Welcome to the first in our series of posts on the A-Z of zero waste!
An overview of everything that has been shared so far can be found here.
Today we are looking at whether zero waste living is achievable and accessible. Although this might not be the post full of quick and easy tips you were looking for, I thought it was really important to start off here by looking at what zero waste is, some of the barriers we face, and whether at the end of the day it is achievable and accessible to all.
If you're new to the term zero waste, I would recommend you learn about it here.
I believe it is crucial to acknowledge that as an individual it is impossible to be completely zero waste. This is because in our current society, most businesses and companies work in a linear economy not a circular one (if these terms are also new to you, check the article linked above). We live in a throw-away culture as that's what makes money. If the businesses we interact with are not zero waste, then we cannot be. Unfortunately you cannot create zero waste if you bought your food without packaging, but it arrived at the shop in a disposable bag. You cannot create zero waste if you had to drive to that unpackacked store and use petrol or diesel. You cannot create zero waste if your second hand clothes were bought from a charity shop that uses fossil fuels to run their electricity, as that produces waste carbon dioxide.
Please don't check out just yet, I promise it does get more hopeful!
I would not want to share the next 25 articles of tips to live a zero waste life for you to think that if you completed them like some kind of check list then you would be zero waste. Unfortunately this is not true.
I'm sharing this with you today because I don't want you to become demoralised when trying to reduce your waste. I'm starting out by telling you that you can never be perfect at this, so that if and when things get hard, you don't quit. Because living in a way that is counter-cultural will have challenges and if you feel like you're "failing", it can be easy to give up.
But zero waste living is not something you "fail" at. It's not an exam, you can't pass or fail it. It's a way of life.
Just because it can be challenging doesn't stop us trying. Because as we make changes in our lives, the businesses and people we interact with see our choices and realise that they matter to us. We can't have big systemic change without someone first standing up to say "this matters"! Especially if you're saying that it matters to you enough to make things less convenient for yourself. The changes we make alone may not stop this planet rushing towards a climate disaster, but standing together by saying "this matters enough for us to change our own behaviour" might just have enough influence to change the mind of the governments and businesses who can do something about the problem.
Unfortunately another reason zero waste living isn't achievable is that it is unaccessible for certain people.
I wanted to share this A-Z as there are so many different areas where it is possible to reduce the waste in your life. It's so much more than what you put in your bin. Many of the areas will be accessible to many people, but there are people who do not have the privilege to engage with all areas.
'Privilege' is a right, advantage, or immunity given or available only to a particular person or group. People can have privilege due to their gender, sexuality, race, education, socioeconomic status, health and many more. Having privilege doesn't mean your life is easy, it just means that the thing in question (e.g. your race or sexuality) isn't making it harder. Some of the topics I share may not be accessible to all, for example those with disabilities who struggle to cook or need to buy pre-chopped vegetables, or those whose medicines create a lot of waste, and I want to reassure you that if that is you, that's okay. If society doesn't support you to live in a way that is sustainable for the environment then that is a problem with the society, not with you.
We also must not forget that in addition to some people having greater privilge to tackle environmental issues, that racial and ethinic minority communities are more likely to face the effects of environmental problems. Environmental racism collectively refers to the results of either targeted prejudice or ingrained institutional bias, where minority communities tend to be located in more polluted areas with less access to green space and safe infrastructure, like clean water, than people of the racial majority. It is also not just limited to local communities, but can have global implications as industries that are highly polluting have tended to move from high income countries to low income ones, effectively taking the local burden of pollution with them, especially as these countries may have less stringent environmental laws. It is often argued that these effects are due to poverty not race, but more evidence is coming to light showing that race is a bigger influencer, and actually race plays a big role in poverty as minorities are more likely to be of lower socioeconomic status. A US EPA report in 2018 found “Disparities [in exposure to emissions] for Blacks are more pronounced than are disparities on the basis of poverty status.”
Environmental racism "refers to environmental policy, practice, or directive that deferentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or colour." (Dr. Robert D. Bullard)
So whilst we are all seeking to reduce our waste, we must also be conscious of the concept of environmental justice.
Environmental justice embraces the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations. (Dr. Robert D. Bullard)
If you want to find out more, a great place to start is this article by Polly Barks. Whenever we talk about a zero waste lifestyle we must ensure that the advice we are giving is coming from a place of environmental justice instead of institutionalised environmental racism.
If you do have some kind privilege, and most of us have some even if we don't have it all, then I want to challenge you over the coming 26 weeks, to try to engage as much as possible with these topics, for the sake of people who can't. It won't be easy because I'm not asking you to only cut out straws, but change is necessary. We have just over a decade to reverse our carbon production and so we need to fundamentally change our attitude to waste and what we are entitled to. Give yourself grace, because we are living in a society that is not supporting us to make these changes, but please don't give up. Please don't just stay where you're comfortable, because the world by 2050, if we don't make big changes now, will not be comfortable.
Zero waste is not achievable at this point, and it definitely isn't accessible to all. But we can still make a huge impact by trying anyway. And perhaps one day, because of our actions, it will be achievable.