Going Green: A Journey to Zero Waste Minimalism

Photo by Teemu Paananen

It’s been about half a year since I decided to adopt a minimalist approach to living, and a third of a year since I have resolved to reduce my environmental impact.

Of course, living well and living lightly have been important to me before.

You know the core memories in the Pixar movie Inside Out? They represent key moments that have defined Riley’s current personality.

In third grade, I had a formative moment that I knew would shape the rest of my life, as hard as I tried to forget about it.

Over the course of one afternoon, my teacher talked to us about global warming, pollution, and the problem of litter.

I never returned to the world with the same carefree trust in our habits and systems of organization I once had.

In high school, I designed a process to clean wastewater by using coal fly ash as a filter, and then using the leftovers to fertilize and grow plants.

I used to take the time to delete the empty spaces between practice exams, if it only meant saving one or two extra pieces of paper from being printed.

I went on a conservation research expedition in Honduras to learn about cloud forest and tropical marine ecology.

But in the aftermath of Black Friday last year, I became increasingly aware and critical of America’s consumerist culture, with a fresh recognition that I played a complacent role in it too.

Immediately, I took a step back, and began to evaluate what I owned, and what I was bringing into my life.

I realized that there were many things I was holding onto, simply because they were given to me, and which did not actually bring me additional value.

I arrived rather quickly at a decision: to welcome the philosophy of minimalism into different areas of my life — starting from my clothes and what I owned, to the apps I kept on my phone.

Naturally, I began to branch into other areas of interest. When I deliberately slowed down in a fast-paced era, I got back to the basics. I sought to question what was important.

Relationships. Time. Nature.

Slowly, my concept of minimalism came back around to environmental justice.

It took me a dozen years to come to this full circle, but I realized that the life I wanted would synergistically integrate slow and simple living with a deep care for stewarding the earth.

But was this privilege? I had the freedom and mental clarity to pose these massive questions.

Yet privilege is not a bad thing, if it can be levied for social good. (Imagine if all billionaires were socially conscious, and what would happen if they all gave even a fraction of their wealth to solving world hunger, affordable healthcare, primary or secondary school accessibility, or climate change problems.)

The cloud forests, clear oceans, and their vibrant biodiversity I once experienced may not last the next few decades.

I can’t save this world by myself. But I can set an example through my actions and words. I have a platform to do so, although my reach is limited.

We don’t need to be famous Instagram influencers in order to raise our voices. The proverbial wisdom is always to begin where we are, with what we have.

I am privileged to share this journey with you, my readers. Although I have walked on this path for a while, it is still just beginning.

Nowhere near am I to having everything figured out. The title of “zero waste” is a bit misleading, because zero waste is an ideal, not a reality. A journey, and not a destination.

And we don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.

I hope that you will come and walk with me for a while.

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