Help! My Girlfriend Is Obsessed with Zero-Waste Living.
I think she may be in it for appearances. Plus, I really miss paper towels.
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Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My girlfriend has gotten really into zero-waste living. I think it’s great that she’s thinking about the environment, and I’ve tried to go along with everything she suggests. For instance, she brings glass containers when we go to restaurants to take the leftovers home in, and buys products with reusable packaging. The last thing she got rid of was paper towels in favor of fabric squares that stick together. I’ve joked to her that I live in fear of the day she turns against toilet paper, but I wouldn’t say I’m completely joking.
She watches zero-waste influencers for inspiration, and on top of the environmental benefits, she’s also very interested in the “look” of zero-waste living; imagine clean, beige spaces filled with natural materials. I suspect she might even be more invested in how things look than in actually helping the planet. She asked me to replace some old yogurt containers that I use to store food, but as far as I’m concerned, using those containers is more environmentally friendly than going out and buying new ones. How do I get her to acknowledge that maybe it’s not just about saving the planet?
If someone does a good thing for their own reasons—even for selfish reasons!—it doesn’t change the fact that they’re doing a good thing. Even if your girlfriend was getting into low-waste living purely for how it looks, and she actually didn’t give a darn about the planet, you know what? She’d still be producing less waste. Imagine a world where everyone got into sustainability just for appearances, and, hey, corporations cut back on emissions for appearances, and politicians passed great laws for appearances… We’d have a world that looked a lot better, for one thing. But the reason it would look better is because it would be better.
Are there times when doing things for appearances is harmful? Sure. If someone fixates on appearance regardless of impact, or diverts attention and resources from where they’re needed, that’s no good. But that doesn’t sound like the situation here. Maybe it feels weird to see your girlfriend going on about low-waste living when she was obsessed with styrofoam plates six months ago, but that doesn’t mean she’s being fake. It means she has a growing interest, and every interest has to start somewhere. Also, it’s not like she’s just pretending to use sustainable materials; she’s genuinely incorporating them into her life.
“There’s not a lot we can control in this world, but I promise, you reserve the right to wipe your ass with paper if you want.”
Sure, maybe she’s also using her new interest in sustainability as a reason to go shopping and buy some new things—and yes, buying new glassware creates more waste than using the same yogurt cups forever. But the things she’s buying are reusable, so she’ll probably end up buying fewer products in the long run. It’s a self-limiting shopping spree. At some point she’ll have the glass and wood and fabric items that she wants, and she simply won’t have to replace them anymore, at least for a long time. Also: she likes them. They make her happy!
I wonder what it is about this that’s getting so under your skin, and I can’t quite parse it from your letter. But I do have a few theories, and maybe one of them will ring true.
1. It’s jarring to see a loved one change, even in positive ways, because change is stressful. And maybe in this case, you feel like your girlfriend is judging or shaming you for a standard that she didn’t even care about until very recently. This is your home, too, and it needs to be comfortable for both of you: if you love your yogurt cups, you should be able to keep using them, just like your girlfriend can store food in whatever containers she prefers. Know that you can encourage her efforts for sustainable change and still have boundaries about what you’re comfortable using. There’s not a lot we can control in this world, but I promise, you reserve the right to wipe your ass with paper if you want.
2. Few things are as annoying to people as other people’s inconsistency—or worse, hypocrisy. Even a dash of hypocrisy can be supremely irritating, and maybe you’re seeing a tiny bit of it in your girlfriend’s actions. But here’s the thing: we’re all hypocrites sometimes, because we’re fallible, and our actions don’t always fully meet every single one of our ideals. In fact, part of the vulnerability of getting really close to someone is allowing them to witness our own inconsistencies and the ways we fall short. The important thing, I think, is that we keep aiming for those ideals, and we help our loved ones do the same. Just because your girlfriend loves no-waste living but doesn’t do it perfectly yet doesn’t mean that she’s not genuinely moving more in that direction.
3. Bear with me on this one; try to hear me out. I’m seeing a bunch of themes come up—homemaking, shopping, appearances, influencers, frivolity—that are often associated with women, and whenever multiple things come up that are stereotypically linked in that way, it’s worth taking a moment for self-examination. Is it possible that, on some level, you have some deeply ingrained preconceptions (about, say, your girlfriend’s role in maintaining a home) that are causing this to bug you a little more than they would otherwise? If not, great. But if so, it’s not the end of the world, either; noticing these things gives us a chance to work on them.
I really wanted to end this with a pun about how, even if her enthusiasm is short-lived—if, in another six months, she gets really into CrossFit or cross-stitching instead—it still won’t have been a waste. But I can’t think of a good one, so I’ll let you insert your own. In the meantime, just imagine you have a personal interior designer who’s helping the planet and making your house vaguely spa-like at the same time. It may not be exactly your style—but on the other hand, you also don’t have to do any of the research or design work yourself, either. As much as you can, try to encourage her and enjoy.