Last Updated on January 17, 2021 by Nina Ahmedow
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I’ve previously written posts about my attempts at going more zero waste and tips for zero waste travel, but today I want to address what I see as a major problem with zero waste. And that’s how unrealistic the idea of going zero waste is. But let me break this down into several aspects.
Producing Absolutely Zero Waste Is Impossible
Some people feel pressured into producing exactly zero waste. But that’s impossible. In today’s society, you can’t be 100% zero waste. Any attempt is helpful, but people can get caught up in details they can’t actually avoid. This discourages people from even trying to lower their waste production. I believe that people should try their best where possible. But they shouldn’t feel guilty about buying a product wrapped in plastic.
Zero waste can lead to a lot of greenwashing. As always, the industry wants to convince us that they are doing everything they can to make a positive impact. Some companies focus on sending zero waste to landfills. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, the problem with zero waste to landfill concepts is that this more often than not leads to burning waste. And that’s not a good solution either. Instead, companies should avoid even making products that create so much waste.
Zero Waste Is Not Accessible to Everyone
Zero waste like many other aspects of sustainable living depends on accessibility. I don’t live in a city where I can buy things like legumes in bulk. They are sold in 500g packs. I’ve said it in other posts, but it’s really up to the industry to provide alternatives to us. I can’t simply stop eating rice, legumes, pasta, or organic produce so that I can be more zero waste.
And if it’s difficult for me how much more difficult is it for others? We can’t really expect a single mother of three to travel to a different neighborhood to buy staple items that don’t come in plastic. Let alone suggesting that she simply DIY all personal care and cleaning products.
Even the seemingly easy act of carrying your own water bottle is a bit more complicated than people make it out to be. Or am I the only one who doesn’t want to carry a full one-liter glass bottle with me when I’m out and about?
Organic vs. Plastic-Free Produce
There’s always a conflict between organic and plastic-free. At least in supermarkets here in Greece, organic produce usually comes in plastic packaging. There are no organic farmers’ markets or stores in my neighborhood either. So I can either buy organic produce or have it packaged in plastic. And the concept of bringing your own produce bag is so foreign here that it can be very tiring to have to explain it at every trip to the grocery store.
Governments need to tackle this issue and not leave it up to consumers. The Portuguese parliament, for example, has voted to ban plastic cutlery and trays as well as plastic packaging for produce and bread. This will make it easier for the average person to reduce single-use plastic. And bringing your own produce bags will be normalized. The problem with zero waste as a movement is that the responsibility is often shifted onto the consumer instead of corporations.
Zero Waste Is Becoming a Product in and of Itself
I’m all for supporting sustainable and ethical brands. So if I believe in a product I will purchase and use it. For example, with something as wasteful as cotton rounds, I really believe that the reusable bamboo alternative by Net Zero Co. is a great investment. Regular cotton rounds come in plastic packaging, and I use them up really quickly. So this alternative saves me money as well.
But as with other things I have discussed on this blog, it’s simply not true that the consumer has a lot of power. This week, I read a comment criticizing Jane Fonda for re-wearing a dress to the Oscars. Why? Because supposedly, re-wearing items is not the solution. We should be buying from more sustainable and ethical brands to support them. Sorry, what? More production and consumption is going to solve our problems? Certainly not.
We have to learn to be more critical when new products are being marketed to us. You don’t need to buy every sustainable product that exists. And while I always prefer supporting small businesses whose values align with my own, I have to keep in mind that they are still businesses. They still want to make money.
We all have to ask ourselves how much we want to participate in a system where everything becomes a product. Wanting to buy fewer or more sustainable products is now a product in and of itself. If you already have something and use it you don’t need to replace it with an ethical or zero-waste alternative. Because waste is not only what we can see. It’s in the production and delivery processes as well.
Let’s Focus on the Bigger Picture
There is no entirely sustainable product, the same way there is no truly ethical consumption under capitalism. As always, it’s important to look at the bigger picture and avoid getting lost in our own little bubble of sustainable living. The problem with zero waste can be that people might overlook the bigger picture in favor of following a trend.
Let’s do our best wherever possible. But let’s not shift responsibility from corporations to individuals.
What do you think? Do you feel like zero waste is a great solution to our environmental crisis? Or do you think there’s a problem with zero waste and how it is being marketed?