One Millennial’s Journey Toward Zero-Waste Living

Part of this Millennial's tips for zero-waste living include taking note of all the plastic and trash we use in a given day, and replacing it with reusable containers, exhibited here in Maria's packed lunch.
A quick scan through Maria’s Instagram account will reveal images of brightly colored, fresh vegetables and mouth-watering vegan recipes. But one thing the 27-year-old NYU grad student will tell you about zero-waste living is that it’s not always as pretty as the pictures paint it to be, and yet, its impact on her life has been far greater than she anticipated.

For Maria, who grew up Mexico, limiting waste was part of the culture. “It was embedded in me,” she says. From eating every last bit of food on her plate to reusing the containers food products came in, very little went to waste her in her home.

She admits that after her family moved to the US, some of that was lost. But a move to California later in life brought her back to it. “In California, there’s a big culture of getting to know where your food comes from and who grows it.”

The more she learned, the more Maria become interested in changing her lifestyle. It started small — she got a reusable water bottle, watched a documentary on waste, started going to farmers markets more often — but little by little, she embraced an ideology that would go on to change her shopping, eating, and living habits entirely.

It was after her move to New York that Maria first encountered the zero-waste movement, and as someone who was already working to limit her waste, she was immediately interested in it. She started her Instagram account, @ZeroWasteCatholic, shortly after as a way to connect with others and document the process.

Progress, not perfection.

Maria is the first to admit that she has by no means ‘mastered’ the zero-waste lifestyle, even after practicing it for a little while. Getting started was difficult, but staying with it also proves to be a challenge, particularly because of the practices that our culture of waste has ingrained into us.

Pope Francis describes the culture of waste as a “common mentality that infects everyone,” and the effects of that mentality are evident in our everyday practices.

“It can be hard to minimize your waste, because we live in a culture that doesn’t live like that. It caters to convenience and doesn’t care how much you’re contributing to a landfill.” Maria found she had to take a number of extra steps, both literally and figuratively, in her shopping habits to practice zero-waste.

“I remember the first trip I made to buy food in bulk was so stressful,” she confesses, sharing the struggle of walking to a number of different stores and carrying it all back to her apartment in various bags and containers. However, she shares that upon returning from her trip and seeing the merits of her efforts, food sorted neatly into glass jars and reusable bags rather than plastic containers, she was both gratified and invigorated.

“Eventually, I started getting smarter about doing things more efficiently and planning ahead a little better.” Planning ahead, Maria says, is an invaluable practice when it comes to this lifestyle.

Another obstacle Maria faced in her pursuit of this lifestyle was the temptation to choose aesthetics over practicality. “Some people can make zero-waste living look absolutely gorgeous, and that’s a beautiful thing.” But, Maria admits, this caused her goals and expectations to be misplaced. “In the beginning, I would want my newly found zero-waste life to look like that. I would put pressure on myself to have it look like the other Instagram accounts.”

To refocus herself, Maria had to ask herself a simple but invaluable question: what’s the point? Questioning the meaning behind the zero-waste habits helped her to return to her initial desire, which was to cut back on her waste.

Eliminate waste, open up space.

An added benefit of cutting back on waste that Maria had not expected was all the room it created in her life for other things. “Once you establish these habits, it simplifies your life. It makes you appreciate the basics and allows more space for the really important things.” For Maria, one of those things was prayer.

Before starting this lifestyle, Maria admits that she struggled with her prayer life. It was something she found difficult to incorporate into her daily routine. Since practicing zero-waste, however, she has found it much easier to get into a mindset of assessing her needs. “It helped simplify all of the material things that I need to get done, and that helped me get into a place where I prioritize things like prayer.”

One thing Maria noticed upon entering and interacting with the zero-waste movement was that it was fairly secular. As a result, she decided to intentionally integrate her faith into her journey with zero-waste. “The whole zero waste movement made so much sense to me as a Catholic. We are called to be stewards of the earth, and by participating in zero-waste, that’s what I’m trying to do.”

One way Maria has incorporated her faith is by using her Instagram account as a tool through which to practice prayer. Though the account is mostly dedicated to posts about farmers market scores and waste-minimizing hacks, she also includes posts simply dedicated to asking her followers and viewers for any prayer intentions they might have. In this way, Maria uses her public platform as a way not only to reach others, but to grow in her own faith life, as well.

Start with the basics.

As Maria’s journey has indicated, zero-waste living is not an overnight endeavor. Her advice for those looking to minimize their waste is to approach their wasteful habits head-on. One way to do this, Maria shares, is to confront your wasteful habits directly.

“Look at your trash and see what you’re throwing away,” she urges. It may sound backwards, but a lot of us don’t even know how much waste we accumulate on a day-to-day basis. “Think of ways to minimize your waste based on what you throw away.”

Another easy way to practice the ideology behind zero-waste is to start using reusable bags. Or, Maria shares, if you don’t have any and can’t spend the money to buy them, “just reuse the plastic bags you have!” Contrary to popular belief, making the change to a healthier lifestyle doesn’t have to break the bank.

“You don’t even have to buy anything to start zero waste living,” Maria shares. “Your cheapest tool is saying ‘no.’” She gives the example of going out to restaurants to eat and requesting to not get a straw with her drink, or if she gets one automatically, not opening it if it’s still in the wrapper. Saying no to little things like straws and plastic bags can add up to making a big change in our mindset toward waste.

By focusing on the process rather than perfect results, Maria has been able to stay both motivated and passionate about zero-waste living. “It’s not going to be perfect; you’re going to throw things away. It’s just about minimizing waste,” she says. Through adopting this perspective, Maria has grown both in the zero-waste movement and, unexpectedly, in her faith life, as well.

When we remove the pressure we so often place on ourselves to reach a standard we deem as “perfect,” we have a better chance of meeting our goal, and like Maria, we might just surprise ourselves with what else we accomplish.

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