February 13, 2018

The zero waste paradox…

..And why eco-capitalism can get forked!

Hot damn I love seeing so much positive change blossoming! Huge communities have grown around movements like zero waste, veganism and minimalism, but where there’s a movement, there’s people looking to capitalise on it! Most environmentally aware folk are pretty savvy to greenwashing, but we can be total suckers for eco-capitalism, and there’s a pretty solid reason why... We’re only human.

Humans are predominantly social creatures who tend to thrive on belonging, and one of the ways we fulfil this need to belong, is by connecting ourselves to a group and following that lifestyle. It’s kind of like the modern-west equivalent of finding your tribe, and social scientists say that we surround ourselves with collections of things as a way of reflecting our lifestyle choices. It’s great to see more and more people choosing zero/low waste lifestyles, but its popularity has given rise to an eco-economy.

Basically people are keen to make some green off of all the people trying to be green!

Eco-capitalism is kind of simultaneously good and bad: on the one hand it proves there is a valid space for ethical goods and services, which is great, but it also makes us more susceptible to greenwashing from unethical corporations, which devalues the ethical/green space. Of course with eco-capitalism comes advertising and the big push to buy a bunch of things in order to ‘go green’, and that my friends, is green consumerism. And it can produce a lot of extra stuff and a lot of extra waste as we discard the old things along with any packaging waste from the new.

Green products are great, and I love knowing I can buy them, but only when I really need them. I mean sure, I could buy a stainless steel straw, but why bother? I never use straws, so for me that product serves no purpose. Someone else may need a straw for medical reasons and would use it daily, so for them, a stainless steel straw is absolutely worth investing in. Seems logical enough - buy what you need, don’t buy what you don’t need - but humans aren’t logical and we often buy things we don’t really need. Some humans will buy a stainless steel straw even though they don’t need it, just because they think it’s one of the things zero waste people are meant to have. Those clever dickens working in the social sciences say people do that to avoid feelings of shame; that basically we think others will judge us if we don’t have the right set of ‘things’, and that fear of judgement (or rather, the shame that follows it) often prompts us to buy stuff we don’t need in order to fit a certain kind of image of sustainability. Social psychology makes me want to shake my fist at the sky *guh* are humans really that silly?! (Spoiler alert, humans can be quite prone to silliness, especially when it comes to buying stuff!!)

I've had this keep cup for almost a decade now and it has travelled with me everywhere! Here it is keeping me warm and awake in the Kentucky International airport 🙂

The thing to remember about reusable products, green as they may be, they need to be used a lot of times before their impact is less that the disposable option. Sometimes that's because the reusable options are more resource intensive to manufacture or their reusability makes them harder to dispose of at their end-of-life. So if you buy a reusable alternative product you really need to use the hell out of it! There are a lot of case studies out there that talk about this as part of the sustainability paradox - when we think we’re making the right choice but we’re actually having more impact. The plastic vs paper debate is one that springs to mind, and aluminium vs glass is another. Please don’t get me wrong, I think it is great to have access to environmentally friendly and ethically made products, and when I need something in particular I have and will seek out those eco-options. I just want to keep it in perspective, because no matter how green something is, it’s still just stuff. You don’t buy a bunch of stuff that’s made from bamboo and wrapped in brown paper and suddenly become zero waste. That’s just buying the image of zero waste. If you already own a fork you don’t need to buy a bamboo cutlery set in a little swaddling wrap.

Being zero waste is using the fork you already own.

Zero waste meal prep for my hounds! We use whatever containers we have to store and freeze chicken, veg and rice and stew and rice. So much better than canned dog food!

I’m so grateful that I was raised with that ‘use the fork you have’ mentality. I grew up in an inadvertently sustainable home; I learned to grow my own food and to cook from scratch at a young age, I understood I had to care for my things, to repair them when they broke and to turn them into something else once they couldn’t be repaired. The driver for this was some good ol’ fashioned penny pinching, but regardless of why, I was taught a set of life skills that have really come in handy!

A lot of the changes we’ve made on our jar-life journey have been reigniting those life skills, with a slide serve of ‘make it yourself, make do, or do without’, which has saved us money and made less trash. That’s not to say I haven’t bought any eco-things along the way. I want to transition away from plastic just as much as the next zero-waster, but part of being zero waste means I also don’t waste what I have. So even though I have a deep spiritual connection with my eleventy billion glass jars, I also still have some plastic lingering about. I made the decision that if I own it, I have to use it up. That same rule even applies to some really crappy old takeaway containers that I’ve been washing and reusing over and over again. Lately I've been using them to freeze the meals I make for our dogs and I will continue to use those plastic containers until they can no longer be used and then I’ll probably repurpose them in the garden before eventually admitting defeat and recycling them. As our older things reach the end of their useful life, they’re being replaced with zero waste options, but I won’t get rid of something for the sake of looking zero waste when using it til it dies on me is being zero waste. Because I already own a fork. Several, actually!

I’ve been approaching jar-life in a similar way to how my grandparents and parents approached life. Not zero waste life, just their plain old life. The norms really have changed, and I think it’s high time they changed back. What gives us the right to waste anything?! Being zero waste means being respectful and resourceful, because treading lightly doesn’t require a new fork, but it does require you to find a forking fork you already own and use it. Fork, plastic containers, bottled shampoo, whatever it is, if you already own it, use it! The zero waste image that is so often portrayed in the media is a veneer; it’s trying to sell us a bunch of somethings but it’s locking people out of this lifestyle in the process. The veneer makes it feel unattainable because the lifestyle that’s for sale comes at a price many can’t afford. But using what you already have and living a simpler and more frugal lifestyle will also create less waste and tread more lightly, so it’s important that we tap into those old ways of life like growing and making, caring and repairing, and that we practice the more frugal habits like using less power and water, and buying less stuff.

An instapost of someone using a plastic container might not look like the zero waste image people expect, but I care less about my image and more about my actions. While I am in possession of those heinous takeaway containers I am obliged to reuse and repurpose them to death before I recycle them, because recycling is just delayed landfill and reusing should always precede it. And of course we all know what comes before reusing... refusing!

I believe part of the reason that this lifestyle has felt so easy and so right is that I stopped buying stuff I don’t need and tried to make do with the stuff I already had.

Curbing my consumption really simplified things. Less stuff coming in also meant less going out as waste. I’ve done my fair share of shopping over the years, and it turns out that retail therapy isn’t actually that therapeutic at all! *gasp* Curbing all my unnecessary personal shopping not only reduced my waste, but it also meant I was surrounded by less clutter, and I feel a sense of calm and happiness as a result.

My tolerance of the status quo is constantly challenged, and I hate witnessing consumerism edging its way into my green bubble. That doesn’t mean that I think people should stop selling eco-products, far from it. I’m really grateful that there are ethical makers out there who are creating alternatives to the mainstream goods and services we have available to us, but the way the eco-lifestyle has been slotted into the consumerist system alarms me.

We don’t need to buy the whole eco-kit and kaboodle in order to be zero waste.

And we definitely don’t need to throw out a bunch of stuff we already have, only to replace it! I don’t want this ever-creeping eco-capitalism to prey on people’s pockets without consideration for the consequences, because that is just another shade of greenwashing that could be the undoing of the zero waste movement.

2 Comments on “The zero waste paradox…

César Valdivieso
April 26, 2018 at 5:07 am

Greetings. Here I present a project related to the subject of eco- economy, which I hope will be of use to you.
Despite the high quality of life that some of the so-called developed nations have achieved, the truth is that the world, considered as a group of countries located in a fragile and geographically limited biosphere, is threatened with extinction due to human conflicts and the depredation of the environment.
Notwithstanding the good and very important actions taken by groups and individuals in favor of a better world, deterioration at all levels continues to increase dangerously.
After more than thirty years dedicated to these matters, and since “an image is worth a thousand words” we have come up with a novel idea of designing a model city that has all the characteristics of infrastructure and organization inherent to the peaceful and sustainable society that we want for ourselves and our descendants, whose representation in the form of scale models, animated series, feature films, video games and theme parks, would constitute a model to follow to generate the necessary changes.
The prototype that we present has some characteristics that are opposed, sometimes in a radical way, to the religious, economic, political and educational traditions and customs that have been transmitted from generation to generation, yet are the causes of the aforementioned problems, and therefore must be transformed.
If you are interested in knowing about this project, or even participating in it, we invite you to visit our website (written in Spanish and English), where we are working in that sense.

Almost Zero
April 28, 2018 at 12:29 pm

Thanks so much for sharing your work, César 🙂


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