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Hot take The Zero Waste movement is failing.

Some key talking points

1. Barrier to entry The environmental movement has struggled with inclusivity and accessibility since its inception. Geographic location can heavily impact one’s ability to practice zero waste.

Bulk food stores, farmers markets and zero-waste shops sprout up in trendy metropolitan cities like San Francisco, but are rarely sighted in rural towns.

2. Trendy products = more consumption Pressure on companies to be more sustainable is seemingly a victory for environmentalists. However, as consumer-centric businesses seize upon Zero Waste trends, the advertising has paradoxically become about consuming more, rather than less (there are exceptions).

Alternatives to Zero Waste

  • Diet Reducing meat and dairy consumption is largely considered the single most effective way to reduce your carbon footprint. Second to that is purchasing local foods and unprocessed foods.
  • Transportation Reduce reliance on car and air travel. Use public transportation, or bike. Or, you can never leave your house again because… covid.
  • Fast Fashion Avoid the incredible footprint of fast fashion. Buy second hand, stay informed. Unlearn the tendency to purchase quantity over quality.
  • Activism The climate crisis was not caused by individual consumers. To change what you can’t directly control, become involved in activism. Looking for a place to start? Try Fridays For Future or Sunrise Movement.

Proposal Instead of the Zero Waste movement, let’s call it the Low Impact movement. Names are powerful, and not only is this phrasing more attainable, it is less self-righteous and exclusionary.

This is a beautiful movement that has lost its authenticity. The more genuine we can make it, the more impactful and widespread it will become.

Dig deeper → 4 min

The Zero Waste Movement has never known a world without the Internet.

Perhaps that explains why the lifestyle has popularized so quickly. Beginning in the 2000s with notable women like Bea Johnson and Lauren Singer, going zero waste has gone viral in the sustainability community.

‘Zero Wasters’ today adopt the consumer mantra “Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle, Rot”. These do-gooders strive to use items as much as possible and throw them away as little as possible.

As an avid environmentalist who discovered ‘zero waste’ in my high school days, I’ve had some time to practice, reflect, research, and discuss the concept.

Here’s what I found: 

Evaluating the Zero Waste Movement

Direct Benefits

Along the entire product life-cycle, reduced consumption of single-use goods directly improves the environment. That means fewer resources extracted, lower emissions from factory production and transportation, and less trash dumped in a landfill.

Despite my forthcoming criticism, let me be clear: the less waste, the better. After all, the earth isn’t raining plastic of its own accord. We must do better than 4.4 pounds of trash per person per day.

Indirect Benefits

Direct consequences aside, the Zero Waste movement is a marvelous gateway to personal environmental empowerment. Sustainable consumerism can act as a common ground between eco-conscious folks and shopping enthusiasts. Often it paves the way toward other, more impactful, lifestyle changes in the name of sustainability (more on that later).

The Zero Waste movement also improves industry.

As “buying green” becomes more in vogue, companies are compelled to implement changes, whether by sourcing better materials, packaging more sustainably, or making internal changes to the company. And perhaps such changes stem from a desire to gain a competitive advantage rather than make a genuine shift in corporate values, but so what?

The consumer goods sector wields so much collective environmental influence, so increasing its sustainability is imperative regardless of the motive. Much like the swell of clothing companies keeping their models unretouched, or makeup brands expanding to darker shades, as long as the change is positive, that’s good enough for me. 

How the Zero Waste Movement is failing

Back in high school, after a year or so spent basking in the glow of my compostable dental floss and homemade toothpaste, I began eyeing Zero Waste more critically. For all its merits, the movement’s flaws hinder its success.

It’s Shrouded in Privilege.

The environmental movement has struggled with inclusivity and accessibility since its inception. Geographic location can heavily impact one’s ability to practice zero waste.

Bulk food stores, farmers markets and zero-waste shops sprout up in trendy metropolitan cities like San Francisco, but are rarely sighted in rural towns.

Furthermore, sustainable living often requires a privileged amount of disposable income or time. Can the average consumer afford expensive zero-waste makeup, or have the time to make their own? Perhaps not. Until industry catches up to the growing demand, sustainable consumerism will remain unequal in accessibility.

It’s Misrepresented and Digressive.

Pressure on companies to be more sustainable is seemingly a victory for environmentalists. However as the consumerist fervor of capitalism seizes upon Zero Waste trends, the advertising has paradoxically become about consuming more, rather than less (with some exceptions).

This pro-consumption mentality, coupled with the emergence of greenwashing, makes it all too easy to lose sight of Zero Waste’s core principles.

Furthermore, a consequence of the movement going mainstream is that it’s often conflated with the rustic-chic-minimalist aesthetic it’s often presented with.

Zero waste is not an aesthetic, nor does it demand that you store your salads, laundry detergent, deli meat, and hopes and dreams in mason jars.

Mindful consumption should look unique for each individual, since we all reuse what we can. [If you toss your peanut butter jars and buy mason jars of the exact same size because the former felt unglamorous, you’re changing your interior design, not your carbon footprint].

Repairing what you already own with patches, duck tape and superglue is rarely glamorous, but extending the life of your possessions is often more sustainable than buying new.

It certainly wasn’t glamorous when I kept a food scraps container in my backpack because my freshman dorm didn’t have compost, but it worked.

Finally, we cannot view zero waste practices as the final frontier of personal environmental action. DC and Corporate America would love to throw some bamboo toothbrushes at the public if that meant pacifying the protests. You know, the ones against ill-fated pipelines, fossil fuel investment, and lack of environmental leadership.

Yes, you should feel a sense of accomplishment if you can reduce your trash to eight ounces a year. However, do not let that distract you from practices that cause overwhelmingly greater climate degradation.

As environmental protectors, holding institutions accountable remains a top priority.

It Has A Minimal Impact.

There are much more effective ways to shrink your carbon footprint:

  1. Diet Reducing meat and dairy consumption is largely considered the single most effective way to reduce your carbon footprint. Second to that is purchasing local foods and unprocessed foods.
  2. Transportation Reduce reliance on car and air travel. Use public transportation, or bike. Or, you can never leave your house again because… COVID.
  3. Fast Fashion Avoid the incredible footprint of fast fashion. Buy second hand, stay informed. Unlearn the tendency to purchase quantity over quality.
  4. Activism The climate crisis was not caused by individual consumers. To change what you can’t directly control, become involved in activism. Looking for a place to start? Try Fridays For Future or Sunrise Movement.

In short, let’s treat the Zero Waste movement as a stepping stone to further action, rather than the final destination.

The Takeaway

It takes some critical distance to navigate the world of ‘zero waste’, but it’s still worth doing. Any effort to avoid an Uninhabitable Earth outcome is good. We should pursue that outcome with the full extent of our actions.

But there are undeniable, statistically-proven, better ways to go about making an impact. Ways that go beyond joining the half-baked trends we see on the news today.

Given the promising popularity already garnered by sustainable consumerism, I have hope that ten years from now, zero waste will become the rule rather than the overarching exception.

I also hope its ubiquity leads to greater accessibility across geographic and socioeconomic dimensions. In the meantime, you will have to try that much harder to practice zero waste authentically: 

  1. Remember the core of the Zero Waste Movement? The Six R’s: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle, Rot
  2. Zero Waste does not have an encoded aesthetic, nor does it always look glamorous. Find the beauty in working with what you have and what is available to you, whatever that may be.
  3. To avoid the pitfall of greenwashing, be an informed consumer and do your research!
  4. Zero Waste is less direct than other personal actions to reduce your carbon footprint. Zero Waste is more about growing a movement of mindful, intentional consumption. That conscious consumption induces a more compassionate relationship with the earth and its resources. Bottom line, go above and beyond Zero Waste, if you can.

Lastly, a proposition

Instead of the Zero Waste movement, let’s call it the Low Impact movement. Names are powerful, and not only is this phrasing more attainable, it is less self-righteous and exclusionary.

The best I can summarize it: this movement to ultimately restore our planet is a beautiful one, and the more genuine we can make it, the more impactful and widespread it will become.

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