I think that when you are a part of a group or movement, it is just as important to be aware of its shortcomings as it is to celebrate its greatness. Through my experience in the zero-waste community, I have noticed a few things that are mildly irritating and one thing that has been gnawing at me that I think is a bigger problem in the zero waste community. None of these comments are meant to insult any particular person, instead, I think we could all do a little bit better to make our community more scientific and more inclusive.
1: The term “Zero Waste”
I use the term zero waste because it connects me with a larger community, but the reality is that none of us can ever be zero waste. Even if I managed to produce just one jar of trash per year, there would be all sorts of waste I’ve generated that I am able to ignore, such as food waste at restaurants I eat at. The term zero waste is splashy and definitely easier to say than “living intentionally so as to generate less waste by changing personal consumption habits.” It’s easy to feel a bit of imposter syndrome in this community, every time I eat an individually wrapped candy bar at work I think “Does this mean I’m not zero waste?” The answer is yes, and no. I’ll never be zero waste, but because I am changing my personal consumption habits to produce less waste I am a part of this community.
2: Natural Vs. Chemicals
In case you didn’t know, literally everything is made up of chemicals. But watching a lot of zero waste videos, you would think that all chemicals are toxic and going to kill us. Zero wasters to go on an on about cleaning products that “don’t have chemicals in them.” I know what they mean; they are talking about synthetic chemicals that are derided by alternative cultures. But why is natural by default good and synthetic bad? Natural has become a marketing tool exploited by corporations knowing that yuppies like me will fall for the trick, but the term natural is not regulated so it means nothing. Sure, some synthetic chemicals are toxic for us and should not be used, but natural chemicals can be toxic too.
This brings me to my absolute biggest pet peeve in this category, the statement “so many chemicals I can’t pronounce.” Here’s the thing, your ignorance does not make something good or bad. I’m sure that I could not pronounce or recognize half of the chemicals in my father’s chemotherapy treatment, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t use them. In an episode of Pen & Teller: Bullshit!, well-intentioned attendees of a “World Fest” signed a petition to ban water, when an actress told them all the bad things dihyrdrogen monoxide is involved with. As a member of the zero-waste community, I end up embracing what we consider “natural” products because they are often easier to DIY or get package free. I can get vinegar for cleaning solutions from a bulk shop and go package-free, I have yet to find package-free Tide. Want to avoid toxic chemicals? Great, do some research, but don’t just assume every chemical you don’t recognize is bad for you.
The online zero waste community is white, really white. And most of those people are white, middle or upper middle class people that joined the zero waste community after an ah-ha moment that their trips, things, or huge homes were not making them happier. I ran into a friend the other day and we talked about representation in the zero waste community and I could not think of a single POC zero waster that I follow online (with the exception of a few sustainable-fashion bloggers). I went home and Googled “zero waste POC” and found this great post from 2014 that speaks to the whiteness in the zero waste community.
There is a lot of privilege with the zero waste community. It may seem counterintuitive to think of living with less as being a sign of privilege, but just take a look at the tips and tricks zero wasters like to recommend. The first is almost always a reusable coffee cup for the ubiquitous trip to the coffee shop. This assumes that everyone is already buying coffee all the time, when coffee, is in reality, a luxury. It’s like those annoying budgeting videos that tell you to just stop buying a $5 latte every day and you’ll save $1,825 a year, it’s not exactly helpful for the person that can’t afford to spend $5 on coffee in the first place. I have yet to see a zero waste post about living zero waste under the poverty line, because when your main priority is just to get by living zero waste really is a luxury.
I’ve talked before about living in a food desert and the way that it can be challenging to reduce waste and eat fresh fruits and vegetables when I don’t have a car and the closest grocery store is a mile away. Lately, I have been borrowing my roommate’s car to go to Whole Foods to shop the bulk bins, but the Whole Foods is almost 4 miles and two bus routes away from me, this would not be a realistic option sans car. My neighborhood has become even trickier to live in as a vegetarian, not that the cheapest and closest options (fast food) are pretty much off the table. So many of the “tricks” that I see, and contribute too, are inaccessible to people that are poor, lack adequate transportation, or do not have the time to cook meals from scratch.
Then, of course, there is the trend of shopping second-hand. I absolutely believe that shopping second-hand is better than buying new since it extends the life-cycle of a product that is already in the waste stream. The part that makes me uneasy however is how this becomes almost a fetishization of being poor. People have been buying used clothes for years, not because it was trendy or environmentally friendly, but because they had no other option. I don’t think this means we have to stop shopping second-hand, there is so much excess clothing in the United States that it’s not like you walk into a thrift shop and they only have one pair of jeans and two sweaters. Buying a pair of jeans at Goodwill does not mean that a person with less than myself will not be able to find jeans (though if all of us changed our consumption habits this could definitely be the case). So keep shopping second-hand, but don’t act like you are the first person to do so.
I really do love being a part of the zero waste community, but we can always be better. Do you have any zero waste pet peeves? If so, I’d love to hear them!