Last night, I met someone who produces no waste. Now, you could quibble over the technicalities—in an obvious biological sense, we all make some waste—but I was still impressed. She eschewed all food that came in disposal containers, bought things in packaging only if she could reuse it, and got all of her clothes second-hand. This woman literally did not have a trash-can in her house. There were a few fudges—think, “hygiene products”—but as far as I’m concerned, she was close enough that we could round down to “zero”.
Every time I encounter someone like this—who only eats local or fair-trade food, who exclusively gets clothes and other goods from thrift stores or freecycle, who strictly adheres to veganism—I always flirt with the idea of having a go at it myself. There’s something tempting about perfection, about the moral acuteness of “all” or “none” as opposed to “a little” and “a lot”. I’m certainly inspired enough by my encounter that I’m taking another look at everyday practices that, although I’ve rarely reflected on them, produce waste unnecessarily.
I’m pretty sure, though, that I’ll stop before I get to zero. Maybe I’m just lazy. But I have another justification, which I call the “90% rule”, or perhaps, the “law of diminishing returns to ethical consumption”. With any sort of lifestyle politics, you can get 90% of the way to where you want to be relatively easily, but afterward, progress is painful. Most of us could easily cut out 90% of our clothes purchases if we learned to take better care of them and sew (I’m speaking mostly to myself here). But when all of your boxers have holes in them (again, self-referential), it’s hard to find a fix that doesn’t involve buying something new.
When I first went vegan, I studiously read labels and spurned anything that “may contain less than 1% eggs or milk”. I religiously declined non-vegan food in all circumstances. I cut myself zero slack on special occasions. And, for all my efforts, my panic only deepened as I learned about the trace amounts of cow bones in refined sugar or rodents killed in the production of vegan crops.
Eventually, I just gave up. I still consider myself a vegan, but I know many militant animal rights activists who would challenge my application of the label. I rarely read ingredient labels; I cheat shameless on holidays; when I dumpster dive, all bets are off when it comes to baked goods. Like I said, maybe I’m just lazy. But I’ve also realized that our time is limited, and time spent finding soy cheese without trace amounts of whey is time not spent protesting or educating others.
We need moral exemplars—people like the woman I met—who show us that we can push the boundaries in our lives and our ethics. But I also think we need people (I’m not actually including myself here) that show us that living as a vegan, or non-waster, or locavore is more-or-less attainable without Herculean efforts. Maybe the biosphere has space for No Impact (Wo)Man and Some Impact Man.