The Difference between Zero-Waste and the Low-Impact Movement

As the Zero-Waste movement gains traction, I find that I use “Zero-Waste” in quotations more often, as much as I am passionate about lowering one’s environmental impact, the truth is there is no such thing as being truly Zero-Waste. Before you freak out let me explain- no one can be 100% zero- waste because it is not physically attainable. No matter what you do, buy, or how you live you will always create some form of waste and leave some impact of some sort. It is simply unhealthy to think otherwise. That being said, I do largely support many aspects of the Zero-Waste movement and thus I use the term, thankfully there is a sub-movement called Low-Impact lifestyle created by Sustainably Vegan that is much less intense and rejects the idea of a “perfect” image of never producing waste. Here's how I see the two differentiate and why I use them interchangeably.     


According to the Zero-Waste International Alliance, the definition of Zero-Waste is “The philosophy that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused. The goal is for no trash to be sent to landfills or incinerators”[1]. It is absolutely phenomenal that this goal is becoming mainstream (as it should) however there are two main issues I see in the term Zero-Waste:

  • Zero-Waste predominantly focuses on individual tangible waste created.
    • Because of this focus the bigger picture is overlooked, yes everyone collectively making these decisions and lifestyle changes adds up and thus creates a larger shift which in turn pressures companies to change as the consumer desires- BUT I am finding that as Zero-Waste become trendy it reflects more of an aesthetic then discussing the many issues present, it rarely recognizes that it’s not just us who need to change but the companies that hold the power to change.  In addition, the term Zero-Waste I feel is misleading and can intimidate or turn people off from making sustainable swaps and looking into a greener, healthier lifestyle.
  • Guilt
    • Communities are an amazing way to connect with like-minded individuals, they provide support, advice, and can broaden your horizons. The same goes for the Zero-Waste communities, like any other large gathering of people and ideas individuals can become judgy, you begin to receive or dish out comments like “you’re not a real zero waster because you still use ____”. We feel guilty when we use, buy or can't properly dispose of something in a way that upholds our morals, we begin to feel like a failure and that there is no point; we do this on our own but to add in the comments and inputs of others the guilt is real. We have to remind ourselves that what we see online is polished, refined, and embellished, while it is good for inspiration- most individuals don’t and can't live like this 100% of the time and even the zero waste gurus make mistakes. The guilt that we put on ourselves and is put on us by others is unnecessary, do what you can do with the resources you have.


Let me introduce you all to the low-impact community, this movement holds, in essence, the same practices as Zero-Waste, yet I find it as a more open community of individuals that focus on all the little positive steps we take versus the unhealthy illusion of what we think we should be. Low-Impact sheds light on the issues that are less discussed. Here are just two things that differentiate Low-Impact from Zero-Waste:

  • The Community
    • This less intimidating community is open to supporting and understanding without judgment about what each individual can do at the point of life they are in, and what resources they have available. Low-Impact acknowledging barriers that may stand in the way of attaining that goal, for instance, the industry as a whole is brought up, it isn't your fault you can't buy x, y, and z because it is the companies that create a broken system. Placing the blame on yourself and others isn't a healthy way to view this complex issue.
  • Representation
    • The term Low-Impact is more flexible and be applied to the many lifestyles or combination of them for example minimalism, vegan/vegetarian/plant-based/ or eating local, organic foods, any kind of activism, and so much more. The point is this term does not exclude these various paths and efforts but rather embraces all of these steps to live as close to a sustainable lifestyle as possible, not to reach an unattainable goal or feel guilty. Low-Impact also discusses the topic of disabilities, economic disadvantages, mental health, and other similar topics that often get overlooked or lost in the obsession to fill only one jar of trash in three years (not saying this isn't an amazing accomplishment).

So why do I use these terms, and does it even matter?

Why is it so important what you call it? Personally, it doesn't matter what you want to call it, I use the terms interchangeably. Zero-Waste is gaining popularity, it is known by most, and so I use it to discuss what I am passionate about; yet I admire and agree more with the Low-Impact movement. Call it what you will, the goal of both is to help the environment and in so help ourselves.

The concept of trash is a human issue, similarly, the words we use to describe ourselves and our beliefs can be limiting, problematic, and complex like us. For some, it is easy to get caught up on the term “Zero-Waste” thinking that they will never accomplish that so what's the point in trying, others could give a flying toot. I leave you all with this: whether you call it zero-waste or low-impact, it is a way of thinking. There is no right or wrong way to do it, just the intent and goal to do better.

 For more information on Zero-Waste living click over to