Mediaplanet caught up with Tara McKenna, Founder of The Zero Waste Collective. Tara talks about her new book Don’t Be Trashy and how Canadians can be an advocate for the zero-waste initiative.
As a Canadian zero-waste advocate, why do you feel strongly about raising awareness for and improving outcomes within this space?
On a trip to Bali years ago, I was devastated by seeing trash intermingling with fish while snorkelling. That was a pivotal moment for me because I wasn’t expecting to see such a tragedy in a beautiful and tropical place (this was before it was trendy to talk about plastic in our oceans).
I felt a bit helpless in that moment. It’s not like I hadn’t seen litter or trash in precarious contexts before, but this just hit me differently. I wanted to make a difference, to make a big change and tell the world about this problem, but I didn’t know where to start.
Becoming an advocate in the zero-waste space — which happened years after my trip to Bali — was my way of going from feeling helpless to becoming empowered. I’m here with a how-to guide. Literally! I wrote the book Don’t Be Trashy: A Practical Guide to Living with Less Waste and More Joy. More than that though, I want sustainability to become the default. The emphasis on green living still seems to be primarily aimed at environmentalists. I want to change that narrative and shift the paradigm to make it the easier option for everyone to be more eco-friendly, whether you’re a tree hugger or not. We all share this planet, after all! It benefits everyone.
What are some of the most common barriers people face when trying to reduce waste and get off the treadmill of consumption?
Common barriers include planned obsolescence and perceived expensiveness of the lifestyle.
We’re living in an era of excessive consumerism, and that was by design. After World War 2, there was a strong emphasis on consumption as a vehicle to ramp up the economy. To generate the desire for people to consume, marketers had to create and sell the need to buy new stuff. The primary tool used to get people shopping for more than they needed was planned obsolescence.
Planned obsolescence is a business strategy that makes products obsolete, and there are a few different ways to do that, including:
- Make products easy to break (so you’ll need to replace them)
- Build products that are hard to repair (so you’ll need to replace them, and you can’t easily fix them)
- Make products super trendy (so they go out of style, which is perceived obsolescence)
- Change the technology (so products become out of date)
It took a few generations, but here we are, and all these strategies are still alive and well to keep people buying more and more stuff.
As a result, it can be challenging to get off the treadmill of consumption because more consumption is built into the system.
That said, as consumers we still have the choice to buy products that are built to last, to aim for timeless instead of trendy styles, and to buy products that can be repaired. That is an important message that I share.
As for the price tag, yes, buying better can be more expensive. And that’s not a bad thing! I talk a lot about that in my book, with two chapters dedicated to money, spending (or not spending) and personal finance in the context of sustainability. However, we don’t always have to buy brand new, and that’s an important element. We can also participate in the secondhand and sharing economy to save money and reduce waste:
- Rent instead of buy
- Share, trade, borrow and lend with family and friends
- Find free stuff
- Shop secondhand
What easy steps can we take in our daily lives and around our houses to reduce waste?
Typically, I recommend starting with some easy swaps to get the ball rolling. There are certain swaps people can make at home that will immediately reduce your waste. Here are some examples:
- Plastic wrap -> beeswax wrap
- Plastic baggies -> silicone bags or reusable food containers
- Paper towel -> Swedish sponge cloths
- Shampoo and conditioner bottles -> shampoo and conditioner bars
- Plastic razors -> safety razor
- All the plastic bottled cleaning products -> concentrated cleaning products (like tablets) you just add water to in reusable bottles
- Liquid dish soap -> solid dish soap bar
I also suggest having a zero-waste kit — easy to grab for life on the go — of reusable items you use daily, such as:
- Water bottle
- Coffee cup
- Food containers
- Shopping bag
- Produce bags
Can you tell us about your new book Don’t Be Trashy? Why was writing this book so important to you and what do you hope people will walk away from this book learning?
My book, Don’t Be Trashy: A Practical Guide to Living with Less Waste and More Joy is an easy-to-use and fun manual full of personal stories with actionable steps in each themed chapter.
Each chapter focuses on topics like minimalism and decluttering, nontoxic living, reducing waste in the kitchen, bathroom, etc., and other topics like personal finance, family and friends and community. The book is written in such a way that you could implement each theme on a month-by-month basis over the course of a year. It helps people to live their best life with less waste!
Benefits of the lifestyle that may come as a result of reading my book include:
- Saving money
- Eating better
- Less stress
- More contribution
- Enjoying your best life
I wrote the book to be easy to read, digest and implement. A lot of people have commented on how accessible and approachable it is, and that’s exactly how I wanted it to be. I didn’t want it to be preachy or condescending because that approach doesn’t help anyone and who wants that anyway. It’s got an easy-going tone (with a little bit of potty mouth thrown in, I must admit).
Ultimately, I want people to know that this lifestyle is for everyone. You don’t have to be a hardcore environmentalist to love this book! It’s all about progress over perfection.
What do you say to those Canadians who feel their impact will not make a difference in improving environmental outcomes when compared to major corporations?
People are individuals. And alone, our impacts might not be noticeable. But when you consider that more than 1 million plastic bottles are thrown out per minute worldwide, those were decisions. We all make decisions, and those decisions on a larger scale become statistics. Let’s change the statistics, shall we?
It takes all of us to make important changes (individuals, corporations, governments). We, as individuals, are part of families, communities, workplaces, etc.; we don’t live in isolation. What we do and the choices we make have ripple effects. Let’s make sure the ripple effects are sustainable ones!
Finally, what is your message for Canadians this Earth Month, and what is the best way to keep up with all your amazing work?
As with any other lifestyle change, reducing your waste is all about taking baby steps. Making smaller changes can lead to making bigger changes. Do what works for you in the context of your life!