“We cannot do everything at once, but we can do something at once.”
– Calvin Coolidge
When I tell people that I’m vegan, a common response I hear is “That’s great, but, I could never do that.” They might agree with the tenants of veganism, they just don’t think they’re up for living that way. This can be a frustrating thing for me to hear, because I honestly feel like if I can do it, anyone can. But recently, I found myself on the other side of the metaphorical table.
Around Earth Day in April, I started seeing a huge number of posts about the zero waste movement.* I had heard of this idea before, and had even watched one of Lauren Singer’s videos. But I was highly intimidated by the idea of producing less than a pint worth of trash in two years, and decided I was not up for that sort of thing. I thought, “Oh, I could never do that.”
Where have I heard that before?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my attitude toward zero waste was similar to the attitude I’ve encountered toward veganism. I also came to feel that at the heart of this attitude is a comparison problem. It’s looking at someone else’s lifestyle and saying “that’s too different from how I live; I’ll never be able to get to that point.” For someone who eats meat or animal products every day, the difference between their diet and mine is enough to feel overwhelming. That’s understandable. Likewise, I was looking at my trash can and deciding that I was “too far gone” to make a change for the better.
The reality is that most people who live differently from how they used to didn’t make those changes overnight. Granted, some people do. I’ve read many stories of people who were meat-eaters one day, and vegans the very next. If that’s you, I admire your resolve. But when I looked back at my own vegan transition, I realized that it was really a series of small changes that added up over years to where I am now.
My (slow) vegan transition
My transition to vegetarianism in early 2010 was accidentally very quick. I originally gave up meat for 40 days as part of a fast. I decided the morning the fast started that I wouldn’t eat meat for this period, so I didn’t have time to work my way into it. Over the course of the 40 days, as I was doing research to make sure I was eating well, the resources that I found convinced me that I never wanted to eat meat again.
The transition to veganism was much slower. I knew early on that it was a direction I wanted to go, but living with roommates and sharing groceries made it difficult. I started with the “easy” things: I started buying my own non-dairy milk and butter. I experimented with vegan baking (my first attempt, brownies, were disastrous, but things improved from there). I chose vegan meat alternatives when I bought them. I started shopping for vegan-friendly toiletries and cosmetics, and cut leather out of my wardrobe.
When I moved into a studio apartment in 2011, I decided to go “at home vegan,” meaning that I never bought anything at the grocery store that wasn’t vegan. I was less strict at restaurants or when others were cooking. The hardest part of the full vegan transition for me was getting comfortable with asking questions of servers to make sure I wasn’t going to be served eggs or dairy, and requesting that friends and family serve not just a vegetarian option, but a vegan option, or turning down food someone had made. So in the meantime, I ate vegan 90% of the time, and slowly got more comfortable and knowledgeable about vegan options when eating out. I finally went “fully vegan” in January of 2012.
Since then, there have been many micro-transitions, especially to a healthier, more whole-foods veganism. I don’t eat as many faux meats or cheeses as I used to. I can and will eat tofu straight from the package, especially in place of cheese on pasta or pizza (which I recognize is absolutely bizarre to the average person). I find avocado to be a perfectly acceptable alternative to sour cream and sometimes mayo. I love the darkest of dark chocolate, and will drink my coffee black if I have to (although my stomach doesn’t prefer it). I couldn’t have said any of these things five or even three years ago. Veganism is still a continuous journey for me.
So why should I expect that something like zero waste would be any different?
Small steps, over and over
The reality is that almost any serious, sustainable life change is probably going to happen in stages, not overnight. Healthier eating, ethical purchasing practices, living on a budget, working out, etc. all seem to work better for me if I make small changes over and over, rather than trying to do everything at once.
I realized that I was letting the enormity of my current waste output keep me from doing anything about it, and that’s a little crazy if you actually think about it.
So instead, I’m choosing to take those small steps. I’m identifying some areas where I can make small, fairly convenient changes and have an impact. I have recommitted to always, always using my reusable shopping bags (an area where I had gotten slack), and have started making an effort to carry other reusables such as to-go containers and mugs. I’m in the process of evaluating my shopping list, and seeing what fits within our budget to buy from bulk bins or buy in the most recyclable packaging (i.e. glass or cardboard over plastic). As I move forward, I’m sure other areas will become obvious to me, and I’ll find new ways to reduce our waste.
I don’t say this to pat myself on the back, especially because I feel like I’ve only started, but to make the point that baby steps are better than no steps. If you’re looking into a life change like veganism or zero waste, it can be easy to be overwhelmed by other people’s progress. But, take a deep breath, step back, and think, “What is one small step I can take to move in that direction?” Do it. And then?
Do the next thing.
*For those not familiar, the idea behind a zero waste lifestyle is to reduce the amount of trash you send to landfill (ideally to zero – hence the name). This is accomplished by refusing single-use items such as to-go containers and grocery bags in favor of reusable items, by buying primarily un-packaged items or items in recyclable packaging, making items instead of buying them pre-packaged where possible, and by intentional reusing and recycling. The movement generally also prioritizes the reduction of plastic use altogether, even when items can be recycled, because plastics cannot be recycled indefinitely (as can glass and metal) and take a great deal of time to break down in landfills.