The problem with the ‘Zero Waste’ movement

Three or four years back – around my sophomore year in college – I saw a video on Facebook about a girl who managed to fit all of her trash from the past couple years into a single mason jar. The jar contained a small pile of plastic hang tags that come attached to a new piece of clothing, a few plastic straws, and a credit card (among a few other things). The video went somewhat viral, and from there the Zero Waste movement was born.

I was so inspired. This girl, Lauren, was a recent college graduate with the same major as me. She lived in New York City, had a growing following on her Zero Waste blog, and had somehow figured out how to contribute absolutely nothing to the landfill. I, like so many others, wanted to join the zero waste craze. And I tried, really I did.

I asked for no straw, I frequented the Farmers Market, I bought a compostable dish-washing brush. I tried really hard not to consume any single use plastic, or anything else that couldn’t be composted, easily recycled, or used and repurposed for years to come. Sadly, I still never even got close to emulating Lauren’s lifestyle. I soon realized there was a huge problem the Zero Waste movement overlooks: it’s damn near impossible for a normal person to limit all their trash to a small jar.

Lauren Singer with three years’ worth of trash. Photo credit: Trash is for Tossers.

Let me clarify.

After a little research, I came to understand that Lauren has a fair bit of privilege. She attended school at an expensive university, she lives alone in a decent-sized New York City apartment, she even had the funds to open a store in the city for Zero Waste goods. My point is that she had the financial power to actively decide not to consume single use plastic – a choice that many of us are not in a position to make.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to drag her. I admire Lauren greatly for what she has chosen to do with her life. Many people in her position wouldn’t have batted an eye at their plastic consumption, but she clearly cares a great deal about the environment. By using her power to cut out plastic, she was able to bring attention to a huge problem, which is that we are adding far too much to the landfills, far too fast. This is largely due to the fact that almost everything at the average grocery store is made with plastic or comes wrapped in it; anything that isn’t is often much more expensive. This is a problem that corporations and manufacturers need to address; not everything should fall on the shoulders of the consumer.

While there are many things a person can do to decrease the amount of trash they produce, I believe that the concept of living Zero Waste is just not attainable for most people. After a while of trying and failing to produce literally no waste, I became discouraged and gave up on the idea almost altogether. The simple fact of the matter is that I will never be the kind of girl who makes my own deodorant and toothpaste, and I may never be able to fully stop consuming food items with plastic packaging because I can’t afford to shop exclusively at farmers markets and the bulk section of Whole Foods. I imagine there are thousands of other Americans who are in the same boat.

The bulk section – bring your own jar.

I commend anyone who can successfully live a zero waste lifestyle. It’s an amazing way to live and I wish I could do it right now! But, we need to recognize that the movement is only really inclusive of those with a certain amount of privilege. There are several limitations – including financial, geographic, and time – that make it extremely difficult for people in lower socioeconomic classes to participate.

However, while most people cannot join the Zero Waste fad, perhaps they could join a ‘Least Waste’ movement. Our plastic consumption doesn’t have to be all or nothing; if we all just do what we can to reduce our waste production, we can affect change. So, while I applaud Lauren and others for being able buy their toilet paper (sans plastic wrapping, of course) one roll at a time, I think it’s important to remember that not everyone can do that, and that is okay. You’re not a bad person if you buy something at the grocery store that comes in a plastic package. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid. We should all just do the best we can, and luckily there are tons of things that you can do to produce the least amount of waste possible.

Follow Citizen of Earth for future posts on waste reduction, and visit Lauren’s blog, Trash is for Tossers, to peruse her methods and find what practices best work for you. You don’t have to do everything, just do what you can.

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