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Zero waste depends on where you live

Some areas have more resources than others, so do your best to work with what you have.

I learned about the zero waste movement in 2014, after discovering Bea Johnson's inspiring book at the library. It was eye-opening and revelatory, and sparked a desire to eradicate as much single-use packaging from my life as I could. That was easier said than done. As I followed the steps she recommended, I met numerous roadblocks. It turns out that small-town Ontario isn't nearly as progressive as San Francisco when it comes to allowing reusable containers in grocery stores. Who knew?

That's when I wished I still lived in the city. According to my Google searches and Johnson's app, my previous home in downtown Toronto would've given me access to numerous bulk and health food stores that allowed reusable containers, but unfortunately I was no longer there to take advantage of them. This was a depressing realization.

It took awhile, but eventually I realized that my location gave me one key advantage over city-dwellers – direct access to farmers. I now lived in farm country, after all, at the epicenter of food production, which meant that I could go directly to producers to get ingredients that are not only package-free (or minimally packaged), but also the freshest and most delicious. So I did, and the results have been rewarding.

There are still trade-offs. I can get most of the fruits, vegetables, milk, and meat that we eat without plastic, but there are far fewer prepared foods, bakery items, cheese, soap and household cleaners, and condiments than I would be able to get in the city.

Celia Ristow, founder of the Litterless blog, put it well when she told Civil Eats that zero waste should be viewed as more of an ideal than a hard-and-fast rule:

“It's so geographically dependent on what’s in your area — some areas have more resources, some don’t — so I think it’s about doing your best to leverage the resources you do have.”

It is refreshing to see that fact acknowledged. Geographic limitations are real, and so often the best-known zero waste advocates and Instagrammers are urban dwellers, who have access to dozens, if not hundreds, of stores and restaurants that are willing to work with them. You don't hear as often about people in the boonies who are talking directly to farmers and storeowners in hopes of circumventing the usual packaging practices.

What I've come to realize over the years is that no place is perfect. There are pros and cons to urban living and to rural living, and it's impossible to find a place that meets all the ideal criteria. But that doesn't mean we should stop trying. The food scene in my small town has changed drastically in six years, and far more reusable and refillable options are available now than ever before. We have new and expanded CSA programs, a local food co-op that allows for online ordering and home delivery, numerous locations for dropping off milk bottles, a growing summer farmers' market, and large pick-your-own fruit farm.

I tell people (and remind myself) to chip away at what you can. Each week will look different. One might include milk in glass bottles, while the following does not. Maybe the farmers' market and CSA shares are only seasonal, and you have to buy supermarket produce for six months out of the year. Perhaps you can stock up on cleaning liquids in glass jars when you visit the city once in a while. It doesn't have to be perfect; in fact, as the saying goes, “Perfection is the enemy of progress.” Do what you can, based on what's around you, and don't give up.

Some areas have more resources than others, so do your best to work with what you have.