Is the Zero Waste Trend Sustainable?

Is the Zero Waste Trend Sustainable?

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The zero waste movement is hot right now. Google searches for “zero waste” have tripled since 2017 and the hashtag #zerowaste has over 4 million posts on Instagram. So why is our plastic problem getting worse? And why are all the “zero wasters” wealthy white people? We take a hard look at this “trend” to see if it can actually transform into lasting systemic change.

Can Trends Drive Systemic Change? 

In the last few years, the zero waste lifestyle has grown from a niche issue to a global movement. Mainstream publications like Huffington Post, The New York Times, and Al Jazeera have dedicated articles and discussions to the conversation, and Google searches for the term “zero waste” have tripled since January 2017.

As advocates for the planet and the animals who live on it, we’re happy to see more people talking about waste and becoming aware of how it affects us and our ecosystem. We can’t help but wonder, though, whether all of this talk is turning into action—can the zero waste trend actually drive systemic change?


HOW DO TRENDS TURN INTO CHANGE?

Often, systemic change follows cultural change. The abolition of slavery, The Civil Rights Act of 1964, and a woman’s right to vote were hard-won political shifts that only came about after a decade or more of people clamoring for them. The term “grassroots” in our political vocabulary directly refers to this process of change, traditionally starting with a few lonely voices and slowly growing to gain critical mass.

By now, the zero waste movement has existed for well over a decade. In 2018, it gained massive public attention thanks to National Geographic’s Planet or Plastic issue. Since then, hundreds of U.S. cities and over 60 countries have banned plastic bags. Multinational corporations have hopped on board, too, including Ikea, Nestlé, Unilever, and hundreds of brands that have partnered with the newest industry initiative, Loop.

“It’s cool that these huge conglomerates like Unilever are signed up for Loop, because it COULD make a difference if enough people use it.” – Tara Pelletier, co-founder Meow Meow Tweet

But even with all of the action being taken on plastic pollution, the flow of trash into our recycling centers, landfills, and waterways each day is still increasing. Toward the end of 2019, humans were buying 1.3 billion plastic bottles daily, and one international organization predicts that by the year 2025, our global waste output will have grown to more than 2 billion tons a year.

So why is it that even with consumers, businesses, and governments going zero waste, the problem is still getting worse?


WHAT IS THE ZERO WASTE TREND LEAVING OUT?

When we search #zerowaste on Instagram, more than 4 million posts appear. They are photos of pretty metal straws, unpackaged shampoo bars, cotton string bags full of veggies, pantries organized with mason jars and chalk labels, and water bottles. Lots of reusable water bottles.

All of these things make us wonder whether the zero waste trend is really a clever disguise for capitalism. If we need to buy more stuff in order to leave a lighter footprint on this planet, then isn’t that just the same old story of consumption? Ironically, this version of zero waste living may even create more waste.

What we don’t see when we scroll through Instagram are non-white faces (we had to go through 60 posts before seeing even one Black, brown, Asian, or Indigenous person). The affluence, privilege, and free time required to participate in the Instagrammable zero waste movement are not things that everyone has available to them, and some well-intentioned zero waste laws like straw bans are actually ableist. All of this is a problem. How can this trend truly be a movement if it is leaving so many people out?

What we don’t read about in most Instagram captions is the fact that oil lobbyists, corrupt politicians, under-regulated multinational junk food companies, and a lack of global recycling infrastructure are the biggest barriers to reducing our overall waste production. The uber-rich CEOs of these polluting machines must be cackling in their high castles as they watch consumers spin their wheels over plastic straws and saran wrap, extracting more and more capital from our planet all the while.

Call us cynical, but we find it hard to see how a consumer trend can have lasting impact if it does not take an intersectional look at addressing the root of the issue. And the root of our problem with waste lies in colonialism, capitalism, and consumption. We need to—at the very least—include this in the conversation.


WHAT CAN WE DO TO TRANSFORM THE ZERO WASTE TREND INTO SYSTEMIC CHANGE?

(1) Make small changes. Yes, we do think you can continue to make small consumer switches wherever possible, particularly if you have the access and privilege to do so. Bringing your own coffee mug, choosing to buy in bulk, and supporting small businesses are all ways of sparking conversation and shifting demand. The less money we put into the pockets of big corporations who pollute our planet, the more resilient our communities become.

We also believe in small actions because they help you mentally and spiritually move away from a culture of blind consumption and a little closer to living a slow, conscious lifestyle.

(2) Amplify others’ voices. Follow, share, donate, and volunteer for activist and advocate groups who are working to make change on a larger scale. We are stronger when we work together, and amplifying the movements that Indigenous folks, communities of color, and working people are leading is an excellent way to take action. Here is a list of some of our favorite environmental and social justice nonprofits to support.

(3) Get loud. Use your voice to demand better from businesses and politicians. Write to your city, state, or national government officials. Call them. Sign petitions headed to their offices. You can also use these tactics to make your voice heard by big businesses. Call them out on social media, write letters, and make calls or visits to their corporate offices.

(4) Vote. Voting is an important way of supporting systemic change. Vote against politicians who are paid by oil lobbyists. Vote for politicians who support a Green New Deal, regulation of big corporations and extractive industries, and getting money out of politics. Supporting politicians who truly work for us is how we get legislation that takes the onus off the consumer and holds corporations accountable.

As Tara puts it, “if we have time to make our own laundry detergent, we have time to canvas and volunteer to register people in our communities to vote. Let’s see those clipboard clad selfies.”


Written by Faye Lessler, a California-born, Brooklyn-based freelance writer and advocate for regenerative sustainability. She enjoys writing mission-driven content while sipping black tea in a beam of sunshine.

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