This year, for Earth Month, I decided to experiment with going zero-waste. I began with the simple idea that anyone can do it and, by doing so myself, that I would make the world a "greener" place. Some prominent zero-waste influencers suggest that this is a possibility for all of us, so we should all try. And to some extent, I agreed. I quickly discovered, however, that a complicated set of corporate and institutional structures prevent most people from ever coming close.
I saw first-hand that waste-free living is nearly impossible if you aren't extremely diligent and privileged with free time to do so in the first place. Is striving for zero-waste on an individual level the best way to use that privilege for the betterment of our planet and society as a whole? Or should we also be demanding governments finally get involved with us?
"I saw first-hand that waste-free living is nearly impossible if you aren't extremely diligent and privileged to be so in the first place."
It's way past due that our institutions start doing their part. If governments enact policies that ban the use of single-use plastics, require extended producer responsibility, and provide proper compost and waste disposal regardless of neighborhood economic standing, the environmental movement could be truly inclusive. Then and only then can we finally create lasting, positive change.
Read below to follow my Zero-Waste journey and see my discoveries along the way.
***I am the first to admit that I am guilty of oversimplifying the sustainable message at times. I also acknowledge the need for hopeful words of encouragement as individuals. I am therefore prefacing my discussion by saying this is not a knock at the zero-waste sentiment or any of its supporters. This post is, instead, intended to be an open discourse about our privilege, and how it might be used further to create a more inclusive movement.
For all of April 2018, I decided to try my hand at living zero-waste. I had already given up the most common culprits: plastic bags, bottles, straws, and utensils. These are all easy to phase out of your life, from my personal experience, and have affordable alternatives accessible to almost anyone. But there were still so many little ways that other single-use, throw-away garbage snuck into my life. Produce twist-ties and rubber bands, berry containers, frozen vegetable bags, produce in saran wrap, hummus in plastic containers with plastic seals around the rim, and almond milk in tetra packs. Read: pretty much anything food related that's convenient.
"There were still so many little ways that other single-use,
throw-away garbage snuck into my life."
In America, according to the EPA, "plastic waste accounted for 33.3 million tons of trash produced in 2014. Of that, just 3.17 million tons were recovered by recycling." That means that 30.13 MILLION TONS of plastic went into a landfill in 2014. Plastic never biodegrades, and we are using more and more of it each year. Is there a way, that we as consumers, can help make a difference? Zero-waste may be one option, but is it realistic and far reaching?
Zero-waste, according to one of the best resources on the topic: Going Zero Waste (GZW), is "living with the aim to send nothing to a landfill." I wanted to try my hand at reducing my plastic consumption even further, so this seemed like the next logical step. After consulting as many resources as I could, I set some ground rules: Reduce throw-away purchases, reuse what I have, recycle as a last resort, and compost whatever can be. I decided to document my experiment on Instagram with the goal of determining if the "zero-waste" lifestyle was as simple as other zero-waste blogs made it seem.
"Some of the top zero-waste influencers have small mason jars filled with years worth of trash and promise that anyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status, is capable of doing better."
Some of the top zero-waste influencers have small mason jars filled with years worth of trash and promise that anyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status, is capable of doing better. With these images and sentiments fueling my hope, I started my zero-waste journey. I bought some Simple Ecology produce bags and a refurbished Blendtec. With the purest intentions of buying bulk and making homemade hummus and almond milk, I was ready to go.
I knew these efforts would be a bit more time consuming maybe, but honestly believed I could do it. I thought I just needed to be diligent and dedicated, and that over time, creating zero waste would be no problem. I had already gone through a significant lifestyle transition when I went vegan years ago. I thought this transition would be similar. I could surely get over the difficulties of avoiding waste, in a month's time, just the same. I began to discover, however, that living zero-waste was going to be much, much harder.
"I began to discover that living zero-waste was going to be much, much harder than being vegan."
Even with the privilege of lots of free time, and enough money that I'm not working two jobs, avoiding all waste was still very demanding. After just two weeks of my experiment, I was getting worn out. To find waste-free produce, I had to go to a farmers market an hour away from my home. If I went to a regular grocery store (or even the food co-op to my surprise), I would end up with rubber bands and twist ties from the produce. I gave up blueberries and opted for apples instead, thinking they didn't come with any garbage. But according to DSNY, produce sticker labels aren't compostable either. Therefore none of my fruit and vegetables were genuinely zero-waste if it came from a store."
I also found that making homemade hummus, albeit it tasting wonderful and not being too complicated, still produced recyclable waste in the form of aluminum cans. Soaking dried beans and making hummus in that way could be waste-free, but would take me up to half a day to make. I'm sure this would get easier over time, but for my first month, it was too long. As for homemade almond milk, it took me an hour or so with soaking.
"Towards the half-way mark of the month, I began to see some repeating themes: Privilege of time being one of them."
Towards the half-way mark of the month, I began to see some repeating themes. The need for extra time and a serious amount of work from the consumer being two of them. I came to believe that living anywhere close to waste-free, was therefore only really accessible to those who are privileged in some way. Privileged with either time or money, so you can spend 3+ hours every day preparing your food and exploring for the few waste-free options available. Privileged to not be working one or two+ jobs. Privileged to not be caring for children or sick family members 24/7. Or privileged in that you're not so poor that all you can afford is plastic-packaged food. This list goes on and on.
Even if we were choosing to use that privilege for the good of society and the planet, the amount of diligence required to maintain such a light footprint seemed extreme and unfair. Why is it solely my job to avoid things going to the landfill? Why isn't there legislation in place that makes producers responsible for the end-waste they are producing? Shouldn't 'extended producer responsibility' be a thing already?
"The diligence required to maintain such a light footprint seemed extreme and unfair. Shouldn't 'extended producer responsibility' be a thing already?"
Now please don't get me wrong... I do think there are ways that many of us can do better. Refusing a straw is simple enough and free for example. And some changes even save you money over time, like buying a reusable water bottle. I also think, if we are privileged enough to take the time to reflect, that we should acknowledge how our actions are affecting the planet. But we can't keep ignoring the systemic design flaws creating our waste problem, and blaming those who can't participate.
The fact that multinational brands are allowed to "aggressively market disposable junk food and plastic products to the underprivileged, where there is no infrastructure to handle the waste properly," is one of the most significant issues. Check out Alden Wicker's post on Instagram to read more about this. The fact that the burden to avoid waste is placed on the consumer, and the consumer alone, is beyond belief. Without government-imposed taxes and regulations on corporations producing packaging waste, how will we ever make a dent? It's hard enough, even for the most equipped of us, to reduce our plastic waste. We can't expect others to join us unless the government does too.
"We can't keep ignoring the systemic design flaws creating our waste problem, and blaming those who can't participate."
Promoting this lifestyle and ignoring the ways in which our privilege often makes it possible, is not furthering our goals. We have to start acknowledging how difficult it is for underprivileged and/or busy individuals to participate even when they want to. We have to engage in conversations with those outside of the sustainable bubble, and use our privilege to demand governments and brands to do better. It's due time that the zero-waste movement to think outside the jar, and that the sustainable living movement as a whole to think more broadly.
"It's due time that the zero-waste movement to think outside the jar, and that the sustainable living movement as a whole to think more broadly."
All of my waste from the month of April is pictured below. I am documenting my recycling, because many zero-wasters don't. I think showing total consumption provides a more realistic depiction of what we are using, versus the final image of perfection that can discourage others from trying at all. There is also no guarantee that my things will get recycled. Read about China's ban on USA's recycling exports on Going Zero Waste. This all may, therefore, end up in a landfill despite my best efforts.
I know that I too am guilty of portraying sustainable living as fun and easy, to encourage more people to try. But this zero-waste challenge helped me understand that a more honest and inclusive approach is necessary to create real change. This problem isn't black and white... zero-waste versus litterbugs. Changes can be both simple and hard. There has to be a balance of cheering others to do better, with an acknowledgment our privilege to make positive changes accessible for everyone.
The Good (the things most can easily do)
1. Plastic water bottles. Arm yourself with a reusable water bottle whenever you leave the house. They are cheap, and filling them up is free. They quickly pay for themselves with the savings you keep from buying bottled water and save so much plastic from entering the waste stream. Click here to see the reusable bottle I use daily.
2. Plastic Bags can be easily avoided by carrying around a small reusable bag or two with you every day. They take up hardly any room in your purse or backpack and can be left in your car if you’re a driver. Since plastic bags are not recyclable and kill countless animals in the wild PLEASE OPT OUT. Buy reusable produce bags here, and reusable compactable totes here.
3. Straws. You don’t need one I promise. Straws are free to avoid, so everyone can participate in this one too! If you have a disability that requires one, I’m not talking to you. Get reusable straws here if you're able to and really need them I did a whole post on why straws suck. Read it by clicking the link before this.
4. Utensils. Opt out of plastic cutlery already, please. Like my reusable bags, I have a set that stays in my backpack with me. Get your own, affordable cutlery set here. Or bring your metal ones from home.
6. To-Go Coffee Cups. Yup. These are super easy to avoid by asking for your coffee to stay. Cafés will give you a glass cup, so no landfill waste for your 10-minute drink experience. If you want to have your coffee on the run, there are so many different options available. You really could find one for free if you wanted to… like an old glass jar or a thrift store mason jar. If you want something leak-proof that’s not too expensive, check out the travel mug I use here.
The Bad (the things aren't easily avoided by most)
1. Produce stickers, rubber bands, and twist ties are found on almost all produce (even at the food co-ops I visited). None are recyclable or compostable, so to keep them out of the trash you have to reuse them. Or become a hoarder of ties, rubber bands, and stickers. Oh, my!
2. Junk mail. I honestly get the most junk mail from the environmental charities I support, which doesn't make any sense to me. Regardless, stopping junk mail requires hours of phone calls to each individual mailer requesting that the mailing of promotional information stop. Mail that included bubble wrap, photographs, and waxed or plastic-coated paper is not recyclable, so why is all of this junk allowed to be sent?
3. Snack wrappers. Snacks on the go are almost always wrapped in plastic or other, non-recyclable packaging. This keeps our food fresh longer but creates so much landfill waste. There has to be a better option.
4. Receipts. Not sure how these can be avoided, because even if you don't ask for a copy for yourself, it is almost always printed anyway, and thrown away by the clerk. Receipts also are not recyclable in some cases due to the thermal paper they are printed on.
5. Food container seals. Anything pre-made in America is almost always packaged in plastic, and subsequently sealed with a plastic wrap to ensure the food wasn't tampered with. Even if the food container is itself recyclable, the plastic seal is not.
Using our privilege to create a truly inclusive movement:
1. Vote in local, general, and primary elections for representatives who care about the environment and listen to your calls for regulations on waste. By the time we get to presidential candidates, it's often too late for our voices to be heard. If you live in NYC like me, check out voting dates by district here. Primary Congressional elections are on June 26, 2018 for NY!
2. "Extended Producer Responsibility". Click the link to the left to read more about it, and ask your representatives to support it.
3. Ask your representatives to push for steeper regulations on single-use plastics.
4. Order composting bins for your building and neighborhood. If you live in NYC, only some neighborhoods have access to compost bins. From my experience, living in a lower income and high minority neighborhood, access wasn't available until people started demanding it. We have to show that ALL areas deserve this service. Not just privileged ones. Check out DSNY to order your compost bin.
5. Ask your favorite food and beverage brands what they are doing to limit down-stream waste from their products. Write them an email or a letter. If you have a social medial presences, do these call outs publicly. Even if you don't like a brand and see their trash everywhere (i.e. Starbucks, McDonalds, Coca Cola, Nestle, etc...) call them out too!
7. Have conversations outside of the eco-bubble. Yes, I mean talk with people who don't already live "sustainable life." Listen. Hear what they care about. What would make it easier for them to participate. We have to stop singing each others praises while everyone else hasn't had a word in.
What do you think about the zero waste movement? Is there anything that you wish you saw more of? Any ways that you could use extra support? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
Thanks for reading!