Updated: Apr 18, 2021
Going Zero Waste
So your new sustainable goal is to go zero waste; you've read all the blogs and followed all the influencers who advertise this way of living. You feel prepared and ready to take control of the waste you produce. You think I can do this, and I should do this. It will benefit our planet and make for a better future.
And you're not wrong. Going zero waste would allow you to believe you've taken control of your waste and making the planet a better place. Now, these statements are true, to an extent. To the extent that you don't factor in the reality of life. This article will examine the feasibility of "zero waste" living and what it means for the average person, like you and me.
The Cost of Going Zero Waste
What does it mean for your budget to go zero waste completely? Well, that depends on what living a zero-waste lifestyle means for you. Does it mean that you're going to invest in all of the alternatives to things you already buy, or does it mean that you're going to make use of what you already have? There is also the option to have a mix of both, buy some "zero waste" alternatives and find different purposes for what you already have. Although, I bring this up because the chances are to go "zero waste," you will end up purchasing products you didn't previously. These items may have a higher cost associated with them when compared to their disposable counterparts.
This is only when comparing initial costs and not considering the repeated uses you get out of most zero-waste alternatives. For example, Earth Hero sells a stainless straw for $5.95. Amazon sells a 200 pack of plastic straws for $8.95. Since I drink coffee ~almost~ every day, I have used my stainless straw well over 200 times, and I don't think I'll be parting with it any time soon. This is a clear example of how some zero waste alternatives have a low switching cost and clear cost savings.
Unfortunately, not all zero waste products fall into this category. Let's think about reoccurring purchases that you will always make, like toothpaste. Earth Hero offers a 150 ct jar of toothpaste tablets for $12.90. A 6 oz toothpaste tube is said to last 150 days, and on Amazon, you get a 6 pack of 6 ounces Colgate toothpaste tubes for $7.92. This quite obviously demonstrates the issue cost issue with the zero waste movement. A $5 increase for the zero waste alternative not only limits accessibility but furthers the belief that sustainability is more expensive.
Cost is only one factor that reduces the accessibility of going zero waste. Another important factor is location. We must acknowledge that BIPOC communities are struggling with more pollution, clean water, and food shortages. They have more important issues to worry about than going zero waste, and please educate yourself on the problems these communities suffer from. A person I find to be a great resource on social media is @queerbrownvegan. He posts digestible, educational content on all things sustainability-related. This is mainly how I learned of the real issues happening in America affecting people of color and low-income communities. Unlike all the other issues we normally hear, these issues are immediate risks that will happen in 10-15 years. Isn't that crazy, how the people suffering now do not even have the accessibility to change but those who will be directly affected later on?
The potential reason for this is that the zero waste movement makes sustainability seem impossible for people who are not part of the upper-middle-class living in the suburbs or cities. It neglects people living in communities stricken by pollution now that can't afford a. $40 reusable water bottle. Ultimately, the zero waste movement is used by some as a gatekeeping mechanism to being an environmentalist.
Additionally, the idea that most people need more things to go zero waste is a strange oxymoron that I also believed for the time being, like the idea that you need to go out and buy new reusables or that you need to buy a compost bin for your kitchen to be zero waste truly. Not all environmentalists can afford to buy the items necessary to go zero waste and might not want to. Every individual should make the sustainable choices that are best for them. For example, we know that going vegan is one of the best things you can do for the environment. Still, veganism is inaccessible for many reasons, especially to those who struggle even to get food in their area. That's why you should be doing what you can. Not being zero waste (or vegan) does not make you any less of an environmentalist.
Lastly, those who are part of the zero-waste movement make it look so easy that you start thinking, I can do this. It's not that hard. When I first discovered Package Free Shop and Lauren Singer, I fell into this trap. But I'm here to tell you first hand it is hard. I started buying more reusable things, some that were easy to use - a reusable coffee cup - and others that were harder to use and remember - silicone baking mats. Silicone baking mats are easy to use, but boy, are they a b*tch to clean. Also, sometimes the idea of zero waste gets me so stressed out I collect everything that could be recyclable by TerraCycle, but do I ever actually recycle it? No, it sits in a box in my room for the day I can afford a zero waste box. Which probably won't be soon, but it's there just in case. I believed the fallacy that zero waste is easy and for everyone, which is why I'm writing to tell you it is not, and that is more than okay.
A HUGE waste stream that the zero waste movement neglects to mention is upstream waste. If you don't know what I mean by upstream waste, it is all the waste generated in the sourcing, production, and transportation of goods before they even reach store shelves or you. Upstream waste impacts the earth many times more than your individual waste. This is not to say that you shouldn't make sustainable choices, but it is to say that we cannot end climate change without also changing the way of the businesses we purchase from. I am all for individual impact and voting with our dollars, which is why I follow a vegan diet, buy less, avoid fast fashion, and buy naked food. However, I also acknowledge that buying strawberries in a plastic container is not the catalyst of climate change. I'm a much bigger advocate for imperfect environmentalism or imperfect veganism. Every step counts :)
This why I love the company I work for. Loop works to hold brands accountable and get them to change their manufacturing processes. We need to tackle these larger, systematic issues to have a sustainable, long-term impact on the planet. The idea of going zero waste as a consumer does not account for upstream waste, which makes it nearly impossible to be zero waste truly. And this leads me to my last point, is going completely zero waste even feasible for the average person?
If you didn't already guess it, the answer is no. As an individual, you cannot be completely zero waste unless you are growing all your own food, making your clothes, and making basically everything else you need to live, which I would deem impossible for the normal person. You have no control over how businesses transport your food, clothes, and other goods. This essentially means that anytime you bought something, even your reusable water bottle, there was some form of waste involved. Have you ever heard anyone that is supposedly zero waste discuss this? I know of one person, Kathryn Kellogg. Check out her fantastic article on the trash jar here.
With that, try not to feel guilty when you throw something out. The positive, sustainable actions you do take add up and do make a difference. They also encourage others to think about their choices and hopefully choose more sustainable ones. That's the one thing I love about making sustainable choices in public, and others can see and think about it. Like when I go to Starbucks and use my reusable cup, I hope the person in line behind me thinks, hm maybe I should get a reusable cup for my Starbucks.