Low Waste Life: Confessions Of An Ex-Zero-Waste Jar Activist

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Two years ago, I made the somewhat difficult and hugely inconvenient decision to keep all my waste in a glass jar. I wanted to make as large an environmental impact as possible, and walk the talk about advocating for a greener & healthier planet. This drastic decision came with many unintended consequences, so I’m sharing my story below, in the hopes of releasing all of you from what I began to see as the tyranny of the jar.

Going zero waste used to be a long, somewhat arduous process that required major lifestyle changes and unpopular daily sacrifices on a personal convenience level. In some ways, it still is but luckily, it’s getting easier and less ‘traumatic’ as more solutions become available and today, a zero waste transition can be almost seamless.

When I first moved to Hong Kong four years ago, this was not the case. I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of plastic waste around me. My anxiety levels would rise every time I saw the amount of packaging on display at grocery stores and fast fashion outlets that I frequented both online and offline. Hong Kong seemed to be too convenient, especially compared to Argentina where I had moved from, and I quickly lost control over my consumption habits.

Buying groceries at my local wet market (Source: Aigul Safiullina)

The Beginning Of My Jar Journey

It was only a matter of time before I began searching for a community of like-minded people who wanted to address the unnecessary and excess waste in their lives. I soon joined the very small but growing zero waste movement in the city, and began to use my voice and my event management skills to bring awareness about zero waste living to more people. Immersing myself in this world is how I first became aware of ‘the jar’.

The jar was first made famous by US-based French zero waster Bea Johnson, creator of Zero Waste Home and considered by many to be the high priestess of the zero waste movement globally. The jar was further popularised by US activist and plastic-free entrepreneur Lauren Singer of Trash is For Tossers. The idea of keeping all your waste (what you can’t recycle, reuse, compost) felt like a revolutionary one and I was quickly hooked by the concept. What could be more impactful then tracking all my waste and minimising it to fit into a small jar? I was already reducing my waste and replacing single-use products with reusable ones, so going completely zero waste sounded very doable. When a fellow zero waster told me at an event that in order to be a ‘true’ zero waster, I had to prove it with the jar, I decided to go for it.

The ‘game’ was simple: avoid creating waste as best you can (quit single-use, recycle and compost, buy as little as possible) and put any remaining waste into the jar. Review the contents of the jar monthly and figure out how to reduce even further the next time. Do your best to improve each month and try to ensure the jar doesn’t get too full, too fast. Done deal!

The contents of my jar (Source: Aigul Safiullina)

The Reality Of The Jar

To make things even sweeter, a week after I committed to the jar, I was boarding a plane to Mexico for Al Gore’s climate leadership training. What a great way to start, I thought, completely oblivious to all the ‘little’ nightmares that were awaiting me over the next 10 days. I wasn’t worried about the training logistics – everything was “sustainable enough” and I definitely learned a lot about green event management.

It seemed I had transformed into some kind of zero waste police. Was this who I wanted to be?

Aigul Safiullina

But when it came to the reality of zero waste traveling, things were not so clear-cut. My first challenge? When I refused the heavily packaged in-flight meal after forgetting to bring my own snacks onboard, so I had to sit through the entire journey without anything to eat for 24 hours. Once we reached our destination, things didn’t get easier. Every day, I went on what felt like a not-so-fun scavenger hunt for water stations and glass bottles in Mexico city to avoid buying plastic bottles. The cherry on top of the (zero waste) cake? Lugging a huge bag full of recyclables from our Airbnb to the airport as we couldn’t find any recycling bins nearby… 

A bulk grocery store (Source: Aigul Safiullina)

Back in Hong Kong, I had a busy and eventful summer packed with late hours at the office, networking events multiple times a week and more getaways around Asia. Still, zero waste life requires a great deal of preparation. Weekends were for packaging-free grocery shopping at my local wet market (because supermarkets only sell packaged fruit & veg/groceries) and meal prepping for the week. Every morning I packed my lunch and dinner in a bag and ran around the city for meetings and events. And of course, no other purchases of any kind, lest the jar become too full This became my sometimes frustrating reality for a few months.

At the same time, I noticed that I was becoming an irritable person, one that annoyed a little too easily. At the sight of a plastic straw I would repeat to my drink server a little too haughtily that “I told you twice I don’t add need straws in my drink”. If a shop offering me a plastic bag, I would roll my eyes and remind the cashier that I did not want a bag for what felt like the umpteenth time. I began giving my friends ‘the look’ if they forgot to bring their own cup/ cutleries/ cloth napkins. I believe I still owe a few of them an apology for my obnoxiousness. 

Worse still, I observed that my friends and colleagues felt guilty for not being ‘green enough’ when they were around me- say if they ordered a takeaway for example, or if they had plastic items around me. Some seemed to be constantly apologising to me for these small ‘eco slights’. It seemed I had transformed into some kind of zero waste police. Was this who I wanted to be?

Why Am I Doing This, Really?

Despite the daily trials and tribulations, the part that felt really good was the sharing. Posting a photo of my jar contents on Instagram each month was a special ritual. I’d receive lots of praise and get many follow-up questions about how I was managing to fit my waste into a single jar, not to mention the likes. It felt really good. I felt like a hero who was sacrificing herself for a greener, cleaner planet. Is this why I was doing all of this? Was I chasing social media validation? What was my actual goal, I kept wondering?

Presenting at a screeing of Plastic China (Source: Aigul Safiullina)

In an attempt to become more & more ‘eco-friendly’, I compared myself to other activists and influencers who were my role models at that time. “Show me your jar” became a sort of slogan to classify budding zero wasters and their efforts- those attempting the jar seemed to care the most, right? I was also advocating constantly: giving workshops on zero waste living, organising movie screenings to raise awareness about plastic waste, inviting fellow activists to panel discussions….I was showing by doing and I was making my voice louder across my community in the name of the cause. 

Did it bring any results? Certainly, I could see a lot of people around me changing their habits and companies adopting more sustainable practices in their offices – but did the jar make any difference at all? Sure, it got me a a lot of attention and admiration, but was it sustainable for my personal wellbeing? I was becoming skeptical.

It’s better to have 100 imperfect zero wasters doing their best than 2-3 perfect people on the verge of mental breakdown.

Aigul Safiullina

The jar became a sort of tyranny. I would easily get irritated and stressed about pretty much every aspect of my life. I would find it difficult to accept certain invitations and gifts, and ‘waste’ my time looking for unpackaged meals and goods instead of actually living and enriching myself. I would say no to events I would have enjoyed and as a result, I isolated myself unnecessarily. I don’t think I’ve ever been harsher on myself in my life than during those few months.

What started to make me think that there was more to life than the jar was when I began noticing other sustainable businesses that were making a greater impact without the need for a jar. For example, zero waste and packaging-free stores opening, shampoo bar brands launching, plastic-free produce deliveries forming…This is when I realised what ended up freeing me: it’s better to have 100 imperfect zero wasters doing their best than 2-3 perfect people on the verge of mental breakdown.

The post that ended my jar activism (Source: Aigul Safiullina)

Quitting The Jar

I decided to stop my experiment and loosen its grip on myself. No, I didn’t go crazy – I just re-evaluated my personal assets and limitations. I made a realistic audit of my lifestyle, promising myself that I would do the best I could to protect the planet while still living my life with joy, and I stopped presenting myself as a preachy hero. Funnily enough, this simple and honest self-check helped me to progress in other areas of my life and brought forward a lot of changes on personal and professional levels. It helped me unmask a lot of insecurities and be more compassionate with myself, so it’s been hugely rewarding overall.

Two years after beginning the jar journey, I am still very much a low waster. I compost, I buy second hand, I shop in bulk, I recycle… but what I don’t do is stress about all my waste fitting into an arbitrary jar. In fact, I’ve adopted even more zero waste habits and made gradual lifestyle changes, without the unnecessary drama and the social media showing off. I haven’t become an Instagram star in the end, but I sleep better at night and feel much better about my life choices.


Lead image of author Aigul Safiullina with her zero waste jar, courtesy of Paola Cortese.

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