individuals.

What do you think? Do you feel like zero waste problems are outweighed by the benefits? Or do you think there’s a problem with zero waste and how it is being marketed?


  • Reply
    February 16, 2020 at 6:38 pm

    You are definitely onto something here! There is no such thing as perfect, not in sustainability, not even in nature. We should concentrate on encouraging people to do better wherever they can instead of making them feel guilty for not being the impossible, aka perfect. Plastic packaging needs to be reduced in food industry, that’s a fact. Another fact is that it’ll be very difficult. But it’s definitely doable and the responsibility for making this possible to an extent lies on our governments. Great post!

    • Reply
      Nina | Lemons and Luggage
      February 17, 2020 at 11:08 am

      Thank you for your comment, Teresa! Countries like Rwanda have shown that it’s possible so other governments don’t really have an excuse.

  • Reply
    February 17, 2020 at 7:57 pm

    YES YES YES! There really is only so much consumers can do, especially in the age of more company consolidations/buyouts that are limiting choices of widely available products. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves when people throw out perfectly good materials or products they can still use just because they’re plastic and they want to reduce their consumption. It’s better to use it until it can’t be used anymore and THEN buy a sustainable alternative. Awesome post!

    • Reply
      Nina | Lemons and Luggage
      February 18, 2020 at 11:45 am

      Thank you, Daina! I think it’s really interesting how this has developed into a whole industry that tells us we have to be perfect or our attempts at reducing our waste are for nothing.

  • Reply
    February 17, 2020 at 10:38 pm

    This is a great topic for discussion and I’m happy you brought it up. I think that as long as you try your best (not go too crazy about it) is all we can ask of people. I do think it’s quite hard to go absolutely zero waste.! I’m vegan for the planet, try to buy in bulk (WHEN possible), and always bring my eco bag with when shopping. But some countries are so hard, like Japan. I’ve lived there for many years and EVERYTHING is packaged inside another package! You can’t escape it! Although they do have a very strict recycling program.

    • Reply
      Nina | Lemons and Luggage
      February 18, 2020 at 11:46 am

      Thanks for that information about Japan, I didn’t know that. There are definitely countries that make things easier than others. And that’s proof enough that governments need to get involved if we want lasting change.

  • Reply
    Irina Nikitina
    February 21, 2020 at 3:11 am

    I love to use reusable bags as much as I can. However lately I started to buy more and more on Amazon and the number of boxes I reticle is staggering.

    • Reply
      Nina | Lemons and Luggage
      February 21, 2020 at 5:21 pm

      Yea, e-shops are often not very good at providing good options.

  • Reply
    Lily Fang | imperfect idealist
    May 17, 2020 at 9:43 pm

    Really loved this post, Nina! I’ve always been somewhat wary of the zero waste movement when it comes to how it’s promoted. I see no issue with trying to reduce one’s waste where possible, but putting the blame and responsibility on individuals just draws attention away from the real culprits – the industries – as you said. I remember hearing how around 70% of the world’s emissions are from 100 companies, which is just wild.

    I also have never thought about how zero waste products also might not be all that great in terms of their production and ethics – that’s a really good point. And it’s really upsetting how “zero waste” for companies might mean burning their waste! It’s really awful how they use dishonest technicalities to try to get more customers.

    And also yes – totally agree how zero waste sometimes leads to more consumption. It’s much better to use whatever you already have (or to repurpose it) than to buy some fancy/trendy zero waste product!

    • Reply
      Nina Ahmedow
      May 18, 2020 at 12:34 pm

      Thank you, Lily! I think it’s really important to always look at things with a critical eye. There are some really great sustainable brands out there, but many are just seeing this movement as a trend to make more money. Let’s continue to shed light on these issues.

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