The Zero-Sum Game of Zero-Waste
One of the first questions my roommate asked after I began transitioning into a zero-waste lifestyle was if I still planned to use toilet paper. It was a valid question. Toilet paper is one of the largest contributors to deforestation out there, and the chemicals used to bleach and soften the paper severely pollute water sources. If I wanted to singlehandedly save the environment, it would require changing the way I singlehandedly wiped my bum.
Perhaps I should have told her I was planning to grow large ferns in our bathroom.
Instead, I described to her how the zero-waste movement seeks to counter the climate crisis by encouraging environmentally conscious lifestyle habits. This means stepping back to honestly assess the ways you, as a consumer, purchase and dispose of items that contribute to the climate crisis. Will your Starbucks straw one day pierce the nose of an innocent sea turtle? Will that plastic bag eventually suffocate a jellyfish? Will your unquenchable addiction toward instant gratification contribute to the eventual collapse of modern society as we know it?
As my roommate nodded and proceeded to scroll through Forever 21’s online sale, I sighed. How could she not see the damage our relentless consumerism has on the environment? But, just until a few months ago, I myself had been blissfully unaware of such consequences. There is a mental disconnect that occurs when we think about the consequences of our shopping habits, or more specifically, our waste. When a shirt rips, we buy a new one. When our milk goes sour, we toss it out. Then, when the garbage truck meanders by our front yard every week, our overflowing trash can is magically emptied again!
But it isn’t. Not really. Imagine you have just entered Fred Meyers. Look out across the rows and rows of isles, the multitude of shelves boasting an abundance of pastas, snacks, and cereals. Now, imagine each individual item as an empty package, and that all these plastic carcasses rotting in a mountain of trash. Attempt to envision Fred Meyers for what it really is: a future dump.
After this realization, I pledged to thrift every nonessential piece of decoration, furniture, and kitchenware. I mended old clothes and shopped at second-hand stores. I used mason jars and reusable bags to carry my groceries. I provided my own cup at coffee shops and my own silverware at fast food restaurants, reveling in the attention these countercultural actions brought. Look at me! Saving Mother Nature! Aren’t I such a good human?
Another element of the zero-waste movement that heightened my attraction was the stylistic statement associated with the lifestyle. Many of the primary leaders of the movements embody a certain “elegant hippy” aesthetic online. Zero-waste Instagram accounts are a grid of minimalistic home décor, essential oils, and houseplants. Meanwhile, YouTube influencers upload videos ranging from homemade deodorant tutorials, natural skincare routines, to fashion shows of savvy thrifted finds. It is inspiring to see these women embracing their natural femininity outside the animal-tested eyeshadow, unethically made dresses, and mass-produced high heels.
However, though these influencers appear to be living in harmonious bliss with nature, this lifestyle requires a degree of unmentioned privilege in order to be consistently practiced. Locally crafted bars of soap are expensive. Bamboo toothbrushes are expensive. Organic squash is expensive. As a full-time student and a part-time employee who makes minimum wage, many of these options are insensible and inaccessible within my economic reality. To those experiencing extreme poverty, a low-waste lifestyle is completely unfeasible.
Overtime, I had to begin compromising my values for the sake of my well-being. It was not healthy to forgo a meal simply because I had no unpackaged options to choose from, nor was it mentally beneficial for me to despair over every piece of waste I unintentionally produced. The news continued to report rising greenhouse emissions, and though my carbon footprint was gradually growing smaller, it still failed to feel impactful. Every time I stepped into Fred Meyers, a new wave of shame flooded my mind — in the face of such massive consumerism, would any of my choices make a difference?
Though the zero-waste mission encourages people to accept responsibility for their individual actions, perhaps it has inadvertently shifted the guilt of consumerism onto the wrong party. Is the goal of zero-waste unrealistic in a society so saturated with mass-production? After all, we, the consumers, are not the ones creating the plastic forks, the plastic-wrapped cases of cookies, the plastic cups of coffee. Though declining these extraneous commodities and providing reusable alternatives is good and fine and needed, the problem needs to be address before these products can even hit the shelves for purchase in the first place. In order to decrease the number of plastic items being bought, we first must limit the creation of them.
In order to dismantle the corporate hierarchy, the way we perceive climate activism must change. The zero-waste lifestyle is, at the end of the day, nothing more than zero-sum game when pursued in solitude. However, by shifting to a low-waste mindset, we can replace competition with community, alienation with advocation, and condemnation with conversation. I realize now that I cannot singlehandedly save the earth. However, perhaps the repetition of a million meaningful actions completed in harmony can.
So, let us commend one another on the little achievements. You remembered to bring your reusable cup to Starbucks? That’s great! You began composting? Wonderful! You decided to move off the grid and survive from your produce garden and a nearby freshwater stream? Fantastic! Let us revel in our successes and be encouraged — not daunted — by the progress we’ve made together. After all, amidst a society controlled by corporate greed, the practice of mindfulness is, in itself, a victory.