How to refuse trash using nonviolent communication

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by someone who is taking the Plastic Free July challenge. She shared how she was having trouble saying no to plastic when she was going out with friends.

I could completely relate to her. While my friends have been exceptionally appreciative and mindful of my plastic free lifestyle, time and again I find myself in an awkward “No, thank you, I don’t want that plastic” social situation.

As individuals, we have no or very little practice when it comes to saying no. This is because we come from a culture where saying no is not the norm and where people don’t say no directly. Also, our fear of inconveniencing others and the need to gain their approval may discourage us in this process.

That’s why I want to make a few things clear. Saying no does NOT have to mean that:

  • you are a troublemaker
  • you are uncooperative
  • you are rigid and inconsiderate
  • you worry too much, overthink things, overreact for no reason or are being hyper sensitive
  • you’re trying to be morally superior or judge others for what they do or don’t do
  • you are impolite and a pain in the ass

Actually, saying no means:

  • you know what you want
  • you are aware of your values & priorities and are not willing to do anything that violates them
  • you have well-defined boundaries
  • you understand your needs and feelings and have the capacity to communicate them
  • you have the power to make your own decisions instead of holding others responsible for your actions

Using Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to refuse trash

Ever since I stepped into the sphere of social change, I have observed how sometimes communication coming from those who advocate change can be pushy, provocative and let me put it plainly – violent.

Any monologue that constantly points the finger at the ‘other’ and questions the conscience of the ‘other’ is based on the premise of moral superiority. Such communication does not take into account the needs, context and understanding the ‘other’ is operating from.

I believe that inviting others to understand your way of living/thinking and holding space for an honest conversation is far more effective than shaming them into what you consider responsible behaviour.

I recently met Sudha Shankar, an NVC trainer based in New Delhi. She helped me understand the concept of Nonviolent Communication, a model developed  by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s. “NVC is based on honest expression which occurs when you speak your truth. The process has 4 parts – observations, feelings, needs and requests,” explains Sudha.

Let’s look at the 4 parts of the NVC process in the context of refusing trash:

1. Observation

The first step is to observe what you see and hear when you find yourself in a situation. For example, you see your partner coming into the house holding lots of plastic bags filled with groceries.

2. Feelings

The second step is to tune into the emotions and sensations you feel as you observe the situation.

You might feel disappointed, frustrated or angry that your partner has brought home so many plastic bags again despite you telling them not to bring any such bags.

3. Needs

In the third step, you need to get in touch with your intention. Here you communicate your needs or values which are causing your feelings.

Think about your original intention behind refusing plastic bags. What motivated you in the first place? You may have a strong need for preserving nature. Refusing plastic bags is a strategy to meet that need.

4. Requests

This is the final part where you clearly request what you need without being demanding. It involves outlining a concrete step and asking the other person if they’d be willing to take it.

How to differentiate between assertion and aggression

It is important to remember that there is a difference between assertion and aggression. When we make ‘you’ level statements, they can easily turn into giving gyaan, judging, blaming and shaming which are all acts of aggression. For example, a statement like “How many times have I told you not bring any plastic bags home? You never listen to me!” can come across as nagging.

When you make ‘I’ level statements, you only speak for yourself and establish clear boundaries by spelling out what is okay and what is not. For example, “I want to cut down our use of plastic bags as much as possible. That is why I have kept a few reusable bags in your car. Would you be willing to use those when you buy groceries next time?”

What if others are doing the best they can?

The belief that others are doing their best may sound like a naive idea. I find it radical & reassuring at the same time. When we trust that the other person is doing the best they can with the knowledge, tools and resources they have, it helps us stay calm.

Please note that this in no way means I am condoning acts of environmental violence committed by individuals, governments and corporations.

Also, I am not saying that if you start doing this you will suddenly wake up one morning and stop judging others. However, this may help you to explore what is underneath the blanket statements you make about others.  Subconsciously and unconsciously we all subscribe to certain stereotypes and prejudices.

Sudha and I role played 3 imaginary yet very real situations which may or may not have occurred in your life. Reading these role plays may help you see how you can steer tricky conversations using the NVC process to make yourself understood (minus the drama).

Situation 1: Communicating with a friend

You are at a cafe with your friend. You are about to order coffee at the counter.

Friend: Let’s take our coffee and go to the park.

You:  Alright, I’ve got my own cup. I am going to ask them to put my coffee in it.

Friend: Isn’t that weird? Why would you bring your own cup when when they have perfectly hygienic cups here?

You:  I don’t want to create any plastic waste. That’s why I take my reusable cup to coffee shops.

Friend:  Yes, but how does one cup make a difference? I think they won’t entertain your request. Everyone takes away coffee in disposable cups plus they’re useful for measuring the quantities.

You:  Well, this is important to me and I believe that my action does make a difference. I am perfectly willing to take a chance and have a conversation with the person at the counter to see what they have to say.

Friend: Okay…and since when did you start caring so much about plastic cups?

You: I saw a video online and it was awful. I do believe that my actions matter. This is my private thing and I don’t want to influence you. This is my way of living consciously.

Friend: Hey, why are you getting so serious? Just chill.

You: I think a lot of damage has happened over the decades because we were not serious about our actions ever since plastic was invented. It has become so convenient now. I am really worried about the planet.

Friend: Hahaha…why are you worried? There are so many people out there littering the streets and it is actually the big companies who are the worst polluters. At least I will put my cup in a trash can after I use it.  How does refusing one cup matter when there is going to be so much trash anyway? You know what, you’re taking this way too seriously. Stop acting weird!

You: Yes, I am behaving in an unpredictable manner. I can understand that it might look and sound weird to you because everyone does not do this. I completely get that. At some level when I look at myself internally and ask myself if this is important for me,  the answer I get is yes, it is. That doesn’t mean I want to be grumpy and not have my coffee. It is very important for me to refuse plastic. Would you be willing to consider that?

Friend: Okay, if this is so important to you, then do what what feels right. You’re turning into an activist now!

You: Really? Then I am happy to be one because it actually feels good to be doing this (laughs out loud).

The situation above shows how you can really stay grounded and completely convinced of your stance without having to budge or argue with your friend.

Situation 2: Communicating with a partner 

You and your partner decide to go out to eat some street food. You ask them to wait so that you can pack reusable containers and cutlery for both of you. Your partner says you need to relax and stop worrying so much.

Partner: Why do you have to create extra work for yourself? Why can’t you just let it be and enjoy yourself? Why do you have to worry about this so much?

You: So, you’re saying that you’d really like me to enjoy myself and be completely relaxed when we go out…

Partner: Yes, exactly.  Why do you have to carry half of the things from the kitchen with you when we are going out?

You: Maybe because I was a snail in my past life, carrying my house around wherever I went (laughs out loud).  

Partner: (laughs along)

You: I can speak about it but I am not sure if this is the right time and place for it. I am happy to tell you why it’s so important to me if you’re willing to listen.

Partner: I am too tired to discuss this. I had a long day at work. You do whatever you like.

You: I totally hear you when you say that you are concerned that I worry too much and that I am making a lot more work for myself then you would like me to do. I appreciate the fact that you are concerned about me.

Partner: I am glad that you understand.

You: I truly do and it touches me.

Partner: Awww…please carry your stuff. I’ll also help you carry some of it.

You: Thank you so much.

In the above conversation, you stick to your values, understand the other person’s concerns, acknowledge them and extend appreciation.

Situation 3: Communicating with parents

Your mother just returned from the market after shopping. She has brought home polypropylene bags which look like cloth bags but are actually made out of plastic.

Mother: Look at what I got from the market for you and your sister.

You: Mum, these shopping bags are made out of plastic.

Mother:  No, no. Plastic is banned now and these are cloth bags. The shopkeeper told me so. You can touch it and feel it. It’s cloth!

You: It feels like cloth but it’s actually not. I just read this somewhere in the news. It is so deceptive and they use it in so many different ways. This is just a way of continuing to use plastic.

Mother: Yes, but what can I do now? I can’t take care of so many things all the time.

You: I am not blaming you because anybody can get fooled with this. I just wish I had brought a sample and shown it to you when I found out about it. But what I can do is get some cloth bags stitched for us.

Mother:  Yeah, but I always forget the reusable bags.

You: Okay, so I will keep one in your handbag and a few right next to the door.

Mother: Who’s got the time for all this? Why don’t you just focus on your work?

You:  Of course, I am not saying I won’t go to work.  Your concern is very valid.  I am just thinking how can we stop getting deceived by such bags.

Mother:  You’re not going to change the world in one day. It’s ok, we will use the bags a couple of times and then we will give them to the kabadiwala.

You:  See that’s the point – we will give it to the kabadiwala, he may or may not take it, most likely it will go into the landfill where it will break down into micro plastic or burn and just pollute the air and water.

Mother:  Yes, you are an expert…you know everything…

You: Mum, are you angry with me for saying this? Are you feeling frustrated?

Mother:  You keep doing this. First you started composting, then you went off  & planted some trees, and then you went and picked up other people’s trash on Sunday morning in that ‘plogging’ thing…

You: Hmmm…it sounds like I have some wild ideas (laughs out loud). It may seem I am not going to make any difference by doing all this.

Mother: Of course, it does not make much difference.

You: No, I am very clear about this. For me, it is important to do this because I know we are in a very dangerous situation. I believe we cant go on to pollute the earth like this. So, even if that means putting aside half an hour and going to the tailor to get the bags made, I am willing to do it and I will do it.

Mother:  Alright if that’s the case, then you do it.  It’s your responsibility.  And don’t nag me again.

You: I am not blaming you at all.  All I am saying is that it’s easy to get fooled by these bags especially when shopkeepers are giving them out so confidently as cloth bags. From our side, I just want to take a small step.

Mother: Alright, you go get the bags made and make sure you put a couple of them next to the door.

In the above conversation, you can see how you can extend empathy to the other person while continuing to explain your stance.

I know this is the longest article I’ve written on my blog. I really hope it will be useful to you if you often find yourself in difficult social situations while trying to cut down trash. If you’d like to share your thoughts, please leave a comment below.

P.S. This article is dedicated to Nirupama (who inspired me to write it) and anyone else who’s been called a “weirdo” for their zero waste efforts.

About the author


Hi there, this blog is my attempt to make plastic-free & zero waste living fun, practical and livable for you by using desi ways from the good old days.

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  • Thank you for being the one to inspire me to take the Plastic Free July challenge in the first place. You have been a constant inspiration 🙂 Grateful that you dedicated your post to me 🙂 Huuuuugs!

  • This is an extremely relevant and useful article. Thank you for putting this down so clearly. Will share, share, share!

  • Your statement “it may come across as pushy and violent” is so true. Also assuming that people are not doing their bit at all is so easy. Real challenge is to make others open to understanding our conscious ways of living. Thank you so much for putting it all in perspective.
    -Your latest follower

  • This is so well written and such a helpful article too! I’m always struggling to communicate my preferences, especially with people who are close to me. With others, when I refuse a plastic straw/glass/cup, I know that I’m perceived as being weird and then because I’m struggling to explain my actions, I don’t and then let the others continue thinking that I’m weird. But with people close to me, it almost always ends up in an argument or them thinking I’m taking too much on myself, “one cup won’t makes a difference”, or the likes. And that has built a very negative image – so this article is extremely useful – thanks for putting it up!
    PS. Love your writing 🙂

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