Is It Possible to be Vegan and Zero Waste in the US?

Short answer: I don’t think so.

Long answer:

Dietary veganism, yes, but with lifestyle veganism, I just don’t see how it’s possible. Not in the world we currently live in, at least.

Think about it for a moment. Up until the 19th century, every material we had at our disposal was sourced from either the natural living (and recently alive) or mineral world. Aside from some peat and very limited coal use, there really was no such thing as releasing million-year-old carbon back into the immediate environment. It just didn’t happen. Sure, animals were hunted to extinction as soon as we learned how to sharpen points on sticks, and sometimes rivers overflowed with human feces and dead animals near large city centers, but the claim that we were capable of irreparable and catastrophic harm pre-Industrial Revolution just cannot be made.

Animal and mineral-sourced products only started to be replaced with synthetic materials and plastics during the 20’s and 30’s. Hair combs that had traditionally been made from turtle shell (driving the excess hunting of turtles) were replaced with celluloid. Billiard balls, which had  historically been made from ivory, were soon manufactured from the same. And so on, until nearly every consumer product had a cheaper, thermoplastic variation on the market.

Vintage celluloid and Bakelite buttons made to look like natural materials. Flickr

So what, then, were things made out of prior to the age of plastics ushered in during the early 20th century? The answer is obvious: plant-based materials, wood, fur, bone, stone, minerals, metals, water, flesh, resins, heat, animal-made materials, and mixtures of these. You want cosmetics? Mineral powder, beeswax, oil. You want building materials? Stone, wood, straw, peat, plaster. You want vessels to hold things? Clay, cloth, yarn, metal, reeds, fibers, leather. And what have those animal-based products been replaced with in the past 80 years the vast majority of the time? That’s right, oil-based synthetic materials.

Say that you have to buy a new reusable water bottle. You’ll likely have to choose between three materials: metal, glass, and plastic. Technically, if you look at the life cycle of each of those products from manufacture to consumer, they’re all vegan options, so no need to worry there. But it’s when you take a deeper look that making the “vegan” choice becomes rather redundant.

Plastic, as we all are well aware, does tremendous harm to the environment in the form of industrial pollution from manufacturing, as well as via end-of-life pollution when it comes time to discard the product, whether its used for 5 minutes or 5 years. There’s 600% more plastic particles than plankton in the North Pacific Gyre, for instance – according to a 1999 survey, and that ratio is only expected to have gone way way up – which obviously causes great harm to marine wildlife. Abusing not just individual creatures, but entire ecosystems.

What about metal? Surely that’s a much more responsible option. And it is! But it’s still not guiltless. Where does the ore come from, and how is it mined? Much of aluminum, called bauxite in ore form, is extracted in Brazil, China, and Australia, and it’s a very energy-consuming and environmentally disastrous process as Rainforest Relief details. That’s not to mention that the inside of aluminum water bottles are coated with plastic. Stainless steel is no better, though you’d think it’d be– what else would warrant such a steep price tag? Stainless steel is an alloy of steel and chromium, steel itself being an alloy of iron and carbon. And iron is mostly acquired by means of strip and open-pit mining.

Open-pit iron mine in South Africa, one of the largest in the world. Flickr

How can anything but 100% recycled stainless steel be seen as vegan in any way shape or form? There is no denying the horrific implications of such industrial operations on wildlife and then some.

Lastly, there’s glass to consider. Glass is probably the most vegan-friendly option available, but it’s not perfect. The main ingredient in soda-lime glass is silica, also known to us plebeians as “sand”. And the sand to make not just glass, but to be used in all sorts of other industrial processes needs to come from somewhere. And as Wikipedia puts it, there really isn’t any such thing as a “best” somewhere to get it:

Sand mining is a direct cause of erosion, and also impacts the local wildlife. For example, sea turtles depend on sandy beaches for their nesting, and sand mining has led to the near extinction of gharials (a species of crocodiles) in India. Disturbance of underwater and coastal sand causes turbidity in the water, which is harmful for such organisms as corals that need sunlight. It also destroys fisheries, causing problems for people who rely on fishing for their livelihoods.

Removal of physical coastal barriers such as dunes leads to flooding of beachside communities, and the destruction of picturesque beaches causes tourism to dissipate. Sand mining is regulated by law in many places, but is still often done illegally.

Not very vegan either.

Silica mine in South Rockwood, Michigan.

Though it’s not like I’m advocating for everyone to go back to using sheepskin flasks or stomach lining to hold their Gatorade while on a hike, my point is that, really, animals are going to get screwed over somewhere along the line. Water bottles are a good example because the myriad materials are so common and their price-points generally comparable.

Moving on from water bottles, though, there’s also the issue of longevity when it comes to vegan alternatives. How long can you expect your pleather jacket to last vs. a real leather one? Your polyester broom vs. a horsehair one? Or your saran wrap vs. beeswax cloth? Is contributing to pollution by using disposable items or plastic items truly in the spirit of veganism? I’ve heard stories about horsehair bench dusters being used for 40 years or more by a careful owner– and at the end of its life, it’s compostable to boot.

The point of this post isn’t to try and say that Vegans Are Doing It Wrong. It’s to ask whether moral veganism as we know it here in the west is really only able to exist because of how many steps separate us from the damage our purchases produce. Killing an animal is wrong to a vegan, eating or using a product made directly from animals is wrong to a vegan, but using a product whose manufacture kills animals is okay? That is such suspicious reasoning to me, and can be stretched to fit many of a ridiculous standard. I could use that logic to argue that, because I’ve never directly and willingly killed an animal with a face, I could count myself as vegan. On the other end of the spectrum, I could argue that the only true vegan is the individual that offs themselves because there is no way to exist on this planet without necessitating the harm or death of another creature.

I’m not trying to make veganism redundant if that’s what you’re thinking – raising awareness about the nightmare that is industrial meat, dairy, and egg production is an incredibly worthy cause. But I think what needs to happen is that it needs to be recognized that a spade is a spade. An anthropogenic extinction-level event is happening all around us, and we are complicit in it. Every single one of us. While we may not eat eggs or kill spiders, it must be understood that roads result in roadkill, that mining results in clear-cutting, that pollution results in global warming, and global warming results in drowned polar bears. If your clear conscience relies on you being 5 instead of 4 degrees of separation away from a dead animal, then I think you need to seriously reconsider what veganism is doing for you and for the animals that you claim to care so much about.

Can you be vegan and zero waste? In my non-vegan opinion, no. But I don’t use very mainstream definitions of “vegan” and “waste”, either. Maybe some meditation of what those words mean to us is in order.

The comments on this blog post are closed.

10 thoughts on “Is It Possible to be Vegan and Zero Waste in the US?

  1. Thanks so much for this post. This is something I struggle to balance daily; Veganism Vs Sustainability. Whilst sometimes they come hand in hand, other times it really tests my ethics to decide which one to side with. I definitely agree that it is better to use natural products rather than made made – arguably more destructive to animal and planet – products.

    But as a vegan I believe that there are many ways around it. While the eating veg instead of meat bit is a key part of veganism – the way I work around the consumer aspect is to basically buy less! I largely make do with what I have, borrow, share and make things myself where possible. As any other person concerned with the environment I try to do my research and make the best decision I can. I’m not saying that animals are more important than the planet, I just know I can (with a little research and hard work) balance the two as best I can to live by my beliefs! :)


    1. Thank you for commenting! I was afraid that the post would scare away my vegan readers, hehe. I’m interested in reading more about this from the perspective of actual vegans… do you have posts you’ve written on the subject, or know of any, or would mind writing one?


  2. Veganism is about refraining from *direct* and *intentional* harms to sentient non-humans. Vegans realise there are always indirect and unintentional harms – even my act of breathing is harmful to others since I’m competing with them for oxygen – and it remains our imperative to reduce those too, but never at the expense of the former which we hold as the highest moral imperative. There is of course a point where unintentional harm converges with sheer negligence – which is itself intentional – but these must be judged on a case-by-case basis.

    A prime reason that the world offers so many damaging choices is that the world is largely non-vegan. Veganism necessarily requires a proper consideration of the interests of other sentient beings. You can be quite confident that a vegan would think twice before ripping up the ground, not because of issues of “sustainability” or waste or similar but because of an immediate moral consideration for those sentient beings whom he might hurt during and after the process. Unfortunately non-vegans – who make up 99% of people – do not show such consideration, and the 1% of the world that live vegan usually have no option but to use products from those harmful processes. There does however remain the option for a complete boycott, and that is again made on a case-by-case basis as much as each vegan knows how to. To that end your article is a great reminder and provocation to vegans. Thank you for that.

    Since most of our waste is caused by food production, and because animal products are the largest source of food waste, vegans will, all other things being equal, automatically be less wasteful than non-vegans.


    1. This is exactly what I wanted to say about our non-vegan world. Exactly. I am skeptical of anyone who looks like he/she might be writing themselves into excuses for not being vegan.


      1. Veganism isn’t appropriate for everyone, everywhere. To deny this is to be pretty grossly ignorant of other cultures, worldviews, and ecosystems.


    2. It’s been a long-ass time since this comment was made, but I think I’ll respond to it seeing as how this post continues to remain popular.

      Veganism is about refraining from *direct* and *intentional* harms to sentient non-humans.

      I reject that this counts as a worthwhile or even logical moral imperative, because then indirect or unintentional harms still “don’t count”. Sure, you don’t intend on financially supporting Congolese warlords, but your purchase and use of electronic devices containing niobium and tantalum mined from the area are proof that the emotional value you assign to their use outweigh the guilt you would otherwise have for… financially supporting Congolese warlords.

      Point is, these things are so relative and ugly when you start to look at them that the only motive anyone has in making such black and white value judgements as this is to either a. assuage their own crippling guilt, b. to have a high horse to sit on, or c. both.

      A prime reason that the world offers so many damaging choices is that the world is largely non-vegan.

      No. The option to be vegan for even as many people as it is right now has only been because of industrial capitalism, fossil fuels, and the pharmaceutical industry. All of which have, in my opinion, committed atrocities far greater than any vegan can level at “carnists”.

      Veganism necessarily requires a proper consideration of the interests of other sentient beings.

      No it doesn’t. You’re no-true-Scotsman-ing. That’s like saying being a Christian necessarily requires you to withhold judgement of all others and live in poverty – which, as reality demonstrates, is patently false.

      Since most of our waste is caused by food production, and because animal products are the largest source of food waste, vegans will, all other things being equal, automatically be less wasteful than non-vegans.

      This is only true if you pretend that all animal products ever come from factory farms and CAFOs. Which they don’t.


    1. Thank you for posting this! I agree that everyone should live in accordance with their moral beliefs as far as it is feasible for them to do so.

      I see vegans get treated like Christians quite often– that they are held to rigidly high standards that not even vegetarians are pressured to follow. And from my personal experience, I’ve seen quite a number of ill-informed evangelical vegans that do resemble the religiously-motivated high and mighty. I think that’s where a lot of the animosity comes from.

      My angle is not to denigrate veganism at all–I’m vegan probably 50% of the time, and at least vegetarian about 95% of the time now–but to place it in a context that exists holistically in the world that we live in. In other words… bring it back to reality and see how it functions within as much of the web of ecology and politics as I can personally conceive.

      And all I can hope is that I’ve contributed at least a very small something to the discussion in doing so.


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