The Zero Waste Fallacy & Solutions

Sometime over the last decade you may have come across articles about people like Lauren Singer, who claim they can fit all their trash from multiple years into one mason jar. They encourage people to choose the zero waste lifestyle, and on the surface it seems laudable. Unfortunately, those mason jars don’t tell the whole story, and there are even parts of eco-friendly trends that still harm the environment, but in less visible ways.


Take, for example, the campaign against plastic straws that ramped up a few years ago. Producing fewer single-use plastics like straws is a worthy goal, so scores of people began posting pictures of themselves with their new reusable steel straws. The thing is, most drinks don’t require straws in the first place, so just not using them at all would have been better than buying new steel straws, encouraging the consumption of more resources.


If you scroll through hashtags like #zerowaste on Instagram you’ll see aesthetically pleasing pictures of perfect homes filled with reusable products. Instead of encouraging consuming less to begin with, many eco-influencers are encouraging the consumption of resource-heavy items that need to be reused for decades to actually have a positive net impact on the environment. Additionally, many of those items have to be shipped across the country after being purchased, adding to their carbon emissions. This is referred to as "upstream waste", where a reusable and eco-friendly product may lead to less trash thrown away by the consumer, but there is still a large amount of waste produced on the manufacturing and shipping side.


Some zero waste advocates are criticizing this, like Bea Johnson, author of Zero Waste Home, who posted this image on Instagram pointing out the counter-productive consumerist messaging of some well-meaning influencers. In her book, Johnson argues for following not just the 3 Rs, but the 5 Rs in this order:

1. Refuse - This includes not accepting freebies when they’re offered, trying to get off mailing lists for junk mail, and requesting that your receipts in a shop be emailed instead of printed.

2. Reduce - Don’t buy things you don’t absolutely need. If you do need something, consume as little as possible and see if there’s a pre-owned or reusable option.

3. Reuse - Use what you have until it’s completely worn out.

4. Recycle - If you can’t find items that are reusable, get things that are recyclable.

5. Rot - Make composting a priority.


Johnson does acknowledge that the changes she advocates for are not as accessible to others as they are to her. Originally from France, Johnson and her family began their zero waste journey while living in San Francisco, where eco-friendly options for just about everything are available. Some experts say the number one thing a person can do to reduce their impact on the environment is to take public transportation, but most of the US just does not have proper systems in place for that. Even here in Raleigh, a rapidly growing city, our infrastructure is completely inadequate.


Another thing individuals can do to make a difference is changing their eating habits. Recommended changes include eating fewer animal products, buying local produce, and shopping at stores where you can buy in bulk by refilling your own containers brought from home. Like with public transportation, these changes are easier for some than others. Plenty of places don’t have bulk stores or access to fresh produce. Some people don’t have access to produce at all because they live in food deserts.


Apart from the physical barriers to sustainable consumption, there’s also a time barrier. We’re encouraged to stay informed and to properly research everything we buy, but most people just do not have the time for that. A single parent working two jobs probably can’t investigate the material sources and environmental practices of every single thing they buy.


In addition to all these problems, people who have good intentions and want to help the environment often end up shaming other people, rather than focusing their energies on the structural issues that make the biggest difference. Even if we reduce how much trash we throw out and switch to more recyclable items, much of what we recycle will still end up in a landfill. What can and cannot be recycled varies from city to city, from state to state, and from country to country. Plus, the things that do end up recycled still take up resources when they’re being reprocessed.


It’s a lot to think about, and it’s not very encouraging to learn about how complex our environmental issues really are. Still, there are things we can do that don’t involve forcing ourselves to pare down our trash to fit in a mason jar. The most effective actions we can take are outside of ourselves. The phrase I think encompasses this best is "think globally, act locally". Focus your energies on making concrete changes in your town or city, and keep informed about environmental topics that arise in the political sphere. The most important changes to be made are not on the individual level, but on the governmental level. Vote for people who will strictly regulate polluting industries and who will invest in infrastructure that makes it easier to choose environmentally friendly options. Outside of polling places, vote with your dollars. Consume less and, if you can afford it, support sustainable companies.


If you want to calculate your personal ecological footprint, you can do so here, and make smaller changes accordingly.


Photo from National Geographic.