Zero Waste Myths, Misconceptions, and FAQs

Behold, the most pedantic post I've ever written! I think a lot of people like to poke holes in the concept of zero waste, same as they like to tell me celiac disease is fake, or that I wasn't really born in the United States. The intent is not to sound preachy, self righteous, or extreme. We all produce waste. Blogging is wasteful. Living the so-called "Western lifestyle" is wasteful. Instead of nitpicking or worrying about things we can't change, we just try to live as responsibly as we can, and help others who want to do the same.


What is zero waste? What do you consider waste?

Definitions vary, but in general, zero waste doesn't really mean "zero." It goes beyond what we send to landfill, including recycling, energy, water, and food waste. Typically, zero waste is an industrial term for a consumer movement encouraging manufacturers to eliminate single use items and non-biodegradable materials. The aim is to push towards a circular economy and increase demand for package-free products or reclaimable packaging. People blog and post about it to heighten awareness about unsustainable consumption and affect change; except, of course, in the case of this blog, which is motivated purely by unbridled narcissism.

Is it hygienic?

Zero waste should always take a backseat to health and safety concerns. However, the idea that paper towels, antibacterial hand sanitizers, conventional cleaners, and disposables are more hygienic than zero waste alternatives isn't necessarily true. Disposables can spread infectious diseases via waste disposal and collection, and viruses remain viable in landfills. Plasticizers in single use wrapping are potential endocrine disrupters- DEHT is one well-documented example. Most studies don't indicate decreased incidence of pathogens or disease when comparing antibacterial liquids to soap and water. Other household products emit VOCs or contain flammable, explosive petroleum distillates that can be extremely dangerous, even fatal, if ingested and potentially damaging to the brain, central nervous system, liver, kidneys, etc. It all makes a little bit of bacteria- effectively removed with vinegar / hot water / a good soap scrubbing- seem not so bad after all.

Do zero waste products work as well as packaged?

Most people think homemade food tastes better and fresher than convenience foods. To see how cleaning, laundry, and beauty products work in zero waste households, just check any of the sparkling homes of zero waste bloggers. Giving up shampoos and facial cleansers cleared my skin and fixed my hair, and our apartment is cleaner and clothes nicer when I use vinegar and soap than when my husband uses expensive conventional cleaners. Many studies indicate physical removal of bacteria is more effective than chemical inactivation anyway. 

When you buy in bulk or eat out, don't the bulk shops / markets / restaurants produce waste?  

Yes. I count this as part of the waste I produce, though I don't get too anxious about all waste on the distribution level. The point is reducing individual impact on landfill waste. Many bulk shops get items shipped in large plastic bags (some still use cloth bags), but isn't that less wasteful than lots of individual packages? Often these stores have access to recycling facilities consumers don't, and in many locales, are legally required to recycle materials. France, for instance, prohibits grocery stores from wasting food. It's a myth that zero wasters always eat out, too- I cook at least 90% of meals at home. The market stalls I frequent transport produce, grown just outside Paris, in wooden crates for display in wicker baskets, using waste-minimizing growing methods. When we do go to a restaurant, it's usually a zero waste place like Freegan Pony, La Recyclerie, Mûre, or Institut de Bonté.

What if you refuse products that were prepared in advance for you (like airplane food)? Don't they still end up in the landfill?

Eh, every time I fly American Airlines, they don't have food for me. Just try telling them you have to eat gluten free and vegan and they totally forget about you! In those situations, you may be able to write in advance requesting no meal. If not, everyone inevitably generates some waste, so don't sweat it. Not all airlines will refill your reusable bottle, either, and you can't go through a flight without water. Be reasonable. If enough people ask, things may change eventually.

What about receipts? 

Not all places print receipts. When I have the option to email or forgo a receipt, I do; otherwise, I take the receipt with me and count it as part of my trash. Most secondhand shops and markets I go to use digital accounting systems, so they don't print paper receipts. Some cities recycle thermal receipts- since they contain BPA, don't put them in recycling bins unless explicitly allowed. I learned accidentally that BPA-laden receipts break down quickly in a compost, but haven't studied bioremediation of BPA-contaminated soil. If you do accidentally compost receipts, it's best not to use the soil around food.

Isn't it more expensive to repair and tailor items than buy things new?

On the consumer end, sometimes, yes. On the production and resource side, it's far more costly to buy new- especially in terms of the human and ethical cost. I repair appliances until they're not fixable anymore, but I have a bad habit of selling clothes if the cost of tailoring is too high. I buy almost everything secondhand instead of new, though.

What's better: secondhand or ethical / sustainable items? What about buying online?

These are personal decisions to evaluate on a case-by-case basis. I like secondhand because nothing uses less resources than something that already exists. At the same time, I see why it's important to support ethical or organic brands. Some argue it takes more carbon to ship a compostable bamboo toothbrush, but others feel that's better than a plastic toothbrush that doesn't decompose. If I purchase online, I buy from retailers like Reformation, Swedish Stockings, Etsy sellers, or Zooplus, who ship without plastic, using paper tape and the least amount of packaging possible. Amazon also has frustration free packaging. The last eBay seller I bought from shipped jeans in a tiny reused Madewell mailer, which I then used to sell items on Vestiaire Collective. When I end up with plastic or styrofoam packing materials, I reuse them as long as I can.  

Doesn't washing reusables use more water and resources than disposables? Aren't disposables more environmentally friendly than reusables?

No. The embodied energy of reusables is often higher. However, life cycle energy analyses factoring in pollution from production and disposal of disposables, transportation, water inputs, the volume of disposables required, and landfill capacities generally find reusables to be lower carbon and the best value choice. If you buy reusables secondhand, it's a no brainer.

How do you deal with feminine hygiene? Dental floss? Where do you find vinegar unpackaged?

Here's a rundown of reusable options. Short answer, a lot of women just use the cup. I use siwak (miswak) exactly like floss. Any arguments about the efficacy of ancient methods don't hold up because when the bristles separate, you can use it between teeth just as with nylon floss, and siwak actually whitens (turmeric and activated charcoal are other natural tooth whiteners).  Bea Johnson uses silk unraveled from something used and other people use horse hair, Ecodent, Radius, Vömel, Stimudent, Bryton picks, interdental brushes, water piks... my dentist like water piks in addition to some sort of interdental brush or floss. I've never had a cavity, so I trust him. If you don't have bulk vinegars (Paris has lots of places, and so does my small hometown), make your own. It's really easy, cheap, and foolproof, because even I did it- the hardest part is getting enough apple scraps to make a batch. I eat all of mine! You could also use lemons or plain soap and water.

How do you freeze things without plastic?

Glass jars, if you don't fill them the whole way, freeze really well and protect against freezer burn. My grandparents used stainless steel their whole lives though (you can get them at places like H Mart for cheap), even when they had iceboxes! I always keep ice cream and soup frozen in Weck or Ball jars and it's fine.

Don't you use toilet paper?

No, I use soap and water- it's healthier and more hygienic. Toilet paper can contain BPA and is associated with various infections and health problems. I still buy toilet paper for my husband and guests.


Zero wasters don't have jobs or children. 

A lot of zero waste bloggers work full time, and many are parents. When I started zero waste, I was working two jobs (one full time, one an internship) while going to school full time. Check out Rebecca's post to see how two parents work full time while raising two zero waste kids under five.

Zero wasters carry their trash around in a jar. 

I don't. As Celia notes, it's misleading, and doesn't account for energy / resource waste or recycling. When you're first starting out, it's helpful to see what trash you're making and figure out how to eliminate it. It's nice having a goal to work towards and keep yourself accountable, but it can be disheartening and breed a spirit of competition if your trash doesn't fit the 1L standard. 

Zero wasters let other people (producers, retailers) deal with their waste by leaving all their trash at the store. 

A lot of people think I leave receipts or shoeboxes at shops for some reason. I buy secondhand, so I don't always get shoeboxes, but when I do, I keep them for storage. It increases the retail value of shoes if I ever sell them. See above for a receipt explanation.

They're all lying. 

Waste is a relatively modern invention- people lived zero waste for thousands of years! If it worked for our grandparents, it can work for us, only we have the added advantage of research and hindsight to keep us healthy. There are very few things we use today that cannot be replaced with a zero waste alternative

They throw away all their old plastic to buy new stuff. 

Most zero wasters recommend using up all your old disposables and plastics before replacing them with sustainable alternatives. I had the advantage of starting zero waste when I owned nothing, so I had no choice but to buy or Freecycle the glass and cloth things I own now (mostly purchased secondhand). 

Zero wasters spend all their time making things. 

I make food, and that's about it. You don't have to make deodorant or toothpaste- just use baking soda. Instead of making laundry detergent, use soap. Instead of whipping up some lotion, try oil. Use gram flour, clay, or water only instead of shampoo. There are lots of one ingredient solutions that don't require hours of labor. Not that making things takes so much time- remember when Monica made all that jam and still had time to go to the coffee shop and cryobank?

You can only be zero waste if you live in a place with bulk stores. It's easy if you live in a city / impossible if you live in a city.

I didn't live in a place with a bulk shop or farmer's market until moving to Paris, and even now I don't usually shop bulk bins. You can buy unpackaged fruits and vegetables from most supermarkets, spiralize vegetables instead of pastas, make gnocchi from leftover mashed potatoes, ask for meats and cheeses in your own jars, and purchase breads from small bakeries in your own bags. Buy recyclables when you have to, or liquids in returnable bottles, if available. Don't worry if you have to buy packaged items- ask the manager for more zero waste options. I did this, and now my tiny hometown offers bulk olive oils, peanut butters, gluten free pasta, etc. As for beauty products, there are plenty available in paper, metal, or cardboard packaging. Lots of zero waste bloggers live in the city, in the countryside, by the beach, on farms, etc. I lived in a suburb when I first started. There are options wherever you live, if you really want to try.

Paris to Go


  1. This post was written for me !

    If you are taking more questions, here is one to add to the list :

    " Do you make all the decisions on buying products based on packaging ? "
    This was my major concern when I started looking into it. I used to look at folks who said ' I like the packing and I bought it' and write them off as stupid. And it felt like I was doing the same when I started phasing out plastic.

    Thank you for this post.

    Also, we can look back into the lives of our grandparents who lived in much tougher times and had none of the conveniences that produce all this trash for inspiration.

    1. Archana, you already defend zero waste so much, and you are so good about reducing waste in all aspects of your life, I didn't even think this post was written for you! It was more for the people who commented on The Guardian article, lol, which resulted in lots of emails saying it's impossible and I eat out a lot of the time and leave my shoeboxes. Of course I love questions!

      I do consider packaging every time I buy something- it's not the only factor, but I consider it. Even for my husband, he has his favorite brands of deodorant and toothpaste that I still buy, but I buy it in the recyclable aluminum instead of the plastic size. I stopped buying certain things because of the packaging- juice for instance- and made purchases to avoid packaging (more whole fruit, food processor, spiralizer- although the spiralizer was a gift from my uncle actually). I was the same type of person- I bought things that were in pretty packages, although only if I needed something first. I hope this makes sense and answers the question. Some purchases I can't base my decision on packaging alone- I really need it, and it doesn't come in sustainable packaging, so I buy it regardless- like toilet paper for guests and my husband. I never NOT buy something I truly need simply because it doesn't come in glass or paper packaging (medicine is one example).

    2. Actually, all the myths scared me. Over your previous posts, I have been asking questions and been getting answers which helped me a lot.

      Also, I realized there are SO MANY options out there that is it not that hard to find a product that ticks all the boxes.

  2. I realize this is a little off topic, but do you have a gnocchi recipe or ratio of ingredients that you'd recommend?

    1. Hi Cassie, this may not be so helpful, but I use this one: There is no ratio in the recipe itself, but in the comments. I personally add flour tablespoon by tablespoon until it feels right- it works with any gluten free flour.

    2. Wonderful, thank you so much!

  3. I love your blog because you use words like pedantic.

    1. You are too funny Tracy! I love your comments :)

  4. Yay for Zero Waste, or in my case a small enough amount of waste to make most people say that I am silly. Have you made fruit vinegar? I eat copious amounts of fruit, even pickling watermelon rinds a few times. I would love to make vinegar for cleaning, as I go through about a gallon every week or two. Does it lose all of its sugar content during fermentation? Sticky floors after all that work would be very disappointing.

    1. Hi Amber, how are you? And how are the cats? I'm not sure how it works with other types of fruit but the apple vinegar recipe from Zero Waste Chef is fabulous for cleaning and the smell is not too strong (unlike store-bought apple vinegar). No sticky residue here- yet. I've used other types of vinegar from a shop called En Vrac here and they use various fruits and I haven't seen any stickiness so far, or bugs for that matter! Pickled watermelon rinds sound delicious.

  5. Love this SO much! I think some bloggers are a little coy about how they do zero waste & they keep some aspects mysterious, which leads to tons of confusion. You break things down really well, here and in all your posts. (And thanks for the shoutout!)

    1. Hi Celia! I thought you said it so perfectly. When I first started zero waste I just wanted someone to detail every little thing about where they shop and what brands were ok and how the made things, lol. And I couldn't find it. So I try to explain everything and be transparent here!

  6. I love all of your information! It really makes me think about my stuff and why I am attached to my stuff and how much stuff do I really need; that being said I am a stuff girl. (I am trying to figure out how to use stuff one more time haha) Books (95% are bought second hand) seem to be my main problem, I gave away a pair of shoes in Paris so I had more room for books in my suitcase. I hope you are having a lovely weekend.

    1. Thank you so much Tonette! Well books are a good thing to hang on to I think. As long as they don't overtake your life haha. And Paris is the best place to get them! Which books did you pick up? I hope you have a great weekend too :) You are so sweet <3

    2. Books have most defiantly taken over my life, but I love everything about them, so it doesn't feel like I am suffocated; plus I am the go to girl if you need a book. What I bought in Paris: a book about Marie Antoinette, a couple from the Louvre, one about Notre Dame (in fairness I bought it for my dad), several about Versailles, and one more that eludes me at the moment. I also bought books in England and Scotland, plus I took pictures of books and put them on my Christmas list. I worry more about what books to pack then what clothes to pack and I have donated shoes and clothes in at least four countries to make room for my love of literature.

    3. Those are awesome souvenirs! Much better than a keychain that'll break or a magnet you'll never use. That is so cool!

  7. Ariana, what do you do at festivals where you cannot bring stainless steel or a mason jar? In the US it's difficult to bring them into some venues because they are considered a weapon.

    1. A bamboo cup or, if alcoholic beverages must be in a clear container, I think clear HDPE plastic may be helpful, since it can be reused over and over again instead of disposed of after one use.

  8. Great post as always. You mention an advantage of cleaning towels and handkerchiefs -- that the pathogens will not sit in the garbage and later a landfill. But doesn't this mean they simply enter the water supply? I know groundwater naturally filters itself to some degree, but with your background in science I thought maybe you could explain more thoroughly the advantage of pathogens in wastewater vs. landfills.

    1. Hi Anika! Thank you! When you wash them you kill bacteria and germs. It's better to wash them with something like vinegar to sanitize more effectively. Some doctors say to wash them at 60° or above to kill everything; others say you can throw them in with the normal wash. It's no different than when we wash our hands, shower, wash our underwear, and use the bathroom- in most places the water is treated, whereas landfill waste is never treated.

      There's research suggesting that some pharmaceuticals persist in the water supply though, and that we haven't yet developed sufficient techniques to get rid of them.

    2. Oh... and endocrine disruptors! Personal care products, it's suggested, remain to some extent in the water supply, because they're hard to treat.

    3. And... synthetic clothing: Last comment I promise :)

    4. No, thank you! The detailed answer is much appreciated. :)

  9. It might not be an Island but it is a big problem and the plastics producers should get more involved in funding for research and devolopment of solution. I try to do my part by not just everyday recycling, but reducing my own trash stream. Read about the best bottle brush cleaning sets reviews. Thanks!