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My Problem with the Zero-Waste Movement

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

When I first became aware of the detrimental impact plastic pollution has on our environment, I tried to cut plastic out of my life completely. I found some grocery stores where I could buy food in bulk and refill shops where I could get dish soap and lotion without buying it in plastic bottles. I brought my own containers to restaurants when I wanted take-out. I tried to buy only secondhand clothing.

The experience opened my eyes to exactly how deeply plastic is enmeshed into our lives. And while I reduced my personal plastic footprint during that time, many of the more drastic measures I took to avoid plastic just didn’t stick. Why? They were (ironically) unsustainable.

I still buy dry goods and spices in bulk at the grocery store, I use reusable produce bags rather than plastic ones, and I bring my own travel mug to coffee shops. But many of the other habits I’d adopted ended up creating more stress and taking up more time than they were worth. They took time away from me growing my business, a business I use to lift up people and organizations fighting for environmental causes. When I did the math, I found that the time I spent working on my business could have a greater impact than the time it took me to avoid plastic waste completely.

I went through waves of guilt whenever I created a piece of plastic waste. I still feel that. But at some point I had an interesting realization: this is exactly what the system is designed to do. Corporations have found a way to put the burden on individuals rather than take responsibility for their own actions.

Marketing to Manipulate

This movement really got its footing in 1971. A group called Keep America Beautiful put out a PSA depicting an Indigenous American paddling through a river dotted with trash, landing his canoe onto a garbage-strewn beach, and standing at the edge of a highway where someone throws a bag of trash out their car window and onto his feet. As he turns to face the camera, we see a single tear slide down his cheek. This PSA is commonly known as the “crying Indian” ad. There are a lot of problems with this ad—for one, it tokenizes Indigenous people, reducing their cultures to costume and a canoe (and the actor pictured is Italian-American). It also sends a very guilt-ridden message.

Keep America Beautiful sounds like a lovely organization created to protect our natural lands from pollution and destruction. Unfortunately that’s not the case: Keep America Beautiful was started by beverage and packaging corporations. (Read more about that here.)

Why would the very companies producing so much waste fund PSAs about reducing it, you ask? To strategically spin the responsibility away from themselves and throw it onto the consumer. It’s honestly a work of (evil) genius. And it worked.

More and more PSAs came out, encouraging people to recycle, use less water, clean up parks and beaches. Each was focused on individuals cleaning up. In fact, I left out the best part of the PSA with the Indigenous man. At the end, as he turns towards the camera shedding his single tear, the narrator says, “People start pollution. People can stop it.”

Hearing that makes me so mad I want to scream.

I suppose technically people start pollution, if you consider that the very beverage companies funding that ad are run by people. Put another way, he’s saying “We’re creating pollution. But it’s your job to clean it up.”

The Same Message, Recycled

This continues to this day in one iteration after another: campaigns encouraging us to carpool rather than drive separately, eat less meat and more plants, preserve water. All of those actions are important and add up—and they also strategically allow corporations to opt out of the responsibility and make us feel guilty for living in the system they created.

Here’s more proof.

The automobile industry lobbied against initiatives to fund public transportation in our cities. If they hadn’t, we’d have a system of trains and subways and wouldn’t need to carpool.

The meat industry marketed “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner,” and fast food companies target children at increasingly younger ages. If they hadn’t, no one would need to tell us to eat more plants.

Oil companies are drilling, fracking, and spilling oil, creating enormous carbon emissions which contribute to massive droughts. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t need to preserve water.

Besides, I’m not discounting the actions of each individual person, but the 100 largest companies in the world are responsible for 71% of global emissions. If anyone needs to change their habits, isn't it them?

So now let’s journey back. Little ole Ali is trying to create zero plastic waste and is feeling guilty for buying berries in a plastic carton. There’s no other option at the grocery store, but that just makes her think, “Do I really need to eat berries?”

When I realized the trap I had fallen into, my anger mounted. The greed, the power, the complete and utter disregard for integrity—it’s all maddening. All the time I was making myself feel terrible for using a single plastic bag, Shell was polluting our oceans with oil spills. All the time I spent feeling bad for getting take-out in a styrofoam container, Coca-cola was producing 117 billion plastic bottles a year.

Here’s another thing I realized: it’s a complete and total privilege to try and go zero-waste. As I mentioned, doing the research of trying to find bulk stores takes a huge amount of time. It can also cost more to shop in bulk. When I was avoiding plastic, there were a lot of foods I’d just go without. That’s not an option for everything and everyone.

Now that zero-waste has become trendy, retailers and brands are jumping on the bandwagon, creating products to replace single-use everything. They’re not cheap.

Now don’t get it twisted: I’m definitely not saying we should all disregard our individual actions to reduce waste and start buying plastic water bottles by the case.

I’m saying that these actions have an impact, and the actions of corporations have an even greater one. I'm also saying that if you're privileged enough to be able to go completely zero-waste, amazing! Please do it! But if that's not an option for you, please don't beat yourself up or make up stories about how you're not committed enough. Please don't make yourself wrong for not being able to achieve this ideal.

Imagine if you had an option of buying laundry detergent in a bottle made from plant fibers rather than a plastic one. Imagine if you could get take-out in a metal tiffin and later return the container to be washed and reused. If zero-waste systems were in place, then it would be reasonable to put the blame onto individuals for not caring enough to act. But the fact is that reducing our individual waste and lowering our footprint is hard, inconvenient, and expensive for individuals. It’s not available to the general public.

So what do we do?

1) We support the companies and organizations that are creating more environmentally-conscious systems. I wrote a piece about Infinity Goods a while back, a zero-waste grocery delivery service in Denver. They make it super easy to get groceries without creating trash, and they’re expanding their selection of foods all the time. (Keep an eye out for more restaurant take-out in early 2021.)

Your grocery bill with Infinity Goods may be slightly higher than it would be from Safeway, but consider the quality of foods you’re getting. Also consider why food from Safeway is so inexpensive to begin with.

"Instead of wondering why ethical fashion is so expensive, shouldn’t we be wondering why fast fashion is so cheap?"

2) We tell corporations what we think. Corporations are at the mercy of their consumers. If we all demand that they adopt more environmentally friendly practices—and I mean all of us—they’ll eventually listen because they’ll have to.

We can call out companies on social media when we see their branded trash littered in beautiful outdoor spaces. We can write emails to corporations asking when they’re going to start respecting the environment—and us—more. We can get vocal and we can get really, really annoying.

3) We get involved in policy. We lean on the new presidential administration and we call our representatives. We show up for town halls and push environmental agendas. Again, we get vocal and we get really, really annoying. Check out organizations like Citizens’ Climate Lobby or Sierra Club to get involved in local environmental policy.

Of course, we can’t all do all of those things or we’ll get burnt out and make ourselves feel wrong for not living up to our expectations. Like with anti-racist and equity work, this is a long game. We need to find the frequency and volume of actions that feel doable to each of us and not expect that we’ll become full-time activists.

I’m here for you, team. We’ve got this together.

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