Environmentally-conscious lifestyles naturally come with restrictions in a world made for single-use convenience, meat and animal products, and fast fashion. Cutting out even one harmful habit can seem overwhelming or impossible, let alone multiple. As a vegan, the scope of possibility shrinks not only for your diet, but also for your clothes, cleaning supplies, beauty products, and pretty much everything. Following a zero waste vegan lifestyle knocks down your options even further.
But, when you look at the facts, you may feel like there simply isn't another option than to start changing your habits. Knowing that animal agriculture uses ⅓ of the land worldwide and 1 lb of beef needs 2,500 gallons of water, animal products may not be so appealing. Furthermore, the fact that Americans produce around 4 pounds of trash per day, use 185 pounds of plastic per year, making up 90% of the trash polluting the ocean’s surface, can make your grocery trips turn into a plastic-filled nightmare.
So, how can one person live with these restrictions and still function?
Tips for a Zero Waste Vegan Lifestyle
1. Reach a starting point
Knowing what you should be avoiding, which alternatives are available, if you have access to them sustainably, and, most importantly, why you are doing this will keep you from giving up after one week of complete culture shock. The more information you have on-hand, the more prepared you are to brave the plastic, omni world. If you start with smaller steps closer to your comfort zone or current standards, you can branch out from there.
I definitely did not turn vegan overnight. First, I cut out red meat, then dairy, then white meats, then eggs, then the inconspicuous animal products hidden in seemingly plant-based items. This transition took over 6 months. So, begin with a few changes, and push the boundaries from there.
2. Look at the facts
Watch a few documentaries or read articles from reputable sources. Being informed about your cause and having some facts in mind goes a long way. For me, I tend to think about the fact that Americans create waste around 250 pounds per year before I throw out my leftovers. When you are armed with educated information, you can help to inform people who ask questions about your choices. Some people may just be trying to make fun (more on that later), but others may actually be looking for some guidance or information.
3. Read the label
Understand what restrictions or issues you can encounter. Research what your curbside recycling will take, and what they will not. Find out what the numbers inside the recycle symbol mean. Look into your options for municipal or backyard composting. Begrudgingly try to memorize, or keep with you, the list of obscure ingredients that are derived from animal products. I feel the latter is very important if you travel far into veganism, because it’s better to be aware of what you are eating so it won’t surprise (or disgust) you later on.
4. Take stock of your life
Look around your home and think what you can do to start. It might seem weird, but look at your trash. This will give you an idea about your largest sources of waste, and give you a place to start looking for alternative options.
Do you buy a pack of paper towels every week? Be on the lookout for second-hand rags. Do you use disposable makeup-remover pads? Make your own organic cotton rounds.
Of course, use what you have first, because it’s counterintuitive to send perfectly good items to the landfill. Then, research some zero waste starter kits to get an idea of common ways to reduce your waste daily. These will most likely be things you already have and can use in new, creative ways!
5. Know your community
See if you have any bulk options or a farmer’s market nearby. You most likely won’t find a zero waste store that recycles all their packaging, has containers you can buy, and composts their food waste - those exist and they ROCK as you can see below:
But, some large supermarkets, like Sprouts and Smart and Final, have a bulk section with a few options. In this case, I would call ahead or email to ask if they allow customers to bring their own containers and this may vary from location to location.
Most likely, they will ask you to weigh the containers for the tare before you fill it up. If you are interested in composting, see if your city has a program or look into making one for your backyard. You may be surprised the amount of resources sitting right under your nose!
6. Try to ask first or call ahead
Ask if you can bring your own container to your favorite take-out restaurant. As a rule, I always call ahead, if I can, when I have a question or request they may not get often. Personally, I get anxious or guilty if I hold up the line with my specific requests, and will be more likely to cave and accept the waste or leave.
Knowing that the store or restaurant is already prepared to oblige or accommodate for my zero waste vegan requests make going out to eat a lot less stressful for me. Calling ahead also means you can speak with someone higher up who may be able to more easily make an executive decision about your request.
7. Shop smarter
Find sustainable brands or nearby thrift shops for your future purchases. This is super helpful when you finally run out of shampoo or paper towels or whatever, because you will already have a more sustainable option picked out and ready to purchase!
Last-minute panic, in my opinion, is the downfall of any zero waster vegan lifestyle, because when we aren’t prepared, we will most likely go with the fast, convenient option. Sometimes there are unavoidable emergency situations, which do happen and there is no shame in prioritizing your health and peace over plastic-free or vegan.
8. Join online groups
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, any social media really. Connect with people that share the same values and hardships as you. Especially if you live in a household with others not eager to change their habits, communicating with similarly-minded people can give you the support and encouragement you need to keep going in a less than ideal environment.
These pages are also a good way to get some tips and tricks for the things Pinterest just can’t answer (because it will happen eventually, right?).
9. Test out the waters
Being aware of your choices will help ease you into these habits. But, not everyone can jump in head first, so I recommend you test out the waters. If you have never tried to avoid meat or plastic, taking small steps can keep you on track and less-stressed during this shift.
The world can seem too restrictive, and trying to cut out all animal products and single-use items in one go will be overwhelming. We are all trying to change our habits in the long-run, and hopefully not just trying out a fad for a month or two.
Start with replacing your grocery bags with totes and carrying bamboo or metal utensils. Try out meatless Monday and dairy-free Friday and work your way up. These things will take time, and making these switches will eventually start to become natural.
10. Accept the role as black sheep
Brace yourself for the “plants have feelings too” jokes (to which you reply “but a lower carbon footprint”) and sideways glances when you bring your own plate to the office party. The world we live in today was not designed for people like us, and some won’t understand why you are making things more difficult.
People will stand impatiently behind you at the grocery store as you read off the tare and PLU to the cashier. Friends might think it's weird you prefer shopping at thrifts stores and not the mall. At the end of the day, do what you feel is right, and you might inspire others to follow!
Bonus tip: Remember, the goal is not perfection
We are all doing the best we can with what we have. There are many factors, such as location, families, or health, keeping people from completely perfect zero waste or vegan options. That means there has to be some compromise every now and then.
For example, tofu and vegan meat almost always come in plastic, and I have never seen it otherwise in my local shops. I will prioritize vegan over zero waste every time, but others may feel differently or have other dilemmas they face. Either way, there will be some items or habits irreconcilable for both demands and there is not always one right answer, and that's okay!
Shia from Wasteland Rebel beautifully reminded us that we should focus what we can do, rather than what we cannot. There is not an achievable utopian, nirvana state we can realize through reducing our waste and carbon footprint. These lifestyle choices are a journey, and we learn by making mistakes. Accepting that there are some things that are out of your control is a key part of a restrictive lifestyle. It is more important to focus on the aspects you can control and making better choices. When you change your overall habits you can make a difference in this world.
Have you been wanting to reduce your environmental footprint? Which steps have you already taken and which of our tips here inspired you the most? Let us know in the comments below.
Kathryn started the The Redhead EcoWarrior to inspire and inform people working towards eco-friendly lifestyles. Beginning as a vegan, then discovering zero-waste and minimalist lifestyles, she wants to incorporate conscious decisions into every aspect of life. From the food we eat to the clothes we wear, every purchase makes a difference.
Kathryn lives in Southern California, and spends her Sundays at the farmer’s market and picking up trash on the beach.