THE PRIVILEGE OF LIVING ZERO WASTE
The problem with the “everyone can live zero waste” mindset.
In the age of social media, it’s become easy for us to oversimplify the zero waste movement, with many influencers promoting the idea that “everyone can live zero waste.” Through the lens of Instagram in particular, going zero waste looks easy and pretty — from beautifully stocked shelves of food jars to perfectly organized flat lays of zero waste products … not to mention the idea of never having to do trash duty again. But if there’s anything we already know about Instagram, it’s that it doesn’t usually tell the whole story.
The main problem with the “everyone can live zero waste” mindset is that it promotes an idealistic standard of perfection, often setting ourselves up for failure, doubt, and even burnout (which is the LAST thing we want). For starters, NOT everyone can live zero waste … at least in today’s society (I’ll get into why shortly).
Even as someone with quite a bit of privilege, pursuing a zero waste lifestyle hasn’t been all rainbows and butterflies. Since making the shift over a year ago, some lifestyle changes have been very easy, while others have proven to be quite challenging, sometimes even impossible. I used to get frustrated and blame myself for these faults (I still do sometimes … I’m only human). But over time, I’ve come to realize that while there are some steps almost anyone can take to reduce their waste, there are several factors at play that can limit one’s ability to go beyond bringing their own bags and swapping out single-use items for reusable items.
Let’s face it: the zero waste movement favors the wealthy.
While going zero waste in itself isn’t necessarily expensive — it can actually save you a lot of money over time — access to package-free options (especially in terms of food) all comes down to where you live, which is highly influenced by income and race. I’ve seen countless videos of people who live “waste-free,” watching in envy as they shop at bulk food and home supply stores filled floor to ceiling with nearly every product you can imagine. The unfortunately reality is that these types of stores are still few and far between in terms of meeting the needs of the global population.
As of today, most zero waste shops and bulk food stores are located in larger, more progressive, affluent cities, which automatically puts those who live in these communities at an advantage. While you can probably find some package-free goods just about anywhere, and purchase non-food items online with minimal packaging, it really comes down to what resources you have access to locally. A lot of grocery stores don’t sell bulk goods, and some that do don’t allow you to use your own containers for health code reasons. I experienced this issue of accessibility first-hand when I moved from Syracuse to a small town about 40 minutes away. Suddenly, a handful of cooking staples I used to purchase in bulk were no longer available (which I now purchase in the largest package possible), and it’s over a 30-minute drive to the closest co-cop or grocery store that offers those items.
When thinking about accessibility, we must also consider food deserts, which are parts of the country lacking in adequate supply of fresh produce and other whole foods — pantry staples for a zero waste lifestyle. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 23 million Americans live in food deserts, comprising mainly of impoverished and POC communities. For these Americans, the choice to live zero waste is virtually out of the question, automatically refuting the naive claim that “everyone can live zero waste.”
Then there’s composting. 30 percent of what we throw away comes from food scraps and yard waste. And while it’s gaining traction, access to curbside and drop-off compost collection programs in the United States still has a long way to go. According to the “2017 BioCycle Residential Food Waste Collection Access Study” conducted by BioCycle and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, there are currently 148 curbside programs in 20 states, and 67 drop-off programs in 15 states — which leaves nearly half of the country without access to some form of municipal composting.
I know what you’re probably thinking… We can always compost our food scraps at home if curbside or drop-off options aren’t available. But is this realistic for every household? I honestly don’t think so. There’s a science to composting, and if we consider the general population, it requires way too much effort to encourage the average American to make the lifestyle change. Instead, we need to place the pressure on our local governments to implement programs that make it easy for their constituents to compost, and expand these resources beyond communities of higher socioeconomic status.
How can we use our privilege for good?
On the flip side, those of us that do have the privilege to participate in the zero waste movement can leverage that power to do good — and ultimately take steps toward making elements of this lifestyle more accessible to everyone.
Vote with Your dollars
Support companies that are committed to reducing their environmental impact, as well as those that sell products that allow you to do the same. When possible, choose package-free products over packaged products, and support local businesses in your community.
Use your knowledge and experiences to educate others. When you eat out, explain why you choose not to use a straw, or why you’d like your food in a reusable to-go container. When you get that awkward glance at the checkout counter, share why you brought your own produce bags or jars. Consider visiting schools in impoverished, rural communities, and educating students on simple steps they can take to slowly transition into zero waste living — with accessibility limitations in mind. Share the love with friends and family! Especially during the holidays when consumption and waste are at an all-time high, encourage loved ones to ditch the single-use wrapping paper, and instead opt for recycled paper, scrap fabric, canvas bags, you name it.
Get involved in your LOCAL community
Systematic change often begins at the local level … beyond the comfort of your own home. Use your voice to help your community get on board with initiatives that promote a more eco-friendly lifestyle for everyone — from visiting local restaurants and shops to participating in community cleanups to help eliminate the trash that’s already contaminating our environment. A great example of this is the viral #TrashTag Challenge, which prompts people to clean up nearby areas and post before/after photos. It’s a simple thing we can all participate in, and makes a difference in our communities … and around the world.
Most importantly, we need to understand that living zero waste has its limitations — at least in the current state of our society. Instead of blaming ourselves when we find it impossible to cut out all of our waste, we should be placing it where it really matters — on our politicians, our local institutions, and corporations who could drive the change needed to make living zero waste easier and more inclusive to all communities.