The Elitism of the Zero Waste Trend
Updated: Mar 2, 2019
"Zero waste bloggers are disproportionately young, affluent women who can afford pricey stainless steel containers and have the time and ability to run all over town for ingredients before investing the labor necessary to make vegan food and natural beauty products," writes one zero waste blogger. It may sound counter-intuitive, but zero waste living (at least in modern parlance) can in fact seem elitist. How so?
"When environmentalism became popular, the rich began to gentrify urban areas previously inhabited by lower income populations. As consequence, poverty migrated to the suburbs, where cost of living is cheaper but environmental impact greater. Massive developments threaten land and wildlife while commuting and sprawling, cheaply-built homes waste finite resources."- Caroline Beaton, Elephant Journal
Here are 6 ways the modern zero waste trend can be thought of as elitist:
1. Ironically, achieving the 'zero waste' lifestyle of the blogging world often means buying more stuff. Or at least different stuff that's often more expensive than the old stuff. Kitchen countertop compost collectors, bamboo toothbrushes, organic bar soap and soap dishes - and have you seen the prices of stainless steel Yeti mugs and reusable S'well water bottles? Yes, they're high quality and not made of plastic, but they're also expensive. If you'd prefer your water to be 'infused with the power of crystals', you can get a reusable water bottle with a rock in it for 80 bucks from Goop. Which leads me to my next point....
2. Zero waste retail items like reusable sandwich wraps, 'un-paper' towels, and reusable straws are still a niche category, and are often only available in boutique stores or online. Online shopping requires a credit card or debit card, which requires having available credit or money in the bank. (If you don't have an ID card, if you don't have a mailing address, if you've bounced checks before or run up a bunch of unpaid fees with a bank and have your name blacklisted in ChexSystems for opening a new account, if it doesn't make sense because you don't have internet access for online banking in your home and the bank is hard to get to - there are any number of reasons why a person may be 'unbanked'). While it can seem like everyone's talking about 'going green' these days, zero waste retail items are still non-mainstream and hard to find at big box retailers like Target, Dollar General, and Meijer.
"Historically, the poor were inadvertently the population living the MOST sustainably. Out of financial necessity, they recycled and reused when possible, lived in urban close-quarters and avoided spending money, and therefore resources, on utilities, food, transportation, consumer goods, technology and the like. Since becoming fashionable, sustainability has acquired a new definition and demographic. Modern environmentalism is now characterized not by restricting intake but by the consumer effects of greenwashing, whereby shoppers purchase allegedly environmentally-conscious products that cost more. As consequence, eco-friendliness has become a feel-good commodity uniquely accessible to those with ample means." - Caroline Beaton, Elephant Journal
3. Reusable items save money in the long run but can require an initial cash outlay that some people just don't have. Reusable menstrual cups are typically between $30 -$40. Cloth diapering, while money-saving in the long run, requires a larger initial cash outlay than buying a few boxes of disposable diapers. And there is unfortunately a stark lack of diversity in the portrayal of cloth diapering in online media and retail advertisement. Read more on that here from Black Women Do Cloth Diapering.
4. Money-poor often means time-poor, too. Let's say you're a single parent of young children who works full time in an hourly, low-wage job. Convenience is often a necessity and extra time to, say, make your own deodorant and cleaning products is a luxury (not to mention you'd also need to have time to shop for the ingredients, assuming you have a store that 's accessible to you that actually sells what you need). Cloth diapering? Not if your child is going into daycare or pretty much any other childcare arrangement - they don't have the infrastructure to deal with the teeny amount of parents who use cloth diapers. And that's assuming you have a working washer and dryer to clean the diapers while you're at home. I don't buy the well-worn trope that people will either make excuses or make time for what's truly important. There are only so many hours in a day, and many worthy and necessary endeavors competing for a finite amount of our time. And remember - exhaustion and achy feet after having to stand all day is a thing.
5. If you're in survival mode, it's tough to have the emotional energy to worry about yet another thing. If you're worried about water or other utilities being shut off, if you're worried about foreclosure, if you're worried that the next round of layoffs is coming for you, if you're worried about who's going to watch your kids on Tuesday because work never shuts down due to snow even though the schools do, fretting about recycling and 'saving the planet' might end up far down the list of things that keep you up at night.
6. There are loads of misconceptions about what zero waste actually means, who gets to define what it means, and who's practicing it. Check out 'I am not a Zero Waster and Other Misconceptions About Zero Waste' for more on this.
Long before zero waste became a trendy catch-phrase, my mom practiced it to a certain extent. But not because of environmental concerns. We were broke. Like, really broke, not 'we could only afford to have one car' broke. I don't ever remember having paper towels or Kleenex in the house - that was just one more expense. Toilet paper can wipe your nose just as well as Kleenex. There were never any Capri Sun juice pouches. Those wasteful little unrecyclable pouches of a small amount of beverage with a plastic straw attached were pricey, though. But we did get Little Hugs every once in a while! And we always had cereal in big bags (because the bags of off-brand 'sweetened puffed wheat' were cheaper than Sugar Smacks, not because they were more environmentally friendly due to less packaging). I don't think they call them 'Sugar Smacks' anymore - it's been euphemised to 'Honey Smacks' or something.
Recoverable Waste at Public Events: Zero Waste and Those Who Can But Don't
But it's not just about who has money and who doesn't. Let's not forget the waste created by people who very much have the means to do something about it - but don't. The amount of waste generated at public events is staggering (yes, you'll often find me hanging around the garbage can, looking at the contents and taking pictures). I recently attended a one-day conference in Detroit put on by U of M Ann Arbor MBA candidates (I'm only picking on them because this was the most recent event I attended - this kind of waste happens over and over again at nearly every public event). Soda was provided in glass bottles, water in plastic bottles, and disposable cutlery marked compostable was available, too. Were there any recycling bins nearby? Nope. The 'compostable' cutlery, and all that recoverable glass and plastic went in the garbage. So did the recoverable aluminum food trays that the food was served in. The cutlery won't compost at all - it'll be burned up in Detroit's incinerator, along with all that other waste. And all the MBA candidates will ride the bus back to their school in another city (an 'environmentally friendly' city, at that) that does not have an incinerator they have to smell and inhale particulate matter from.
Surprisingly, I saw the same thing at a Detroit Homecoming event this past September in the Lexus Velodrome. Garbage cans full of recoverable waste without a recycling bin in sight. Especially given that this event showcases the city to ex-pats, is this really the best that can be done? Aspiring food vendors in local incubator programs are highly encouraged to use pricier compostable food service packaging when there is no accessible industrial composting infrastructure to support its proper disposal. We already know that only around 20% of what Detroit's incinerator burns is actually from Detroit (reports from 2015 and 2016 show 67% came from Oakland County) - how much of this 20% is from public events and major public venues? I'd venture a guess that the 35% of the city that lives in poverty is not generating much of that event and venue waste.
Poor planning is generally the root cause of so much venue and event waste. Before events are held, the types of waste streams that will be generated can be anticipated, and plans can be made for how to capture recoverable materials. Shortly before or after the keynote speech, attendees can be instructed where to put their waste and recyclables to eliminate confusion. There are companies right here in Michigan that, for a fee, will collect industrially compostable food service packaging and utensils. It CAN be done (The Commons Detroit, a laundromat/community space/coffee shop on Detroit’s east side run by nonprofit MACC Development, collects recycling and both organic matter AND industrially compostable food packaging generated at the point of sale). If a small business like The Commons can figure this out, so can organizers of public events and major venues.
I can't tell you how many times I've heard from potential funders, community leaders, and social media commenters that 'Detroit doesn't have a culture of recycling.' This phrase has always kind of rubbed me the wrong way, as if 'the culture' is to blame for recycling woes. Again, people have been reducing and reusing out of necessity long before 'green' was trendy (check out '28 Times Black People Were Effortlessly Environmentalists'). And if public venues, corporations, and institutions with deeper pockets are generating so much recoverable waste at their Detroit events that ends up in the incinerator, how can we blame 'the culture' of the city? People who illegally dump tires and dogs and all sorts of things in the city don't have a 'culture' of recycling. People who come here, leave their recoverable waste, and go home don't have a 'culture' of recycling.
Making sustainability less elitist is something I both value and struggle with as a business owner. Here's a good example. In the new retail store, we will carry 'un-paper' towels on a wooden paper towel stand. They're handcrafted in the United States and come in beautiful, colorful prints. Over time, they save money because you don't need to buy paper towels anymore - you simply reuse these. However, they're also pricey. The person who makes them by hand deserves to be compensated fairly for her work, and I enjoy supporting other small businesses and handcrafters. Does the price make them an elitist choice? There are cheaper alternatives - for our maker space, I buy 'shop rags' made of white terrycloth from Home Depot in packs of 60 for $20. These can also be used at home in place of napkins and paper towels. They're certainly not handcrafted by an entrepreneur, though.
I recently worked with Detroit social enterprise Bags to Butterflies to help them come up with a more eco-friendly way to clean their construction materials used in making their one-of-a-kind bags. Now, instead of using disposable wipes, they're using our Wood Cleaner packaged in a refillable, reusable glass bottle and reusable terry cloth shop rags. They'll be able to refill their spray bottles with a 5 gallon container of wood cleaner in their shop. When I can help an organization not only save money but green a business practice at the same time, I consider that a major win-win.
For zero waste to have major impact, it HAS to become mainstream. This means it has to be approachable and affordable for the majority of people. How do we get there? There's no doubt we live in a culture of convenience, where convenience trumps nearly all other values. But we didn't get there overnight. The consumer goods with wasteful, excessive packaging exist largely because some large multinational firm has manufactured them. We need nothing short of a paradigm shift in how we think of waste and who is responsible for it, and a major shift towards extended producer responsibility. Leaders and organizers must remember what their mothers told them so many years ago: "You made this mess - you're going to clean it up!"