Stop asking if COVID-19 means the end of zero waste

Since March, my social media feeds have been filled with grievances around the empty bulk aisles, resentment towards the sudden comeback of plastic bags, and general dismay about the huge amounts of packaging we all find ourselves stuck with these days.

The discussion typically revolves around several themes:

“It just really sucks that Starbucks doesn’t allow reusable mugs anymore, but I understand health and safety are more important right now.”

“We’ve only just started to make progress on plastic bag bans; the plastic industry is totally co-opting this pandemic to reverse these policies.”

“I know these setbacks are just temporary, but I find the messaging around these restrictions much more damaging. Reusable does not mean unsanitary, and plastic wrapped doesn’t mean it’s safer!”

More recently, these online quibbles have spread to mainstream media, with several headlines prompting the question:”Is this the end of zero waste?”

In case you have not heard about the zero waste movement before, now it’s time to revisit the concept briefly.

Zero waste was a term purportedly created in the 1970s by chemist Paul Palmer, who founded the company Zero Waste System to reduce the amount of chemical waste in laboratories by re-selling industrial byproduct chemicals. The term has since then expanded into general waste management, and is now widely used by cities, institutions, and environmental organizations to describe a goal – in the most simple terms – of not sending anything to landfill (or incinerators, or ocean, etc, you get the idea.) 

Most recently, zero waste has become a lifestyle, popularized by Bea Johnson, Lauren Singers, Kathryn Kellogg, and other influencers alike. Google “zero waste lifestyle“, and you’ll find pretty pictures of French market tote, fancy coffee thermo, metal straws, and dried goods stored in perfectly matching glass jars (lugged home sans the traditional plastic packaging). By following the principles of “refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot”, zero wasters aim to significantly reduce the amount of landfilled trash they produce, and some are even able to fit however little trash that remains in mason jars – which themselves become badges of honor worn by zero wasters prominently and proudly. (“The girl with the mason jar” was in the Instagram bio of Lauren Singer, aka Trash is for Tossers, for years.)

The thing is, achieving zero waste through better product design, infrastructure investments, and policy changes on the industrial and institutional scale is very different from zero waste at the personal level. Plus, zero waste living didn’t need any fancy branding – it was the way folks with limited resources (or any human pre modern-day consumerism) have always lived. This recent and Instagram-worthy version of zero waste “lifestyle” is not accessible to most people who do not live near bulk stores, have access/time to visit year-round farmers markets, or god-forbid – could spend hundreds of dollars buying one of these specialty zero waste recycling boxes.

The picture-perfect, reductionist, and ableist version of “personal” zero waste, summarized in one picture and headline.

The hyper focus on trash has even created perverse incentives. At one of the zero waste workshops I attended a while back, an attendee proudly declared that she buys meat from the butcher wrapped in paper – which can be recycled/composted – as opposed to the block of tofu that nearly always comes in unrecycable plastic packaging. (“BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CARBON FOOTPRINT OF THAT MEAT???” I was silently screaming in my head.)

Annnnnd that brings us to today, where temporary bans on reusables and more packaging from delivery/takeout are sparking a lively discussion on whether the pandemic means the demise of the zero waste movement.

No, it does not. I’m just going to come out and say it: COVID-19 is not the end of zero waste, and posing the question as such misses an important opportunity to reframe what zero waste could and should be. A lifestyle that needs to move beyond packaging and trash into broader efforts to waste less food, less water, less electricity, less resources and less everything. A movement that encourages participants to re-evaluate our relationship with “stuff”, shift our mindset on consumption, and being a part of the larger systematic effort towards a circular economy.

Image credit: Government of Netherlands.

The latter point is especially important, because a trash-free lifestyle built on endless consumption is still wasteful, and because the idea that any one individual could be truly “zero waste” in a linear economy was ludicrous to begin with.

Throwing edible food in the compost bin – needlessly waste away the resources, land, labor used to grow that food – is that zero waste? Bulk shopping with BYO containers when the goods had to be transported to the store in some sort of packaging, is that zero waste? Putting a recyclable item in the bin – out of sight, out of mind – when we have a broken recycling market, is that zero waste? Producing no trash – but still generating carbon though buying new clothes, flying, or just being a human (let’s be honest) – is that zero waste?

We have such an excellent opportunity to reframe these conversations right now. So instead of fretting over “if this is the end of zero waste,” how about we ask ourselves:

  • How can we be more mindful about the parts of life that we do have control over right now? If I can’t reduce how much trash I’m producing, can I reduce my impact in other ways? Conserving water? Commit to absolutely no food waste while at home? Unplug when possible? Switching over to clean energy? 
  • What perspectives/habits am I forming right now can be carried forward? If you are enjoying not driving to work every day, perhaps brainstorm ways you can drive less in the future. If what you are really missing during self isolation is experiences (e.g., hikes, time with family and friends, travel) instead of things, how can you realign your life to be more in sync with those priorities?
  • How can we uplift and welcome more people who have been traditionally excluded in this movement? These days, some zero waste influencers are now finally acknowledging that some waste (e.g., masks, medical waste, food waste if it meant going out to the grocery less frequently) may be necessary and essential; where was this sympathy/understanding/nuance before there was a public health crisis?
  • What can this moment teach us about individual responsibility vs system change? Even with the world economy grinding to a halt, global greenhouse gas emission is only expected to fall by 8% (still the largest annual decrease ever recorded). What are the most impactful actions I can take to be a part of the solution?
Bulk shopping sure is nice, but represents just one action we can take. (More on what you can do here.) Image credit: Laura Mitulla via Unsplash.

Reducing waste on the individual level is an excellent way for most people to start living a more environmentally conscious life, but the end goal should never stop at “producing as little as landfilled trash as possible.” Waste is a manifestation of so many interconnected environmental problems: it is the result of our culture of overconsumption; it leads to pollution and resource depletion; it exacerbates habitat destruction, climate change, and health disparities in our society. Let’s use the lens of waste as an entry point to bring more people into the broader environmental movement…because lamenting over plastic bags and temporary suspensions of bulk shopping instead of taking advantage of this moment to shift the paradigm…that would be such a waste.

(Header image credit: Laura Mitulla via Unsplash)