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When Are Zero Waste Efforts Not Worth The Benefit?

As ethical and eco-friendly lifestyle advocates, we expend a lot of physical and emotional energy promoting the message and pushing for change. I began to wonder if our efforts might not always be targeted toward the most efficient avenues of change, so I did some basic math to take another look. Read on for some thoughts on how the law of diminishing returns fits into a zero waste movement. Have you considered this perspective when deciding how to focus your actions to protect our people and our Earth?

Plastic is everywhere. Seriously everywhere. In some respects, plastic is great. It’s inexpensive and incredibly convenient. Plastic, however, is a major contributor to our waste problem, especially the single-use plastics that are piling up in every corner of the Earth.

Although not limited to these items, some of the most common single-use plastics include disposable water bottles, plastic utensils, paper plates and bowls, paper towels, plastic wrap, and straws. Have you used any of these lately? If so, do you ever stop to think about what happens to them when you’re done using them? Where does all that garbage end up, anyway?

Before I get into too many details, let me disclaim that I do use single-use plastics. I don’t use them nearly as often as I used to and I’m much more conscious about my consumption of them. I haven’t given them up entirely, however, and I’m not asking you to give them up cold turkey either.

Plastic is popular for a reason, a very good reason. It makes many conveniences and luxuries in our lives a lot more affordable. There’s a fair bit of criticism around the zero waste movement that it’s only for the privileged few who can afford all the expensive non-plastic alternatives. This critique is not entirely unfair (although I did recently share 5 beginner zero waste ideas you can definitely implement in your lives, even if you’re on a budget).

Let’s be real though. I doubt most people will pay over $1 per stainless steel straw when they can use plastic straws for free just about anywhere they go. Zip top bags are pretty awesome for things like freezer storage, and foregoing them entirely is no easy feat. Trust me. I’ve tried.

Let’s Meet Where Everyone Can Participate

What if we approached the solution a bit differently? What if zero waste didn’t have to be ‘none’ but could just be ‘a lot less’?

What if, for example, we washed and reused certain single-use items like plastic bags and plastic ware just a couple times before throwing them out? How might this help our plastics problem? Would it even make a dent?

Instead of suggesting we transition to expensive reusable alternatives, let’s consider the impact of reusing single-use plastics. It’s not the best alternative, but it’s certainly not as cost-prohibitive (and could save money). This makes it easier to execute on a broad scale and more inclusive of those in varying socioeconomic circumstances. If nothing else, it’s a starting point and better than the status quo.

Just One or Two Washes Makes a Meaningful Difference

Suppose we washed and reused each plastic zip top bag one time before trashing it. Each bag is used twice, and we cut our consumption and disposal of these products in half. That’s a pretty meaningful reduction for a limited effort. If we washed and reused each bag twice, we would use each bag three times before disposing of it, thereby reducing our use of plastic bags by 2/3 or 66.6%. Effectively, we use one bag for every three bags we would have used in the past.

I plotted out the return on effort and decrease in plastic bag use with each additional wash. You can see we get a diminishing return on our efforts. If we wash a bag three times before disposing of it, we reduce our waste by 75%. A fourth wash reduces waste another 5% and so on.

Take a look at this chart. The first ten washes reduce our waste by 91%. The next ten washes, which are equally as taxing, reduce our waste only another 4%. When is enough enough?

Admittedly, certain products like straws, paper plates, and paper towels aren’t great candidates for reuse. Long-term reusable solutions, like real plates or cloth towels, are much more viable options.

While a fan and owner of reusable straws, they can be expensive, particularly considering the alternative is typically free to consumers. I also don’t carry my stainless steel straws around with me. In this case, you’re probably better off ditching straws altogether.

Law of Diminishing Returns in the Zero Waste World

This brings me to my theory about application of the law of diminishing returns to zero waste and other eco-friendly and ethical lifestyles.

No matter the product, the math of a big upfront return followed by diminishing returns remains the same. For those willing, able and ready to make full-fledged investments in zero waste products, by all means continue down that road. That’s ideal in most scenarios.

If, however, you feel like you’re not there for any reason, consider the impact just one or two reuses of those single-use products will make. You can totally do it, and the combined efforts of many doing this would make such a difference. In the world of zero waste, these types of effort definitely count!

Like Picking Fruit From a Tree

To me, living an eco-friendly and ethical lifestyle is kind of like picking all the fruit from a tree. There’s a bunch of low-hanging fruit that we can easily grab and from which we see material gains on the “clean and green” scale in our life. This low-hanging-fruit is the first, second or third wash of the zip top bag.

Once we’ve picked all that easy-to-grab fruit, however, harvesting the rest of it gets increasingly harder. We might need to invest in a ladder to reach the fruit near the top of the tree. Maybe we need to seek out trained experts to help us know what is edible and what’s gone bad (or is not worth being picked). Eventually, we’ll spend a good bit of time searching for every last piece of fruit on the tree.

Here’s the thing: Picking the last five percent of the fruit will take extensively more time, effort and resources to collect relative to picking the first five percent from the tree. Yet the first five percent and the last five percent provide the exact same nutritional and food waste reduction value.

When it comes to intentional living, when does the law of diminishing returns influence our actions? When do we reach the tipping point when the costs unquestionably outweigh the benefits, particularly at an individual level?

The answer will be different for everyone depending on their particular circumstances. To exemplify this, consider a simple composting example. A person living on a large plot of land with their own garden can easily create a compost pile with minimal effort, and they’ll reap great benefit in creating nutrient rich soil for their own garden. Someone living in a suburban condo complex with no access to gardens, compost piles or pick up services, and no personal outdoor space to create their own compost system will find a commitment to composting significantly more difficult. Their effort will outweigh the benefits far more quickly than our friend living on the large plot of land with their own garden.

The tipping point depends so much on where we start, where we are going, and what paths we have available for the journey. Comparing action steps on the “fruit tree of ethical living” is far more complex than a snapshot of where we all are today.

Don’t Be Discouraged Because Small Steps Can Make the Most Difference

All this is to say that our actions, especially early in our search for the low-hanging fruit, make a big difference. Over time, however, our activist actions lose their mojo and absorb more of our energy without providing the same benefit. For most of us, it might be helpful to focus our efforts on what really moves the needle and pursue those changes first.

I understand that every movement needs hard core purists. They push boundaries, challenge the status quo, question the unquestionable, and pave a path for the rest of us to follow. But we also need to remember that usually they are most helpful as sources of information or inspiration, not examples for replication.

Even if you’re just dabbling in the idea of conscious or more intentional living, don’t be overwhelmed by the prospect of being perfect. Just get started, right where you are, and do the best you can. Remember that, thanks to the law of diminishing returns, your first steps make big leaps. Start making small changes and know that the first piece of low-hanging fruit picked from the tree is just as helpful and meaningful as the last piece hiding out in the very top branches.

One Last Thought

To the hard core purists, thank you for the dedicated effort that you put forth in fighting for change. We applaud your efforts and admire your dedication. Many of you bring positive and encouraging voices to the discussion.

On the off chance that you find yourself harping on others for not being perfect or not going “all in”, consider that your energy might be better spent getting more people partially on board than shaming a select few into striving for perfection. We will collectively have a much larger impact encouraging everyone to grab the low-hanging fruit in their lives than exhausting ourselves trying to pick every last apple from the top of the tree.

Heads Up: This is Part 1 of a 2-part series. Part 2 discusses what happens next. After we gather all the low-hanging fruit and decide we’ve reached the inflection point where our efforts outweigh the benefits, then what do we do? Head over to the this post to read more about next steps

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  1. Thank you – I feel much the same way and you put it far better than I could have! A culture of combined effort is far better than a cult of individual superiority.

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