21 Feb “Being in the club”: a note on low-waste living
Let me tell you a secret: I bought a plastic water bottle this week. For the first time in years, I consciously made a decision to walk into a supermarket, ask where I could find the largest bottle they sold, and hand over my hard earned cash. It felt like such a monumental moment that I almost wanted to take a picture with the cashier (before I realised that would come off super creepy!). I am currently backpacking in Latin America, and ahead of a 33-hour bus journey, I went into the bus company’s offices to ask what the water situation would be like: any place to refill along the way, any water dispensers on the bus? “No opportunities anywhere to fill your bottle. You’ll have to bring everything you want to drink with you.” EEK! Thus commenced my internal monologue, trying to convince myself that my 750ml reusable bottle would totally be enough for the whole journey, before realising that I would be making an already long and somewhat uncomfortable journey even worse if I denied myself water.
So what does this mean? Shut down the blog, change the name to “some plastic please”? In truth, I feel so much of my identity is tied into my consumption choices that my water bottle purchase affected me more than it should have. And herein lies the problem of in groups and out groups: you’re either zero waste, or you’re out of the club. Much like how we view a diet or a New Year’s Resolution, if you mess up once, you may as well give up the whole thing because you’ve ruined your streak!
I think that this culture of zero waste has come up increasingly in the last few years, as conscious consumption has become more popular (yay!) but also increasingly unfortunately defined by the holy mason jar of trash, popularised by Bea Johnson and Lauren Singer. I think it’s a really powerful visual to demonstrate just how broken our waste economy is and how much we can change through new habits, but I am not a fan of the mason jar for several reasons.
First of all, I think its presence serves the person touting it way more than anyone else (“Look how much discipline I’ve exercised to get my trash down to this level! You are truly terrible in comparison to me, the zero waste goddess!”) Secondly, I think it creates a really clear division between those who can fit their trash in a jar, and those who can’t (and creates a moral equivalence between the amount of trash you create and how good a person you are). This completely erases the very real and important barriers to lower-waste living that excludes all types of people, including but not limited to: cost (because so many bulk stores are also fair trade, organic, artisan etc, which most cannot afford), time (making your own products from scratch can be quick, but is undeniably more time-consuming than buying prepared foods), ability (far too many zero waste stores are inaccessible to differently-abled people), location (for example, people living in food deserts), access (to package-free items), and so much more, including the fact that we are pushing against an industry that is looking to grow at all costs and making avoiding plastic difficult and uncomfortable.
Of course I think it is deeply important to strive to reduce your waste where you can, and I also think that a lot of people with enough money, time, and ability to live lower waste lifestyles do not do so precisely because of the in- and out-group nature that many low-waste, plastic-free advocates (such as myself) have created. As with all other environmental habits, holding an open and non-judgemental space where people can learn and see that sustainable living does not require them to be completely ascetic, is essential in recruiting more people to the cause.
So let me just say it here: if you are on the fence about plastic-free living and feeling intimidated by the words “zero waste” or pictures of mason jars, I would rather have 100 people reduce their waste by 10% each than have 25 people go fully zero waste, even though the reductions would be bigger in the second scenario. This is precisely because I think it is super important to show how zero waste principles can be integrated seamlessly into your life. Hopefully, once you’ve been hooked in by a smaller reduction that you know you can commit to, you can try changing another habit, and another, until your waste has magically decreased and without shaming yourself for not being able to fit it inside a jar.
In the next few months while I’m travelling, if I’m in a pinch, I’ll use plastic again. If anything, each time will help me understand the different scenarios in which people are forced to use it and help me better understand others’ perspectives on the product: so everything is a learning opportunity! However, I think I’ll keep the blog name – “some plastic please” just doesn’t have a good ring to it!