When Celia Ristow started publicly blogging, writing, and talking about the zero-waste movement, she felt a lot of pressure to do things perfectly — to fit her annual trash into a tiny jar, to overhaul every waste-generating part of her life.
"As a public figure in zero waste, I felt like I needed to do it perfectly," said Ristow, who runs the blog Litterless and founded the nonprofit Zero Waste Chicago. "What I found when I was trying to do it perfectly was that it was exhausting."
Today, Ristow takes a different approach to zero waste living — one that recognizes the urgency of curbing pollution and waste, but also extends grace to herself and to those eager to make big changes. Zero waste, she said, isn't about eliminating one's garbage altogether. It's about being conscious of what you're purchasing and throwing away, and making an effort to reduce where you can.
"It's not all or nothing," she said. "Stressing out about doing it perfectly and fitting your trash in the jar — I don’t think it’s ultimately the way to make this shift for life."
This month marks Plastic Free July, a global movement to refuse single-use plastics and reduce plastic pollution. We spoke to Ristow a few weeks ago about her zero waste lifestyle (she uses the term "zero waste" as a default, because it's widely accepted, but prefers thinking about "zero-ish" or "low" waste) to gain some inspiration and useful tips about reducing waste.
Ristow was in college when she first learned about the concept of zero waste living. In many ways, she notes, choosing zero waste relies on leveraging one's purchasing power. When she left the dorms and set out on her adult life, she resolved that as she set up some of her daily routines — cleaning her house, and cooking her own meals — she'd make them zero waste.
She'd grown up with a backyard compost bin, and upon moving to Chicago, she did some Googling and signed up for a city service. It was as easy as sending an email, she said, and soon she wasn't adding food scraps to her garbage anymore. She purchased a few reusable produce bags and swapped out plastic bags at the grocery store. For those resolving to reduce waste in their daily lives, Ristow says, the kitchen is an easy place to start: "So much of what we consume is in our kitchen," she said, "with a weekly if not daily influx of goods."
Other routines can be harder to retrofit for a zero waste lifestyle. Take beauty routines. "They're so personal, and we invest so much time in making them work for us," said Ristow. "Suddenly it's not just about natural ingredients and efficacy, but also about packaging."
Today, she tries to be gentle with herself, and honest with her readers, about where she succeeds and where she fails. "When I get a chance to start the conversation, the thing I talk about is, 'zero' for me is more of a stand in, it’s not really the actual goal," said Ristow. "I want people to know that they're welcome at any level."
So, perhaps that means starting with carrying a tote bag to the grocery store. A month later, start carrying a water bottle. "That's participating, and that's worthy of celebrating," said Ristow.
New to zero-ish waste living? Ristow has some suggestions. Start with the low-hanging fruit. We're tickled she counts Bee's Wrap in that camp. "It's very easy to do something like commit to using Bee's Wrap," she said. "I didn't have to be convinced."
Other easy swaps? Use bar soap instead of liquid soap that comes in a plastic container. Get creative with reusable containers. (Ristow wraps her bread in Bee's Wrap, then stores it in her dutch oven when it's not in use.)
Ristow's been cheered to see the zero waste movement grow and take root in the culture in the last four years. Suddenly she's seeing companies market to this community, and a greater diversity of people express interest. In Chicago, she holds monthly meet-ups — free spaces where people can have coffee or sit in the park and share zero-waste tips. She's also started hosting workshops introducing people to zero-waste living tips or composting.
"I think at its heart, zero waste is about giving people the tools to harness every decision they make to reflect the world they want to live in," she said. "If we're going to solve climate change, if we're going to reverse our plastic pollution problem, we need to get everyone in here, and not everyone is going to participate at the same level."
Her goal? Make it clear that all are welcome. That all choices matter. And that every little bit helps.