Keeping Your Trash in a Jar is Not Going to Save the Planet – A Realists Guide to Living Zero Waste

Kate Hall

I once idolised ‘zero-wasters’ who could keep all their trash in a jar for a whole year.

I would gawk at their intensive efforts to look after our planet and got close to making full-blown shrines in their honour (well, maybe not quite). To me, they were the epitome of what it meant to live sustainably.

Now? I ignore them.

To be honest, I think keeping your trash for the year in a jar, is a waste of time, and it’s not going to save the planet. 

Image via Timothy Archibald for National Geographic

how to go zero waste


There’s a common myth that the waste you produce, can be totaled by what you find in your trash bin.

It’s not. Therefore, trash-jar users, have some explaining to do.

If you own a car, how will you fit your old tyres or windscreen wipers into that one tiny trash-jar? Or when your accountant is filing your paperwork, but accidentally hits the print button 5 times and throws the excess paper in the rubbish bin… what happens then?

Do trash-jar users make excuses for things like condoms, receipts, or gifts?

The trash you see in front of your eyes is just the tip of the iceberg. You have no idea of the waste created ‘upstream’, existing long before each product came into your life. Keeping your trash in a jar helps to focus on limiting your household trash, and that’s great. But it can fool you into thinking that’s all you have to worry about.

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This is all the waste I produced during the month of February… . BREAKDOWN: ✖️Food wrappers (including a chocolate bar I was given and popcorn pack I caved on- usually I cook my own from the bulk store, but it was too tempting just sitting there) ✖️Newspapers (I use most of them to line the bottom of my bird cage and then compost) + junkmail ✖️Wine (I cook with the port, it usually last about 3 months- and I was mad it ran out in Feb haha) ✖️Free range chicken wrappers : I buy my meat plastic free but they don’t have free range chicken at the butcher ✖️Jandals that are from my childhood and have completely worn through ✖️Tickets to a concert ✖️Seed wrappers from gifts ✖️The backs of @patchstrips (the only part that can’t be composted) ✖️Packaging from products to use as a blogger + trial + online shopping ✖️Pasta boxes : I buy in bulk but the shop is 1 hour away and I ran out ✖️Cans ✖️Ice cream ✖️To do lists on scrap pieces of paper ✖️Fair trade banana stickers ✖️Fruit stickers … I keep thinking: if I was less social, I would do better. If I was more self-disciplined, I wouldn’t be lying in this mess. If I tried harder, I could reduce it further🌱 . But this is the current world we live in, and to go even further, would be to alienate myself from society. That’s not productive for global change. . I’m always working on ways to reduce my waste, and I don’t believe zero waste actually exists. We must continue to try change the systems, rather than reduce our waste individually. For example: one straw does certainly matter, but banning straws from whole nations matters even more. . I’m both encouraged and disappointed in my attempt at #futuristicfebruary with @sustainable_duo , but overall it’s taught me a lot 💚 . P.S. this excludes 4 days away in New Plymouth (my first styrofoam incident happened after 3 years avoiding it) & includes shared items like the wine and ice cream which I did not consume alone ✨ . Any questions about my waste?

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I’m sorry to break it to you, but the almonds you scooped into your beautiful organic cotton bulk bin bag, may not be as wonderful as you think. I once witnessed a store worker empty multiple 50-gram bags of almonds into bulk bin tubs. I’m not making this up!

Until you ask your local bulk bin store, you have no idea if they are doing this too. Your food may look ‘zero waste’ to you, but you have no idea how it got there until you ask and trust the supplier.

And eating out? You can’t trust this either. I’m certain trash-jar users don’t waltz into the kitchen of every restaurant they eat at and ask to take their trash home to put in their trash-jar. If they did: their jar may be full after day one.

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To me, bulk bin shopping doesn’t look like colour coordinated jars and Instagram-worthy kitchen cupboards 🙅‍♀️ That would be wasteful.⠀ .⠀ I use the containers that were already in my life (swipe to see my cupboard), and haven’t actually bought a single new jar: they’ve all found me somehow, or I’ve grabbed them at a secondhand shop 💚⠀ .⠀ Honestly, sometimes I get incredibly frustrated standing to fill up my dishwashing liquid for literally 2.5 minutes (it would take one second to grab it from a shelf usually), and last time I went, I had a mild hot chocolate incident 😂 don’t ask.⠀ .⠀ I also realise this is only plastic free in front of my own eyes: I don’t know if the food was emptied into the bulk bins in tiny 50gram bags! Though I do make a point to ask 🙌⠀ .⠀ Nothing is ever zero waste, but supporting bulk bin stores and doing my best to reduce my plastic is all I can currently do 😊 Can you do it too??

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For those who put an overflowing 240-liter bin out on the curb every week for collection, a tiny jar for an entire year sounds like a joke; something only extremists could accomplish. Trying to become a member of the exclusive trash-jar club is overwhelming to the average person living in the western world. 

Rather than inspire waste reduction, the idea of a trash-jar can scare people so much that they end up ignoring the entire ‘zero-waste’ movement altogether. That’s not helpful in the slightest; it’s actually detrimental to their ‘eco-journey’.


Let’s not beat around the bush: our planet is coated in plastic and filled with waste. Rubbish is inescapable. So, although it can be empowering to see one small jar of trash represent the waste of an individual for a year, we need to focus on the bigger issues at large.

Let’s put more energy into changing the systems themselves, adjusting global laws, and making ‘upstream’ changes rather than individual triumphs.

Of course, it’s important we consider our individual waste while we do this, but we can’t stop there. Your impact on the planet is bigger than a jar, so own it, but do something about it.

Instead of focusing on what’s in front of you, and crying when a straw is accidentally put in your cocktail and you’re forced to do the walk of shame to your trash jar, make your impact greater.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Sign petitions
  • Email brands directly (asking them to change)
  • Join a protest
  • Become part of your local government board/committee
  • Start a local community group
  • Vote
  • Get vocal online about what you believe in

Kate Hall

I live and breathe sustainable living and ethical fashion. This alternative way of consuming and existing dominates my every waking moment- and sometimes more. Ethical fashion and living are no longer my hobbies, it has become my mission... to change the future of fast fashion and the way we consume. My husband and I strive to live a zero-waste lifestyle, live at thrift stores, and always look to 'up-cycle' rather than throw out. Eco-living is not a choice for me, it's in my blood, and I am trying with all my power for it to be the new 'norm'.