Founder, The Zero Waste Collective
Mediaplanet recently caught up with sustainability entrepreneur and founder of The Zero Waste Collective, Tara McKenna for her insights on low-waste living and her own personal journey.
What are some key areas for improvement that people should be aware of when it comes to sustainable living and what steps can they take to get started?
Ultimately it comes down to improving our relationship with the earth – the thing is, that is conceptually really hard for most of us to even fathom, so it really needs to be broken down into tangible steps. Most people are aware of sustainable living but might not participate because it either feels overwhelming or unrealistic – so we need to make the suggestions for sustainable living more achievable to fit within people’s real lives.
In terms of those tangible steps, I think it begins with consuming less overall – that suggestion can be very broad so I like to break it down into objectives like trying to do a “no-buy month” or a “no-buy year” where you might only consume the essentials and track what you’re purchasing and consuming. When you are making purchases, try and consume better – instead of using credit to buy the latest fashions, maybe you enforce a rule that you don’t go into debt for purchases – then from there, you can focus on buying things that are better quality and longer lasting that you won’t be throwing out the next week.
I think the big elephant in the room when it comes to sustainability and our relationship with the earth is animal agriculture – eating less meat and animal products has a huge role in reducing our CO2 emissions. Facilitating animal agriculture globally results in a lot of deforestation and of course forests sequester carbon, so when we’re converting forests into land used for animal agriculture, we’re increasing the levels of CO2 in our atmosphere in multiple ways. I’m certainly in no place to tell anyone to go vegan, I’m personally not vegan, but I am quite mindful of the animal products I do consume – I think rather than telling the whole world to go vegan, it’s more realistic to advocate for everyone to try to reduce their level of animal product consumption.
Ultimately it comes down to consuming less, consuming better, skipping single-use when possible, and trying to eat fewer animal products.
In your experience, what is the greatest misconception that people hold about Zero-Waste lifestyles?
The greatest misconception is that it’s actually possible to go “zero-waste” – there’s no one who is truly “zero-waste” because we just don’t live in that kind of society and there are so many externalities out of our day-to-day control. For example, over the lifecycle of all the products we use and consume, from resource extraction, to manufacturing, to disposal, there is so much happening in terms of waste creation and that gets overlooked in the conversation of our own personal waste output.
The great opportunity with the idea of “zero-waste” however, is the conversation that ensues around what this lifestyle can actually look like in a more practical sense, and what we can really hope to achieve. Ultimately, I think it’s really “low-waste living” that we should be advocating for; low-waste within the context of your personal circumstances, your lifestyle preferences, and your budget.
Was there a particular moment or experience in your life that stands out as the one that motivated you to commit to this lifestyle and career or was the process a more gradual one?
For the most part, yes – there was a specific moment that I felt quite devastated – it was a trip to Bali a number of years ago. I have family that lives in Indonesia, and we were visiting them – I was snorkeling and saw a lot of trash intermingling with the fish and even as someone who grew up abroad and did lots of snorkeling and scuba diving, I had never seen this much trash amongst the corals before – it was really eye-opening to me just how devastating that was. It occurred to me how much negative human impact there was on this environment and it just didn’t seem fair, but in that moment, I thought “what am I supposed to do? I’m not a marine biologist, how am I supposed to fix this problem?” but I had this urge deep inside me that I just needed to do something – however it didn’t happen right away, I didn’t do anything right away, and I actually didn’t even immediately make the connection to my own lifestyle choices in that moment and at the time “zero-waste” was certainly not a mainstream idea – this was around the early 2010s.
Up until then, I didn’t think about the takeout order I was getting and how it was connected to ocean waste. But eventually I began to commit to a number of different lifestyle changes and embrace causes that were starting to gain traction. For example, there have been huge movements to reduce the toxicity of our personal care products, to clean up our diets, and all of these different but related lifestyle changes have become increasingly mainstream over the past 10 years. So, since that day in Bali, I have been working towards all of these different lifestyle changes as it became more and more clear to me that my waste was having a huge direct impact. I realized that in response to that, I could directly reduce my impact by lowering the amount of takeout I have or skip single-use items wherever possible instead of opting for the convenience of disposables.
Reflecting on it now, it was both a very specific experience that initiated the process, but it was also a very gradual lifestyle transition over the last 10 years or so.