I recently joined a zero waste community on Facebook, in a panic over the news that my neighborhood will likely be under water in another thirty years. It has definitely been an interesting experience — anthropological in part, but also educational. But, ignoring the anxiety of joining any public group with zillions of people who cannot be polite online, there was something bugging me about it all.
Well, two things.
The first was that in order to become more zero waste, I had to do a lot of purchasing, which naturally produces waste. Of course, if you don’t have reusable bags, you’re going to have to buy some. If you’re using Ziplocks, then you need to purchase the silicone replacements. And shampoo. Good luck finding zero waste shampoo unless you happen to have a Lush near you, where you can buy $12 shampoo bars in person and put them in your reusable bag. You’ll be wanting a $30 safety shave razor too, which will save you money in the long run. And don’t you have a compost set up in your yard, which naturally you own and control?
And then someone finally shared a post to the community that made so much sense to me. Why does going zero waste feel like an eating disorder?
And voila, there it was. The guilt of every piece of plastic that I used was beginning to eat me up in the same way that I used to feel guilty for eating food at the height of the years when I constantly starved myself. My guilt over the waste my family produces has been eating me up for ages, but now I’d found a community of people that were feeding into my need to have some control — at any cost — over it. It was consuming me, making me feel like a bad person for needing to ever buy things for my family.
Try to explain to a 3 year old that you don’t need to buy her pants in her size because it’s going to create a box and a plastic bag. And the alternative is to zoom around to all the used goods places you can to find used clothes instead, which takes a huge amount of time. As a working parent, the very idea of having that much time seems so laughable and that’s if you ignore, for a moment, that thrift stores were set up to help people who cannot afford new clothes, so now you have well off people creating a competition for goods with people who don’t have the same choices.
I think about that because I was one of those kids growing up. Thrifting, as a middle-class activity, has always sat uncomfortably with me, because I remember well going to the Goodwill every Saturday to see what treasures might have turned up that we could actually afford.
Which is not to say that you shouldn’t refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle as much as you can. It’s just that it’s a more complicated problem than an individual can solve. But the zero waste movement sells this idea that you’re the problem, not the overarching systems put in place by our economic system and government policies. We should, absolutely, try to consume less and demand better choices. But driving yourself mad because it’s impossible to buy meat for your family without styrofoam and plastic isn’t helping. Do you use cereal and don’t have a bulk foods store nearby? Then it’ll be cardboard and plastic. Are you planning on ordering anything online ever again? Then it’s cardboard and plastic. And just forget eating in a restaurant ever again. Think! Think of all the boxes that their food came in!
The system is bad. I want to have hope that there’s change coming, but it’s hard to see from where I’m sitting. Here in Long Island, a single stream recycling company has recently announced they’re going out of business because what China is willing to pay is not enough to keep the plant open. The towns that rely on it are now scrambling to find a replacement, but it’s an industry problem. How many years did we think we could casually throw things in the recycling bin guilt-free before there was a reckoning?
In the meantime, there are folks in the zero waste community cutting down on showers and toilet paper in their need to waste less. And that’s an interesting choice, because all of those reusables require so much more washing than anything disposable, so if soap and water are a problem…
How do you win?