The Politics of Minimalism and Zero Waste Living

This past August I moved into my first apartment.

Over four years of living in college residence halls, I had accumulated a lot of stuff. Most of the time the stuff went unnoticed, but the moments when I noticed the abundance of stuff were always in the transitions from one dorm to another. At those times, I was primarily stressed by the amount of belongings that required physical moving. Sometimes, I even felt embarrassed having to ask family for help because I was well aware as to how much had to get from point A to point B. The past couple of years in particular are when I began identifying my tendency to hold onto things I never used, clothing I never wore, papers I didn’t need. I felt like my living spaces were in a state of perpetual, untamable clutter. As soon as a room was clean, there was stuff overwhelming every surface — floor, dresser top, desk. I realized that my stuff was officially stressing me out.

My concerns about clutter and figuring out what to do about it led me to the Internet, like most things do. From Pinterest to Buzzfeed to countless mom blogs, I encountered an onslaught of lists and photo guides to hacking drawers, closets and cabinets into organized submission. None of them really stuck because I was always thinking about the “little things” — the souvenir knick-knacks I didn’t want but felt obligated to keep, the loose screws or the occasional rogue hardware parts. I needed to learn how to let go — because after all, an organized junk drawer is still a junk drawer.

Then I stumbled upon minimalism — the idea of baring your life down to the essentials, ridding yourself of what you don’t need or love, and not being afraid to throw away the things that don’t bring you joy on a daily basis. I watched the documentary, Minimalism and read Marie Kondo’s books (and every other iteration of her philosophy that exists online). My interest was piqued.

But there I was, a 20-year-old with an inherited, life-long hoarding habit (sorry Mom and Dad), feeling guilty about ridding myself of things that I called mine.

My encounter with minimalist ideas online led me to an introduction with the zero-waste movement. I came across a video about a woman named Lauren Singer, an alumnus of my alma mater, NYU, who could fit all of her garbage from two years into a 12 ounce mason jar. The point of zero waste was sustainability — reducing or eliminating plastic from your purchases, recycling whenever possible, finding reusable alternatives to disposable products, and simplifying the ingredients in your food and health and beauty products to be better for the earth and your body. The more I looked into this movement, the more I saw minimalism as a side effect.

The idea of transitioning to zero waste and embracing minimalism along the way struck me initially as dually beneficial — the earth wins, and I win. But I was also skeptical — was delving fully into this kind of lifestyle attainable for only the privileged of time and money? Was it really as cost effective as it claimed? Would it ever become less time consuming, working around the conveniences already set up in our civilization?

I think it’s difficult to say. There are undeniable benefits of downsizing possessions and purchasing only sustainable goods — and for the people who can do that with the way the world is set up now, well, they probably should continue. But I don’t think this kind of life is fully accessible to all people in the world. Structural power imbalances in government and society make it socioeconomically unrealistic for people to get rid of everything they have presently and replace it. I see this as a missing piece of the discourse surrounding these movements; I think including this reality in the discussion, and addressing it with urgent concern would do a lot of good.

When I moved into my first apartment this August, I took the opportunity of moving to seriously consider what I had, what I needed, what I didn’t, what I loved, and what I didn’t. I did a lot of recycling, donating and with a grit of my teeth, landfilling. It was inevitable.

And when I was buying things for my new home — one that I would finally live in for more than nine months at a time — I asked myself some important questions that the aforementioned movements taught me. Do I love this thing? Does this thing bring me joy? Will I use this thing regularly? Is this thing made out of materials that are good for the environment? Is this thing made of materials that are good for me?

Since moving, I have felt significantly less overwhelmed by my things and more in tune with them. That might sound overly whimsical to some, but I think there is an undeniable case for conscious consumption. I would encourage anyone to try it — it can be in any capacity, no matter how small.

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