Tara McKenna is the Founder of The Zero Waste Collective an online platform that’s about all things zero waste. The growth of her community on Instagram has been truly inspiring to me and gives me hope for the future. We caught up with Tara to talk about how she is igniting the zero waste revolution in Canada.
Photo/ Jacklyn Barber Photograph
Why did you start The Zero Waste Collective?
Thanks so much for asking! I’ve always been interested in sustainable living but felt that quite a few components of the lifestyle were out of reach (e.g. solar panels are expensive, electric cars are expensive and my car is doing just fine, etc.). And because of my job as an environmental land use planner, I’ve also learned directly what the negative impacts of urban development are on natural habitats and wildlife. I knew that I wanted to have a positive impact directly related to the natural environment and wildlife, but wasn’t sure what that looked like more specifically.
Determined and passionate, I knew that I needed to make a difference. From snorkeling with trash in Bali to seeing litter on nature trails where I live in southern Ontario, it occurred to me that trash is THE issue. Trash is the issue I wanted to focus on because it relates to every other issue (unsustainable extraction of resources, excessive energy consumption to create products, transportation emissions, and disposing of single-use items and low-quality stuff – the ongoing cycle). Then I stumbled across the zero waste lifestyle and implemented it in my own life. I share my personal experience through my @mindfully.sustainable account on Instagram.
Creating The Zero Waste Collective was the logical next step. I knew my voice alone was not enough for creating change at a larger scale, so The Zero Waste Collective serves as an online community hub for all things zero waste. The best part is that I love working on The Zero Waste Collective. It’s my passion project, and people seem to be into it!
Photo/Camilla B Photo
What led you to create a collective and now forum on your website?
The community piece is key for this lifestyle change, so creating a collective and forum just made sense. It’s great to learn from others, and I wanted a space for that conversation to take place. Everyone has something new, interesting and different to offer based on their own experiences with the zero waste lifestyle. Everyone’s voice needs to be heard.
The Zero Waste Collective is an online community that provides a place where people have common interests. Not all of our family and friends IRL will understand the zero waste mentality and lifestyle, so The Zero Waste Collective serves as a place where you know other people just get it and can relate. It’s really important to have that type of support. We live in a society where it’s normal to live a disposable lifestyle built on convenience and consumption. As such, when we make changes that go against social norms, we need to know that we’re not doing this alone. This online community brings together everyone’s voices for a shared experience.
You’ve had unbelievable growth, what do you attribute this too?
I think the growth really speaks to a combination of factors. Many people are tired of the status quo; we don’t want plastics in our oceans, and we don’t want to be creating these negative impacts because of the way we live. I also believe that because the problem is visible and the solution seems rather obvious (i.e. we see trash, so let’s create less trash), it’s easier for people to get on board. The Zero Waste Collective makes it possible for everyone to learn how to work towards the solution in their own lives, without waiting for government policy changes to reflect their values.
Are you surprised by this growth?
Definitely! It wasn’t expected by any means, but I’m really glad to see lots of people taking an interest in the issue and working to reduce their waste! I truly believe this growth demonstrates that people are ready for change; people are ready for a more sustainable system and circular economy where waste is a resource, not something destined for the landfill.
However, the zero waste lifestyle and mentality is still niche. It’s easy for me to get caught up in the bubble I’ve created with The Zero Waste Collective, but when I’m out and about and continue to see our disposable ways in action, I know there’s A LOT more work to be done.
Photo/Camilla B Photo
We see a lot of stuff online about the trash in the jar, which makes going zero waste seem very unattainable, what do you think about this?
I have a love-hate relationship with the whole trash in a jar thing. We see a lot of influencers showing off their year’s worth of trash in a jar, which is both impressive and admirable. However, it can also be intimidating for people who are new to the lifestyle and get the impression that the only way to be zero waste is to fit their year’s worth of trash in a jar, too.
It’s great to see what can be achieved, but it certainly shouldn’t be the expectation for everyone starting on their zero waste journey. Everyone’s experience will be different depending on where they live and what resources are available. There are so many other factors that I won’t dive into here, but the zero waste lifestyle isn’t equally accessible to everyone. As such, I see the zero waste lifestyle as more of a spectrum, where each person can define what zero waste means to them based on their personal circumstances.
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The trash in a jar also hides the trash that happens outside of our control. Our current system isn’t zero waste, so even if we manage to shop in bulk with our own containers, our lack of trash doesn’t reflect the trash that is created by all of the systems that made it possible to shop in bulk in the first place. That system includes the production, packaging, and transportation of those goods, which have their own trash footprint.
All that being said, the trash in the jar starts a really important conversation. It demonstrates that it’s possible for us to live with less trash. When we see what’s possible, we realize that we can change. As long as the conversation about zero waste living is about progress over perfection, I think we’ll get more people on board to make these changes. From there, I truly hope that these changes will happen at the systems level, towards a circular economy.
Photo/Camilla B Photo
In your zero waste journey, what has been your biggest success and biggest failure?
Biggest success: Leading by example, and getting others on board with reducing their trash.
Failure: I don’t believe that any progress I’ve made to reduce my waste has resulted in failure. I used to feel guilty with any small amount of trash I created but realized that guilt wasn’t productive. Instead, I’ve ditched the guilt and have the mentality that I’ve accomplished so much by reducing my waste.
A positive attitude is probably the best way to stay motivated to live a low waste lifestyle. And ultimately, that’s what the zero waste lifestyle is – it’s LOW waste because ZERO waste is impossible (for now, anyway).
If someone was just beginning their journey, what would be your top tips?
Avoid the big 4:
– say no to straws (unless necessary)
– avoid disposable shopping bags (bring your own instead)
– skip the disposable coffee cup (carry a reusable one on the go)
– ditch the disposable water bottles (if you have access to clean drinking water, use a reusable bottle)
Although the big 4 tend to be common knowledge, we aren’t implementing this on a large scale. We need to keep this message going until we no longer have straws, disposable plastic shopping bags, takeaway coffee cups destined for the bin, and disposable plastic water bottles.
For those beginning their journey, I recommend finding your ‘why’ in order to implement the ‘how’.
The zero waste lifestyle is really a change in mentality. Instead of seeing the convenience and practicality of disposable options, take a look at the broader implications. When we look at the issue for the long-term negative impacts, we realize there are huge positive impacts by choosing the reusable option even if it might be slightly less convenient. The ‘why’ will help to motivate the ‘how’ until the ‘how’ becomes a habit, and it’s no longer seen as inconvenient to carry your own straw, reusable shopping bags, reusable mug, and reusable bottle.
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What is the one thing you have learned from your community?
I’m learning from the community every day! I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that there’s never one way to do something; everyone has their experiences to share, and it impresses me on a daily basis. I’m very grateful that people are interested in joining the conversation!
A big thanks to Tara, follow along with the zero waste journey on Insta.