The zero waste movement has been gaining momentum in recent years with a growing number of eco-influencers and bloggers sharing zero waste tips and partnering with plastic-free brands to promote sustainable living. Zero wasters carrying years worth of trash in a single mason jar have made headlines within mainstream media. The Zero Waste International Alliance defines zero waste as: The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health. While there is yet a legally defined term to describe the zero waste movement, the Environmental Protection Agency says the overall consensus is that this movement aims to send nothing to landfills and to recycle when necessary to lessen one’s environmental impact. Single-use plastic such as plastic bags, plastic straws, and plastic utensils are typically eliminated in a zero waste lifestyle. Instead, reusable totes, glass jars, and bamboo straws are dominating the green market as eco-friendly alternatives to everyday objects. As concerns for microplastics and pollution continue to grow, opting for zero waste products appears to be the most effective solution to reducing waste. While this movement may seem like a pivotal step towards reducing waste and unsustainable consumption, it comes with a set of flaws that must be addressed in order to continue advocating for both the planet and all of its inhabitants.
Purchasing zero waste products that are plastic-free are oftentimes an expensive and inaccessible alternative to single-use objects. Participating in the capitalized zero waste movement requires economic privilege. This allows affluent, often white, able-bodied, consumers to buy these products without concern and places a financial burden on low-income communities of color that also seek to participate in this movement. While investing in a stainless steel water bottle may help individuals save money and reduce plastic long term, not everyone has the initial funds to purchase such plastic-free products. Instead of buying expensive, “eco-friendly” products, why not focus on reusing and repurposing items? The latter is the cheaper and greener option, and is not vulnerable to the gatekeeping tactics of the whitewashed zero waste movement.
The movement needs to emphasize consuming less and encourage using the products that we already own and repurposing them if possible—even if it lacks the sleekness of a luxurious zero waste novelty. It needs to highlight that reusing and repurposing items is not a new zero waste trend, rather it has been practiced by low-income communities of color out of necessity and survival, and by indigenous people who culturally value maximizing utility of their possessions. Where are the headlines of BIPOC environmental activists that have been working collectively to systematically challenge climate injustices? How much greener is buying the aestheticized mason jar when you can reuse your jar of strawberry jam after washing it clean? Who needs a dish cloth made out of 100% bamboo when we can cut old t-shirts into reusable towels and rags. Remember, the most sustainable item is the one we already have. Extractive industries producing plastic-free alternatives still require massive energy therefore releasing carbon emissions during production, so the planet and your wallet will thank you for repurposing your possessions instead. Being environmentally conscious should not require additional funds. It should be accessible for everyone who seeks to lessen their environmental impact.
Currently, the monetized zero waste movement believes that the solution to the waste crisis is by buying greener products. It fails to largely challenge industries that are mainly responsible for destroying the planet. It is not the responsibility of consumers to reduce the environmental damage committed by gargantuan corporations and fossil fuel industries. These companies must be held accountable for their negative climate impact through stricter regulations and policies such as eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and enforcing carbon taxes to help alleviate the financial burden of transitioning to renewable energy. Blaming individuals for their carbon footprint diverts attention away from the larger systemic issues of capitalism, classism, and racism. At the end of 2020, Shell tweeted a poll asking their audience how they plan to reduce their emissions. Environmental activist Greta Thunberg and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded to the tweet by pinpointing Shell’s long history of funding climate denialism and shifting the blame onto marginalized individuals that are already bearing the brunt of climate change.
The issue with the growing zero waste movement is that it is centered around consumerism and individualism while rarely addressing institutional environmental racism and ancient indigenous practices. For example, when waste incinerators burn our trash, they emit emissions and exacerbate existing environmental disparities. In the US, 80% of all incinerators are located in predominantly low-income, BIPOC communities. A Guardian investigation discovered that more than one million tons of US plastic is being sent overseas, including some of the world’s poorest countries that are already suffocating with their own waste issues. In the past 50 years, plastic waste has significantly increased which releases hazardous pollutants when incinerated. Living in close proximity to heavy polluters such as waste incinerators increase risk of various diseases and illnesses and disproportionately affect traditionally marginalized groups. Furthermore, zero waste as a practice has been co-opted by a mostly whitewashed and gentrified zero waste movement, and takes the focus away from the vulnerable communities that are already experiencing the devastating effects of the ongoing climate crisis fueled by large companies. Also, even though indigenous people make up less than 5% of the global population, they protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Indigenous environmental knowledge systems such as regenerative agriculture have been largely ignored within modern environmental practices. Indigenous wisdom in sustainability must be honored and credited to prevent the whitewashing of environmental justice.
The zero waste movement is currently missing the mark, but it has room for improvement. It remains too exclusionary, and presents barriers to low-income BIPOC communities that are the most impacted by the consequences of the ongoing climate crisis. Focusing on purchasing products marketed as “zero waste”, which is not legally defined, allows companies to loosely throw around this term in greenwashing campaigns. This further perpetuates an unsustainable consumption model, and warrants a need for accessible education around reusing and repurposing everyday objects. Most importantly, zero waste must be understood as a goal that is not realistic or feasible for everyone. For example, the plastic straw ban is ignoring the needs of people with disabilities that depend on plastic straws to safely drink without spilling. The Center for Disability Rights discusses how the straw ban harms disabled individuals because reusable straws are not always a practical and accessible option. There is no shame in using single-use plastics to get basic needs met. The onus should not be placed on the individual alone to solve the plastic pollution crisis or the towering landfills. We must direct our energy collectively towards combating the major polluters that are disproportionately harming poor communities of color while doing our best to adopt and share reusable habits. Advocating for nondiscriminatory, climate policies that are inclusive to historically marginalized communities will benefit both people and the planet. Environmental justice cannot be achieved without addressing the needs of the most vulnerable to climate change. The zero waste movement must be intersectional and center BIPOC educators and indigenous environmental contributions that have been historically left out of climate conversations.
Like with any movement, we must prioritize inclusivity in the zero waste space by encouraging all voices and challenging systematic oppressions such as racism, ableism, and classism. Organizations to support that work to amplify BIPOC voices in environmental justice include Indigenous Climate Action and The Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment. Check out Intersectional Environmentalist, an educational resource created by BIPOC climate activists that aims to make environmentalism more equitable to uplift all people and the planet. Sadie Daffer promotes a low waste lifestyle and shares helpful advice on minimizing waste in her blog posts at The Mixed Up Minimalist. Isaias Hernandez, the creator of QueerBrownVegan, is another environmental educator who creates content to discuss a variety of issues regarding zero waste and environmental justice. At Columbia University, Columbia EcoReps collaborates with Columbia’s offices of housing and dining to create eco-friendly initiatives on campus. At the end of every year, Columbia EcoReps collect student items such as used textbooks and mini fridges that would otherwise be sent to landfills as waste, and sell them to students at Greensales during the first week of each academic year at low costs. The Zero Waste Club at Barnumbia offers an online community where students can share their zero waste goals and learn how to add small, positive changes to their lifestyles.
While the lockdown has made maintaining zero waste habits difficult due to the rise of single-use personal protective equipment and the temporary ban of BYO (bring your own) containers in stores, there are a few affordable and COVID-friendly lifestyle changes to adopt such as opting for a reusable mask if possible, and reducing food waste through composting by building a DIY compost bin or dropping organic waste at a local community composting site. Columbia has published other sustainable tips for campus or at home which can be found here. The last tip is to not panic if you produce trash because this will be inevitable due to the limitations imposed by the global pandemic. Small changes over time do accumulate and make a positive difference! Your low waste efforts DO matter. Share your low waste wins with your family and friends to help spread the word. As zero waste chef Anne-Marie Bonneau says, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly."