The Great Global Cleanup

5 Ways Being Zero Waste and Owning Less Can Make You Happier

Did you know that being zero waste and owning fewer things can actually increase your happiness and well-being? In honor of International Day of Zero Waste, we invite you to join us in trying out the zero waste lifestyle and learning about how you can simplify your life and reduce your carbon footprint… and your own stress. 

1. Less Really is More 

A big part of living a zero waste lifestyle includes buying and owning less stuff. The average American owns hundreds of thousands of possessions. We have so many belongings that we spend $38 billion a year in the U.S. alone just on storing it. Every item that you own has to be produced, be it the free t-shirt you got at an event that you never wear, the kitchen gadget you bought at a Black Friday sale that you don’t really use, or the souvenir keychain in the junk drawer. The materials economy (i.e. the economy generated by producing stuff), accounts for almost half of all global emissions. 

Owning too much stuff is also an inefficient distribution of resources. If you have something in your home that you’re holding onto unnecessarily, you’re preventing someone else from using it. And sadly, most things you own will someday end up in the landfill, so being intentional with what you own puts less pressure on the planet. 

It also puts less pressure on you! Research shows that owning too many things can make us feel stressed, anxious and depressed. The accumulation of clutter and objects in our surroundings creates a “silent to-do list,” a concept from Fumio Sasaki in the book Goodbye, Things. Every item you own is sending a message: plants are asking to be watered, knick knacks to be dusted, clothes to be worn. Our mind is constantly scanning our environment, noticing unfinished projects and things that need to be organized. Over time, this takes a mental and emotional toll.

On the flip side, owning less and simplifying has been repeatedly linked to increases in well-being. And the more peaceful environment that results can actually help you sleep better, which also contributes to increased happiness

2. Decision Fatigue 

When you live zero waste and eliminate most new and packaged products (which is a lot of things!), you also eliminate another known stressor: decision fatigue. The average American makes 35,000 decisions a day, which causes mental overload. Go to any grocery store, and as a consumer you have hundreds of products and brands to choose from. A simple decision like choosing which toothpaste is best or what kinds of eggs you should buy can be overwhelming (free range? pasture raised? enhanced with omega-3 fatty acids?). Add online shopping into the mix, and the options and decisions you have to make multiply exponentially. A zero waste lifestyle simplifies shopping and focuses more on sharing items (see point 5) rather than purchasing them, leaving your brain power free for more important decisions in your life. 

3. Experiences Strengthen Relationships

According to three recent studies, experiential purchases (i.e. experiences) have a greater impact on increasing happiness than material purchases (i.e. things). Buying new things does increase happiness (this phenomenon is known as “retail therapy”), but the effects are temporary and can quickly contribute to clutter and stress. Experiences on the other hand, have the potential to strengthen or create relationships with others. One way this can play out in a zero waste lifestyle is focusing on gifting experiences to both yourself and loved ones rather than material possessions. This could be tickets to a concert you enjoy together or washing someone’s car for them. The memories and connection from a shared experience or act of service have the potential to last much longer than the joy from a new possession. 

4. Zero Waste Builds Community  

Being zero waste encourages you to share what you’re not using with others through things like community swap days, and Buy Nothing groups where you give away items to people in your neighborhood and receive items others don’t need. Giving to others boosts serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin in the brain which decreases depression and increases happiness. That extra flower vase you don’t have space for in your cupboards? Someone might be excited to give it a new home. Sharing resources connects you to others in a way that builds relationships and contributes to longer-lasting happiness. 

These relationships have the potential to increase climate resilience as well! This Guardian piece reveals the benefits of a connected community responding to climate driven events like extreme heat. So get out there and share, it just might save your life.

5. Empowerment Instead of Climate Doom 

Nowadays, with the threat of climate change all around us, it’s natural to feel eco-anxiety, and disempowerment. Decreasing your possessions and the amount of things you buy is a very concrete way you can both improve your own happiness and lessen the pressure on the planet. Your habits can and do influence businesses, institutions, and cities, which are turning to zero waste to fight climate change and increase resilience. Because of consumer and voter demand, there are now businesses that offer returnable takeout containers, cities that have banned plastic bags and progress on right to repair laws. Once you get the hang of zero waste in your personal life, you’ll be able to advocate for similar changes at your workplace, at businesses you frequent, and  in your government. Join us for International Day of Zero Waste and learn how you can be part of the movement for zero waste to secure a just, livable future.