So I’ve been threatening to write something about the whole “zero waste” concept for a while. I wrote a piece for The Finest Example, a really great writers’ blog of creative collaboration, hosted by one of my favourite bloggers and writers, Peter Wyn Mosey Link to my article is here – it was fun to write and contains another Gruffalo reference, for those of you who remember my Terracycle post.
Essentially, the whole zero waste concept probably irrationally annoys me because of the way people have made it an aspirational, Instagrammable thing (and I’m a bit jealous of all the eco-blogs which are more successful than mine and look prettier and have ad revenue…) There are lots of useful zero waste groups on Facebook, where helpful information is shared, but they all have this propensity to descend into ridiculous bickering and one-upmanship. It usually goes like this:
“I found this great plastic free thing!” Often it’s a straw, so let’s use that example – “zero waste” straw options include paper, bamboo, glass, metal, silicone, pasta… endless possibilities. Half a million plastic straws are used across the world every day, so plastic-free options must be a good thing, right?
“Why do you need to use a straw anyway, are you a child? Just sip from a cup like a grown-up!”
Cue – flurry of posts about this being an ablist position and reminding us that a lot of disabled people need to use plastic straws. Some more posts about choice and how we all have vices and use stuff which is technically unnecessary to our basic survival sometimes (personally I don’t use straws but for a lot of people, it’s what makes life fun, apparently). Some more posts about the people who have died in metal straw-related injuries (this is a real, very rare but genuinely tragic story). Yet more posts about how stopping using plastic straws is a drop in the ocean (literally), and we should actually be giving up eating fish, as 20% of ocean plastic waste is from fishing equipment. (I’ve also read 46% in other places; how this can possibly be calculated accurately across the whole planet, I have no clue.)
Some of these debates get really vitriolic, and it honestly gives me playground flashbacks of nasty bullying girls making you feel like no matter what you do, it will never be good enough, and you won’t ever fit into the cool gang of eco-people who are “properly” zero waste. I’m sure this trigger isn’t universal and possibly says more about me than it does about them, but I’m sure I’m not entirely alone in feeling this way.
I think the absolutist nature of the statement is the most problematic for me. It’s intimidating and exclusionary and frankly unhelpful and I honestly don’t think there is any such thing as zero waste – as I outline in the article linked above. If you replace your plastic bottles with glass, they look prettier and you get to take pictures of your zero waste kitchen for Instagram, but glass uses more energy to produce, it’s heavier to transport and the glass recycling process is extremely energy-hungry. There’s a footprint to anything and everything we use and everything we do, every single day.
I thought about this earlier in the week as I sat with my husband at a concert of Beethoven symphonies at the absolutely amazing Southbank Centre. Tickets to this were my “zero waste” Christmas gift to him. But then I thought about the carbon footprint of 1000 people travelling into central London, of the power supply and heating for the auditorium, all the (presumably) single use plastic cups we were drinking our wine out of during the interval, the programmes given out for free on the door, the e-tickets I had to print out… Then I thought about all the “experience” gifts that people suggest buying for children as “zero waste” gifts, instead of the ubiquitous plastic toys. None of these will be without a carbon footprint of some kind.
So the concept of zero waste is massively flawed in my view (like any absolutist position really – any sentences that involve the words “you should always” or “you should never” make me suspicious in principle). Shoot me if you like, but I prefer “low waste” as a label, and a wider and more far-reaching view of the world than simply aspiring to be plastic-free.
Speaking of which… remember the great deodorant experiment? In which we compared the longevity and effectiveness of a £7 “natural” deodorant vs. a £1.99 “conventional” one – available in supermarkets, plastic packaging of questionable recyclability. Findings as follows: the natural deodorant I chose wasn’t really up to the job all summer long. I kept going with it for a good while, but felt pretty anti-socially aromatic at times. I reverted to my spare plastic one after my mother very politely informed me that I was extremely smelly (I had just been to the gym, to be fair). But now that one is used up so I’m in a bit of a quandry. I want to use up the natural one before I try another brand (otherwise it’s not really very zero waste at all, is it, boys and girls?), but I also want to keep my friends. So. I’ll keep you posted.
Coming up later in the week – how to “green” your cat. I’m sure he will still love me, no matter how bad I smell.
Can’t wait to read your article on The Finest Example. It is hard to be 100 percent into anything but there are things as you point out that are pretty easy. We have stainless steel straws that come in a pretty case fold up and take hardly any space in your pocket or purse. I am excited to read about the green cat. Nice work! Love 💕 Joni
Could not agree more about the obnoxious, unhelpful one-upmanship of so many chats and so many groups in the “we call it zero-waste, but really we’re trying for less waste, because we’re incapable of being honest with ourselves” world.
I also blog about consumer sustainability and “zero waste” but try to avoid calling it that except for SEO purposes, and always with a disclaimer similar to what you so wisely point out in this post.
Anyway, I’m writing about TerraCycle myself and came across your blog and I’ve now read through several of your posts and loved them! Thanks for keeping it real and honest (with long sentences and SEO-irrelevant details – I do love those) and please keep writing this blog! (When you have time, of course.)
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