For about three years now, I've been pretty close to zero waste, and for the last two, I've probably been about as close to zero waste as I'll ever be able to get (unless the resources available in my area become dramatically better - working on it, Zero Waste Chicago!). But, I still have a mental list of times that I wasn't able to be as zero waste as I would have liked, and it goes like this:
A plastic plate at a company holiday party, a styrofoam tray at a restaurant in Philadelphia, granola bars on a camping trip, an old retainer case, a broken coffee mug. Etc., etc., etc. Seriously, ETC.
The thing is - in my head, I label each of these instances as a time when I slipped up. Yet with the exception of the granola bars, there's pretty much nothing I could have done better; the waste was all dictated by my circumstances. Though each of these was close to being fully unavoidable, each kind of bummed me out as I threw said item in the trash, thinking that I should be truly at zero and, well, I wasn't. Over the past year, though, I've learned to better shake that guilt, which wasn't doing me any good anyways.
Here's the thing I've realized: Generating a piece of trash when you're attempting to be "zero" waste isn't necessarily your failure - it's the broader failure of our consumption system that accepts disposable goods as normal. If someone gives you a straw when you asked for no straw, serves a meal on a plastic plate when you expected a non-disposable one, or puts your coffee in a paper cup when you asked for it in your own thermos, those aren't your fault. If you have to purchase medication in plastic packaging that isn't recyclable, or you can't find compostable floss near you, or you need to grab a packaged snack unexpectedly - these aren't your mistakes, but rather are part and parcel of living in our society which is set up in a way that makes being truly zero waste a challenge and, often, impossible.
The rule of thumb I use for myself is that I try to be as zero waste as possible while still living a happy, healthy life. I've put time into making sure my daily routines are set up to be produce as little trash as possible, but if an unexpected source of trash pops up, I try not to stress about it. In all things, I hope my daily mindset will be joyful, optimistic, and forgiving - and this applies to how I do zero waste, too.
Hopefully zero waste will become easier and easier as more companies and cities devote resources to developing package-free shopping options and accessible compost options, so that true zero waste living becomes a reasonable option for everyone. Until that day - we'll do our best, won't we? I've written this before, but progress, not perfection, is the goal.
Learning not to feel guilty about small things has helped me stay resilient and committed to zero waste, rather than getting discouraged when I "fail." I don't reach absolute zero, but I get very close, and that's enough. And however close you've been able to get while remaining happy and healthy - that's enough, too.
My two brothers are currently through-hiking the Appalachian Trail - they're super cool - and I picked up some (packaged) foods to send to each of them, in reused mailers and sealed with some old plastic tape I'm still using up. Not perfectly zero waste, still okay.