I remember the first time I read about the zero waste movement. It was Earth Day 2010, and my colleague friend dropped off an article from the Marin Independent Journal on my desk. The article profiled Bea Johnson, aka the ‘mother of zero waste’, detailing her chic low waste lifestyle. Living in Marin with her two sons, husband and dog, the family produced so little waste, they could fit years worth of garbage into a single Le Parfait glass jar. I was intrigued—Bea made it look effortless and alluring from her stark, minimally furnished home to her pared-down secondhand wardrobe.
The more I dug into the zero waste community, especially the ‘influencers’ on Instagram, the more I noticed trash jars popping up everywhere—mostly women (mostly white) who could fit years of trash into a mason jar. The trash jar was shocking and inspiring and seemed like the pinnacle of minimalism. I had already de-cluttered my home, and getting rid of my trash seemed like the ultimate minimalism goals. I knew that producing essentially no waste would take some dedication and discipline, but trash jar advocates maintained that with the right tools and some resourcefulness, anyone could do it!
I started by buying most of my groceries from the bulk section with my own cloth bags, experimenting with cleaning and beauty DIYs and slowly swapped disposables (as they ran out) with reusable replacements. I was making a lot of progress and my trash was shrinking, but I was nowhere near being able to fit my trash into a jar. Fast forward many years later, and you know what—my trash still doesn’t fit into a jar. For a long time, I felt ashamed that I hadn’t achieved trash jar status. Anytime I read about the zero waste movement, the author marveled over some woman's trash jar stuffed with tiny plastic produce tags, expired credit cards and other unavoidable waste collected over the years. I was actively blogging about my low waste lifestyle and sharing what worked for our family, but without a trash jar, I often felt like an impostor. What was I doing wrong?
It wasn’t until fairly recently that my view on the trash jar changed. While it initially shocked and inspired me to switch to a zero waste lifestyle, I think it’s become a problematic symbol for the zero waste movement, and here’s why:
1. Who is it really for?
There was a time (pre motherhood) where my trash could fit into a jar. Definitely not an entire year’s worth, but maybe a month or two. I started saving plastic produce stickers, twist ties and other waste in a chipped latch-top jar, but something didn’t feel right. The more I sat with it and thought why it made me feel uncomfortable, I realized that my big motivation in achieving trash jar status was so I could show off to other people how far I had come. Having a trash jar was an exclusive club and I wanted to prove I was member. Each time I placed something in a jar, a nagging voice told me my motivation was bullshit, and worse, made me feel like a fraud. Which leads me to my next point...
2. It’s misleading.
It took me a long time to discover this (because it’s rarely discussed), but everyone has “exceptions” when it comes to trash jars. Condoms, broken glass and plates, BPA-coated receipts, unwanted gifts, waste from visiting friends and family, items bought pre-zero waste lifestyle, etc. There’s also the upstream waste that’s unaccounted for—such as bulk goods that are delivered to grocery stores in giant plastic bags. Or the waste created when you’re traveling and there’s no recycling or compost available. As a homeowner, there are countless things that break or have to be mended or replaced, and while I try to dispose or recycle items whenever possible, maintaining a home inevitably produces trash. Truthfully, I think most zero wasters are scared to talk about these exceptions because they’re afraid of being called out, but the problem is that other people are looking at these trash jars thinking that person is perfect, and that they are doing something wrong.
3. Promotes perfectionism.
The zero waste community is primarily led by women and personally, I think women already receive too much pressure to be perfect—from having the perfect body to ageless skin to a thriving career while being a super parent. So now, let’s add creating absolutely zero trash in the process. It’s not sustainable. There’s something about the trash jar that reminds me of diet culture—as Gittemary puts it "the trash jar is becoming an unattainable ideal, sort of the skinny supermodel of zero waste." Life is messy, and there are going to be times when creating zero waste isn’t your best option—when choosing to create some trash gives you time for self care, or it’s less expensive or life throws you a curveball, and you don’t have time to seek a plastic-free alternative. I want to do what feels right for me in the moment. I love doing my part to protect the environment and reduce waste, but I also love me, and ‘me’ needs some flexibility so zero waste doesn’t become a burden.
4. Leads to wishcycling (and composting).
I think it’s good to be aware of the waste we produce. With awareness comes mindfulness, which inevitably leads to more sustainable habits. However, if we become too fixated on creating zero waste so that it will squeeze into a jar, we might become more prone to wish-cycle or wish-post (is that a word?). I say this from experience. I felt so guilty producing any waste, that I was more likely to recycle or compost questionable items. This is a problem. Waste Management estimates that 1 out of every 4 items in the curbside recycling bin doesn’t belong, and these items can break equipment, pose a safety risk to workers and even contaminate an entire truckload of recyclables, diverting them to a landfill. I am all for recycling and composting, but we need to get better at brushing up on local guidelines and when in doubt, the most eco-friendly option is to throw it out.
5. It’s exclusionary.
I live in the Bay Area where bulk and wastefree options are plentiful (at least, they were pre-Covid). I have the privilege to be able to afford the supplies, ingredients and tools to reduce waste. I have a job with a flexible schedule and a car so I can drive to bulk stores when it works for my schedule and the time to make my own food from scratch versus buying packaged or pre-made meals. When people with a trash jar say that "anyone can do it," it irks me. Yes, everyone can take small steps to reduce waste and be resourceful, but not everyone has access to the stores and supplies that support a zero waste lifestyle nor the means to afford them. Being able to fit your trash into a jar takes an incredible amount of resources and privilege, and people need to get more honest and transparent about that process. We need the zero waste movement to be more inclusive, and trash jars are anything but. Zero waste should be about taking gradual and intentional steps towards reducing waste—something anyone can do with the resources available.I’m not here to criticize people who do choose to keep a trash jar. Maybe you use one as a trash diary, and maybe it brings you joy to chart your progress. But I do think we need to move away from it being the symbol of the zero waste movement—it sends the wrong message, and a misleading one at that. Maybe we can all decide on a more inclusive symbol that provides similar shock and inspiration to motivate others to join the movement.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the trash jar. Are you a proponent and why (no judgements, I promise). Did you start off with a trash jar and ultimately decide to ditch it, or have you never been a fan? Please leave a comment below!