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I'm Not Perfect at Zero Waste...And I Don't Want to Be.

Despite our best efforts, sometimes Zero Waste living takes a back seat in the face of reality. I won’t call it a failure, I won’t even call it falling short, because perfection isn’t the goal, and “failure” implies some sort of all or nothing, you’re in or you’re out, black and white worldview. The reality is much more complicated and nuanced.

Case in point: The last couple of weeks have been really challenging for us to stick to our Zero Waste lifestyle.

Our first challenge: Hosting our daughter’s first birthday party. It was also our first birthday since going Zero Waste AND our first party since moving closer to a large portion of our family. I also felt like I needed to make up for a lost year due to the pandemic...everyone was eager to get out and celebrate since no one was able to visit after her birth last year. Now that things are opening back up and our family circle has been vaccinated, I really wanted to go all out and make the party special.

It is really hard not to throw Zero Waste out the window in the face of a child’s birthday party. At least it is for me. Instead, we made compromises. For example, we held the party outdoors at a park, and with the size of the guest list, we went with disposable plates and utensils but we made sure they were compostable. I also wanted our daughter to have a new party dress, so instead of buying one, I sewed it myself but I bought new fabric to do it rather than repurposing old fabric (I, unfortunately, ended up wasting some fabric when I made an error and had to redo part of the dress. Hopefully I’ll find a way to repurpose the scraps). I also hand-made paper decorations, but tried to make sure the components were all compostable or recyclable, except for some glitter paper for one of the banners, which I plan to reuse in the future. I baked my own cake and cupcakes--though my first double batch totally deflated (thank you high altitude) and I had to start over. So they wouldn’t go to waste, I saved the flattened cupcakes to use as a component in birthday cake-flavored ice cream sometime in the future. For kids’ activities during the party, we made seed bombs and decorated wooden birdhouses in lieu of party favors.

I guess what I’m saying is, no, our party was not Zero Waste. I was starting to feel guilty about the waste involved, but then I took a moment to compare this party with other parties we’ve had in the past. It was actually the biggest birthday party we’ve ever hosted and it definitely produced the least waste. More importantly, we all got to get together to celebrate our little girl, which no one was able to do last year due to the pandemic. I realize that birthdays are about more than the dress and the cake and the decorations--they are about showing our love and appreciation for others--but for me, creating these things is part of how I show that love. If that involves creating a little bit of waste, I don’t see that as an open door to go back to all of our old wasteful habits. Rather, I would rather significantly cut down on our waste footprint the rest of the year and give myself the room to be more magnanimous on two or three special days.

Our next challenge came right after the party when I developed mastitis the next day. If you’re not familiar, mastitis most often develops in breastfeeding moms when they get a clogged milk duct which results in bacteria getting trapped in the breast and causing an infection. It is painful and can cause fever, chills, and body aches. I had all of those symptoms and felt absolutely awful. Since it was nothing contagious, I continued going to work (big mistake...I was basically worthless), but had no energy to clean house or cook dinner. Since we’d been busy with the party, we’d skipped most of our weekly meal prep, so we had nothing prepared like we usually do. We also needed to mix more cleaning spray and dishwasher detergent, and it ended up being a week with late evening board meetings and unexpected errands. In a nutshell, it was a perfect storm to abandon some of our low-waste habits. While we didn’t completely throw everything out the window, we did end up producing more waste than we have in a while by picking up a couple of convenience meals and cleaning products from the grocery store.

And then, just because of course it was going to happen that same week, our dogs broke into the composter and made a huge mess of it, destroying our outdoor composter in the process. Thankfully, we were able to drill holes in an old trash can to make an emergency composter, but temporarily having our composter out of commission was a mini-crisis.

Oh, and then as soon as I started feeling better, the kids came down with a virus, so any hope I had of catching up on anything came crashing down as I had to take time off of work to take care of sick kids, so on top of the housework piling up, I also ended up with work-work piling up. Such is life.

Between feeling sick myself, the kids getting sick, ruminating on party-related waste, watching laundry and housework pile up, and cursing my dogs, I had some moments of doubt. Could we really keep up with Zero Waste living if things reverted back to the status quo so quickly?

Thankfully after some extra sleep and cuddles with my under-the-weather kiddos, my less exhausted brain was able to put things into perspective. Some plastic from a couple of convenience meals and a bit of cleaning supplies was not the end of the world as long as we resumed our Zero Waste habits again right away (which we did). I just needed to follow my own advice from my post on making Zero Waste habits stick!

In the grand scheme of things--as with our birthday party--the other changes we’ve already made and will continue to make are still important and are not negated by a couple of bad days. Plus, now we’ve learned there are areas we can make our Zero Waste routine more robust to better handle these sorts of situations. For example, now we know that we always need at least one frozen meal ready to heat up and one heat-and-serve pantry meal on hand (we’re in the process of buying a house, so we’ve been trying not to stockpile too much in the freezer and pantry before moving...more on that in a future post).

We’re not perfect. We never will be and I’m not sure if I want to be. I’d rather give myself the flexibility to go all-out for my child’s birthday party or to concede defeat when I’m sicker than I’ve ever felt than take our Zero Waste lifestyle to the point of austerity. We can make the occasional exception with the knowledge that we will immediately pick up our Zero Waste journey where we left off as soon as we can. The trick here, of course, is to truly make these occasional exceptions. I think if we were striving for perfection, that all or nothing thinking would cause us to just give up, sort of like when someone is on a diet and they decide that if they have one cookie they should just give up and have ten.

Today I don’t have any great advice, lists of amazing products, or earth-shattering information. Today I just have a glimpse into our sometimes messy and chaotic lives and the confirmation that no one is perfect. If you’re striving for Zero Waste Living or any similar lifestyle, you won’t be perfect either. And that’s okay. Just do the best you can and don’t give up.

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