Am I a Bad Zero Waster if I Am Not Vegan (or the Other Way around)?

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!

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  1. Love this post! It’s so nice to see your emphasis on “trying” I’ve gotten so hard on myself for my ocasional non zero waste ways (I.e, going to a new restaurant that automatically serves a glass with a plastic straw, agh) but at the end of the day, as long as we’re sharing our awareness on the subject, it’s all worth it!

    • That happens to me, too. But it’s also how I learn. Next time, I’ll try to do better, and I believe there is always a next time, which means there is always a next chance <3

  2. Thanks for this post. It is important that we are able to discuss this subject in a way that doesn’t create an ‘us and them’ paradigm. It can be quite shocking how aggressive both sides can become towards each other’s dietary choices. I like the way there are now ‘movements’ out there such as Meatless Monday and Vegan before Six, also the idea of Reducetarianism. It seems to work better to offer options that change behavior rather than cause people to become defensive. Posts like yours contribute to this no blame way of approaching such a complex issue.

    • I feel the same way! I myself feel we are all working towards a common goal, and instead of pointing fingers we should help and support each other!

  3. Completely agree, but for me it’s still a transition to do both since I don’t leave alone TT !!! But I’m trying!

    • Hey, that’s totally fine! If you live with people, it’s normal to compromise. It’s as much their home as it is yours and the other way around. Try to stick to the areas you have “full control” over: your toiletries, when you buy groceries, etc. Good luck!

    • But then that person probably wouldn’t even be a zero waster LOL! But yes, Deb, I totally agree with you!

  4. I’m sorry but statistically, being vegan does more for climate change than zero waste can. Combined is GREAT. One or the other are great, but you’re lying to yourself if you think that local cow’s milk is as good for the environment as almond milk made from imported almond. Statistically. It’s math. Not to mention the ethics. But that’s a whole extra facet.

    • Frankly, in that situation I would just go for oat milk ;). I myself would be vegan even if it had no environmental impact. But if you live in Europe and buy almonds from California or almond milk in a carton with almonds from California, a painfully dry place, I am sorry to say that it is far from eco-friendly. I once compared the carbon footprint of both and yes, they were about the same. Of course this is different if you live in California.

    • Does the vast majority of greenhouse gases not come from the ridiculous amount of factory farms that are mostly prevalent in North America? It really bothers me that people push that so much, when I personally know small farmers in my area that do everything that they can do reduce their carbon footprint. I think it’s more of an issue of choosing your meat producers carefully, rather than not eating it at all. And eating less too, of course, but that goes for all food, not just meat and other animal products.

      • The greenhouse gases the livestock industry produces does not come from running the facilities, but from raising the livestock. They need to be fed, and that food needs to be grown somewhere. Vast amounts of land are used only to grow crops fed to animals. Like I wrote in the article above: “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” It is simply more efficient to eat the crops directly, and this translates into fewer emissions. This isn’t something buying from a small farm will change.

        • But it’s the amount of livestock that is being raised. Small farms have a limit on the meat that they produce in a year. If you look at the numbers, there are almost as many cows on American factory farms are there are people living in Canada. There is absolutely no need for that many cattle.

  5. Thanks for this article, I definitely appreciate your bipartisanship here, as I am a small farm steader, heading in the direction of sustainable meat goat (and some dairy) production. I also raise other animals for meat, and of course have a variety of poultry for eggs and use my overflow of roosters for meat. We are working hard to become essentially a zero waste meat production permaculture farm. Of course today it’s not easy, and we do still buy (some) grain from our local feed store. Of course grain is ALL fro
    Big ag. No matter if your buying organic or not. And likely it’s all gmo. That being said, which is actually healthier for the planet? Drinking a butt load of soy or almond milk, which is absolutely known for creating devastating effects on the environment or buying meat and milk products from a local zero waste source? I mean, yes it is still killing a being, and of course I understand that for many vegans that’s the catch, but it’s been scientifically proven now that plants actually have feelings too! So even when you eat plants you are eating a being. Anyway my farm is in northern Vermont and the goat heard is actually in need of nothing else besides forage in the summer and hay which is produced on our farm as well, in the winter. Plus the manure is composted and spread as fertilizer for the hay fields. Thus my goat heard, which is providing meat and milk products is a zero waste production farm, far more sustainable then any soy or almond grove.

    • I truly appreciate the effort you put into keeping your farm as waste free as possible. I understand how hard it is to do so.

  6. Hi Shia – I loved reading your gentle perspective here.

    I’ve been a flexitarian for almost ten years now, which for me means I am vegetarian and cook vegan at home. My zero waste lifestyle has been a bigger focus for me, motivated mostly by environmentalism. The switch to a plant based lifestyle kind of happened naturally + slowly for health and environment reasons. While I admit that the more I learn, the more I understand and empathize with animal cruelty – I can’t say that was my reason for becoming plant based.

    Since I am focused on supporting wild places and having less environmental impact – I am surprised that the issue of plastic food waste has not taken the vegan world by storm, as it has become such an invasive and unnecessary form of animal cruelty in the wild. Thanks for sharing your thoughtful notes on this topics, I found it very helpful.



  7. I balance things and as much as possible, I don’t allow a lot of waste. I am not yet a zero waster but I on my way there.

  8. You have a good point. I like your insights. But as you’ve said, we are all different. Not being a vegan means you are a bad zero waster too. I think we can all work together in reducing waste even in many ways not just through our diet.

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