Are you a bad zero waster if you don't also commit to being vegan? This seems to be a question almost dividing the zero waste community. Animal products like meat, dairy, and eggs do not only cause a lot of harm to animals, but are also responsible for an exorbitant amount of greenhouse gases.
I think we can safely assume that the main motivation behind choosing a zero waste lifestyle is environmentalism: the desire to take action to best preserve and hopefully restore what is left of this drained and exhausted planet. Since animal products are a major contributor to climate change, this harsh question does make sense, even though I myself definitely wouldn't recommend it as an ice breaker when starting a conversation with a zero waster.
A study published by WWF Germany in 2012 stated that "nearly 70% of the direct greenhouse gases our diet causes are caused by animal products." (Climate Change on Your Plate, p.4) Banning meat, dairy, and eggs from our plates has become more and more socially accepted over the last few years. Vegan food blogs are booming, restaurants with only plant-based menu items have been popping up, and even meat-loving celebrity chefs cannot not have vegan recipes in their repertoire. With veganism finding its place in mainstream media and metropolitan cities, it is perceived as a more obvious next step than the "extreme" and rather eccentric zero waste lifestyle.
To me, zero waste and vegan compliment each other, but...
Yes, I believe that for the most part, zero waste and veganism compliment each other very well, but I do think we have to acknowledge that the movements come from different places and even though they have many intersecting values, some others might not be shared.
Most vegans, myself included, feel very strongly about issues concerning animal cruelty, the treatment of animals like goods and not like beings, and feel that it is ethically wrong to kill another being, even if it supposedly had a happy life on a charming farm. I am very certain that most vegans would be vegans even if greenhouse gases weren't an issue.
Zero waste, on the other hand, focuses on minimizing household trash as a way to reduce one's own environmental footprint.
It's about opting for the less destructive choice as often as possible
There is no 100% vegan or 100% zero waste, and I personally believe that it is not about striving for the illusion of perfection. To me, it is about not wanting to live my life at the expense of other people, other animals, and the planet in general. So I try to opt for the better choice as often as possible—"trying" being the important word here. Am I always successful in my attempts or even consistent? Most certainly not! But you need to start somewhere, right?
To me, both zero waste and vegan are "only" two out of many more ways to reduce my own negative impact. Other ways that hubby and I are inching towards are: using public transit (we sold our car back in 2009), saving electricity, reducing the use of plastic and palm oil, and being more minimalist.
Everybody is different
There is no one-size-fits-all solution, no right or wrong. Each and every one of us is different! We come in different shapes and sizes, might face different challenges, responsibilities, have different medical conditions, resources, and access to a different infrastructure. We also have different personalities and different things we are good and bad at. So while for some reducing the trash they create might be a walk in the park, changing the diet might be easier said than done (or the other way around).
Don't keep score
The motto of Hanno's and my relationship has always been: we don't keep score. Each party contributes as much as they want to or are able to. Hanno is definitely the neater one of the two of us, so he is usually the one who does the lion's share of all the household chores. But there are phases where I am the one holding our household together. And then there are phases when we both have other things on our plate and our home looks like a war zone. And that's okay. We don't expect the other one (or ourself) to be able to have it all together at all times. We know we are different people with different needs and even when we do have the same goal, we know we both have our own pace.
From what I see and hear, compared to the "mainstream", vegans seems to be a lot more open to the idea of zero waste, and zero wasters to veganism! The zero wasters I have had the pleasure of meeting were all very knowledgable when it came to what was vegan and what was not (you'd be surprised how often I have to explain that "regular" pesto or mayonnaise are not vegan), which restaurants offered vegan options, or how to prepare vegan meals. Most vegans would feel extremely lucky if their family members or friends were that well informed!
Personally, I am very happy about each and every single person that embarks on a journey to a more sustainable and compassionate lifestyle, be it starting with vegan or zero waste. Nobody is perfect, and there is always room for improvement. I myself have so so many things I have yet to tackle! Nobody is born a master, right?
Why it makes sense for a zero waster to also reduce the intake of animal products
Animal products all have a horrific environmental footprint and are the cause of an alarming amount of greenhouse gases. Based on numbers provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the livestock industry is accountable for more greenhouse gases (14.5%) than all planes, ships, trains, cars, and trucks together (13%)! According to BBC, the
"average [US] family of four emits more greenhouse gases because of the meat they eat than from driving two cars." (BBC Future)
So, yes, opting for the vegan option more often makes a lot of sense.
One argument that I hear a lot is that veganism promotes the already very aggressive cultivation of soy, which wouldn't be very sustainable. I wanted to address this because it is simply not true. For one, being vegan does not necessarily mean that you must eat soy products. I myself am allergic to soy and even though I can now tolerate a certain amount of soy, I used to avoid soy altogether. So trust me when I say that there is an abundance of yummy soy-free vegan options. Besides, this accusation of a growing soy demand if everyone went vegan just isn't based on any facts. According to a USDA study, 98% of the soy is fed to livestock and only 2% is for human consumption. What's more, you can make two kilograms (4.4 lbs) of tofu out of one kilogram (2.2 lbs) of soy, while feeding this one kilogram (2.2 lbs) soy to a pig will only yield 300 g (0.66 lb) of pork. So swapping pork for tofu actually decreases the demand for soy!
Why it makes sense for a vegan to also minimize plastic waste
To be honest, I have trouble considering products packaged in plastic as "cruelty free". Plastic is made from fossil fuel, and it is no secret that the extraction and transportation methods aren't only very invasive, but have led to heavy pollution and oil spills. We all remember the devastating photos of sea birds covered in oil.
Plastic itself is just as harmful. Plastic is everywhere in the ocean. Seeing that eight million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean every year, this isn't very surprising. Marine wildlife get entangled in plastic, wounded by plastic, and starve to death because their stomach is full of plastic. According to the Guardian, up to 90% of seabirds have plastic in their guts. May I add that this does not only affect sea birds and marine wildlife, but also other birds and land-based animals.
No trash is the best kind of trash. Avoiding single-use plastic is actually a lot easier than you might think! You can buy plastic-free produce at the farmers market, small grocery and health food stores. Buy dry goods in whatever form of bulk accessible to you. This could be at the bulk bins, or just asking your grocer to order an extra large bulk bag for you the next time they place their order.
Some more tips:
- Opt for real instead of processed food (processed food tends to be more heavily packaged)
- Buy big bulk bags if you don't have access to loose food items. Share with family and friends, if it is more than what you can finish or store
- Prefer glas and paper packaging over plastic
- Let your voice be heard. If you cannot find something, ask. It might be behind the counter, or the store might even decide to stock it if enough people show interest.
- Join the community. You are not alone, and it's okay to have questions! There are many local and even international Zero Waste Facebook groups, e.g. Zero-Waste Vegans.
So... Do you think a zero waster should also be vegan and vice versa?
I think it is definitely a worthwhile goal. But I wouldn't expect it from anybody. It is simply impossible and unrealistic to always and successfully make the best choice that takes everything into account. Especially since many choices aren't obvious, e.g. what is better: local cow milk or homemade almond milk from imported almonds?
For Hanno and I, zero waste and vegan are more of a guideline to help us with the daily decision-making process. I like to compare it to exercising. There are good days and there are bad days. But if you just stick to it—and a little goes a long way!—you will improve without fail! What was challenging at the beginning will get easier and easier, until you realize: I am so ready for the next challenge!