People Will Not Buy Zero Waste Until They Can Afford It

For those of you who’ve gone on the record and said that going zero waste “isn’t expensive”, I want you to answer two questions:

How much money does your household make in a year, and where do you live?

The answers you give can mean the difference between bamboo and plastic toothbrushes; shrink-wrapped non-organic produce and farmer’s markets; municipal recycling programs or none at all. The answers you give can mean the difference between access to a grocery store period… or being awash in a gray sea of convenience stores.

accessinfographic595 I make well-below the poverty line in annual wages (despite being a college graduate who is overqualified to work in most basic positions), and if I didn’t have family willing to take me in, or a spouse to support me (which he can do in a very limited capacity until I am a legal resident of Canada), I would be homeless. If this makes you uncomfortable, good. I say this to remind you that there are millions of people in my shoes, and worse – we are not merely statistics for you to prattle off at university lectures or on message boards. We are real people, and surprisingly enough, many of us are very concerned about the environment, but our lack of stable work or housing means that most conventional – by US standards – activism is beyond our reach. (And for me as an anarchist, I’m not interested in most reformist activism anyway. I want to see entire institutions burned to the ground, and buying $30 water bottles won’t accomplish that.)

The thing is this: when we talk about zero waste being cheap, who is it cheap for? And where? When we talk about it “saving” the environment (even though personal lifestyles have never won a single victory in the history of eco-justice movements), who’s environment will it be saving?

Part of the reason – actually, the main reason – that I’m pro-littering when it comes to areas dominated by middle- and upper-class people, no matter what region or country, is because this undermines the NIMBYism inherent to much of the mainstream conception of what it means to be environmentally-friendly and “sustainable”. It undermines the stock we put in the very notion of lifestyles at all – for some reason, we have it in our heads that making the right purchases and taking pretty pictures for our blogs is all we’ll ever need to do to reverse climate change. When we blow this particular category of action out of proportion, then of of course caving in and buying a bag of potato chips or cuppa joe in a paper cup feels like you’ve let down the entire world.

In my piece on littering, I recall the history of just how the world’s actual polluters got us to start blaming ourselves for their messes:

…Keep America Beautiful, obviously the first and most influential of the anti-littering movements, was founded by a group of key players in the beverage industry, who were beginning to see bad publicity when their products were turning up on roadsides and in ditches all over the country. […]

So like any good capitalist, these businessmen sought to hand the responsibility over to the unwitting public, rather than deal with the repercussions of their manufacturing practices, or – god forbid – face government regulation. According to them, “People start pollution, [and] people can stop it.”

Zero wasters who want to see an end to the convenience store and what it represents have their hearts in the right place… for the most part. But they fail to perceive and understand the world beyond their own backyard, from the comfort of their chic, urban apartments or mortgaged single-family homes. When I first read Zero Waste Home, there was no mention of who the book was for – though the cover could have told me – and yet, its content assumed that I had access to a Whole Foods, and access to the disposable income to shop there. Among other things.

The ironic part is that I do – and that’s precisely because I don’t make enough to pay rent. If I did, I’d have no money to buy any food with!

To be quite blunt, attempting to do some zero waste shopping here in Vancouver the other day is what spurred this post. I wanted to buy some oil, so I looked at the prices at the two stores I know sell bulk EVOO, and they were phenomenal. $12-15 per 100ml is a ridiculous amount of money to pay for a staple that gets used on a near-daily basis. Or how about peanut butter: I could pay $6 for a little over a cup of peanut butter from the grinding machine at WF, or I could buy four times that much for $8 from a local co-op even though it comes in a plastic jar.

It’s a no brainer.

East Vancouver is not a food desert by any means, and for that I’m grateful. But Glendora, the California city where I’ll be living with my mother for a little while, is. There is no walking in Glendora, no curbside pick-up for recyclables, the transit options are pitiful, there is no infrastructure to support bicycling, and the nearest farmer’s market is in the next town over. I will need to get into a car to buy groceries, or I don’t buy groceries at all.

Out of sheer necessity, my zero waste efforts will be curtailed tremendously. I will be throwing recyclable materials in the garbage. But most importantly, I will buy food where it is feasible for me to do so. If that means Stater Bros., then unfortunately, Stater Bros. it is. At least I’m not stuck trying to feed a family from the local 7-Eleven.

What would happen if, every time we were tempted to denigrate ourselves over a single soda can or candy wrapper, we instead decided to remember that millions of people in the US (and Canada) have no choice in the matter? That, instead, we started talking about ways to put an end to food deserts and poverty-stricken communities’ reliance on convenience stores? Or talked about how ridiculous it is that we’re willing to pay $7-8/lb for salad bar cherry tomatoes or hummus because the plastic clamshell or tub would weigh too heavily on our conscience? (To say nothing of how a clamshell of tomatoes gets a more visceral reaction than, for instance, US foreign policy.)

I’m sure some of you are wondering why it is I continue to blog under the term “zero waste”.

Honestly, this is because I still believe in it – nature has no concept of waste, and neither should we. It is the only mark of a truly holistic community of organisms and resources. Just because I believe that most other lifestylers are misguided in their understanding and intentions, I’m not going to give it up.

To me, zero waste is about habits. It’s about fighting capitalist culture through the language of garbage, by-product, and so-called “innovation”. It’s a way to foster healthy boundaries in my work and relationships. It’s a way for me to understand myself as a steward, not an owner, of things. It’s a way to reject the encroachment of consumerism and voyeur culture on my life. It’s a way for me to reject the notion of disposability in every facet of life and society: no person is disposable, no thought or feeling is (or ought to be) disposable, no action is disposable. There is no throwing anything “away”, whether opinions or onion skins, and we need systems – cultural habits – in place to ease their decomposition and re-use.

If zero waste means little more than a hoard of $15 canning jars and an Apartment Therapy house tour, I’m going to go on record to say that you’ve got your priorities all mixed up.

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13 thoughts on “People Will Not Buy Zero Waste Until They Can Afford It

  1. I make well below the poverty line here in the U.S. even though I am a college grad, I still live with family at the moment. I have made a few purchases that will save me money in the long run such as cloth pads, a menstrual cup, a safety razor, etc. I only buy things if they will improve my quality of life, the life of the planet, AND they have to fall within my budget. I am a stickler for keeping my purchases both organic and within a very strict budget. At the end of the day I found that if I buy tons of different products at a health food store, of course it will be rather expensive. So I took a hard look at the things that I was buying and found cheaper ways to make my own or do without. Like mayo for example, one glass jar full at the health store was $5, and it wasn’t a large jar…so I started making my own for half the cost. Same thing with barbeque sauce, chips, juices, etc. It just comes down to prioritizing for me :) I see where you’re coming from though.

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    • Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?

      Part of the problem is that we’ve been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection. Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance. An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal consumption — changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much — and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet? Even if every person in the United States did everything the movie suggested, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by only 22 percent. Scientific consensus is that emissions must be reduced by at least 75 percent worldwide.

      Forget Shorter Showers

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  2. When I read Zero Waste Home, I remember thinking “she’s willing to drive an hour away to save her home from getting a premade jar??” What about the emissions??

    You are right – all levels of production need to make an effort to decrease waste. It isn’t just an individual consumer’s responsibility – IT IS EVERYONE AND ANYONE WHO PRODUCES OR CONSUMES!!!!

    BTW – We shop at Stater’s too. Some things make more sense – drive less (about 3 miles each way) and make a concerted effort to reduce packaging as much as possible from Stater’s makes more sense than driving an hour each way to Pasadena to visit Whole Foods (our nearest one).

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  3. It’s true that most people who start zero waste become to emerged in it that they easily lose sight of the ‘big picture’. There is a lot more to, say, climate change than we as consumers can do, looking at certain industries and political lobbying. I do understand your feelings, but there is a problem with your approach, too: You write this as an individual who is fighting on their own. As you rightly realise, change only comes with a collective effort of a lot of people. As of now, not enough people really seem to prioritise certain issues (such as waste) enough to make an effort to come together to fix it. Until we find a way to mobilise people, and organise far-reaching action (which can range from product boycott to peaceful protest to whatever), our own individual actions is all we have, and we hope to inspire as many people along the way to re-think their priorities. I’m sad that I can’t be super-radical and achieve this inspiration quicker (also due to financial reasons, to make the loop), but I can get together with at least other Zero Wasters for now and see what can be done. It seems like you have the right approach, and hopefully more Zero Wasters will start to include industry boycotts and/or political activism in their approach and blogs.

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    • Yes and no.

      My point here (and I tend to repeat myself every few months for good measure) is that “voting with dollars” has never, in the history of the free market, achieved the kind of change that we need here and now. Ever. There is zero historical basis that anyone can point to to prove the efficacy of this tactic. (The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, as a famous political thinker once said; and this applies to capitalism too.)

      That said, personal action is not the same as individual action, politically speaking. “Personal” here meaning attempting to fix a broken system from within by methods that the system approves of – i.e. the myth of conscious consumerism. An individual action, on the other hand, can be extremely powerful – the man standing in front of the tanks at Tienanmen Square was an individual, operating alone, who achieved something huge. That man did more alone than the entire New York City climate march combined. (That, by the way, is a good example of why lawful and peaceful protest usually gets nothing done. The Ferguson riots, on the other hand, have much more to show for it.)

      Zero Wasters, I think, would do well to familiarize themselves with real, concrete action, with the history of political movements and dissent, with what has worked and what hasn’t. It’s the only way we’re going to accomplish anything more than changing a few food safety laws and endearing ourselves to WordPress advertisers.

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  4. This is probably the most real, honest post about zero waste I have ever read, which i really appreciate. It seems as though all other zero waste blogs (especially the well known ones) live off a pretty wealthy income in affluent neighborhoods and their advice and posts only apply to a small fraction of people. So basically you have to be rich and privileged to be completely zero waste. My husband and I are definitely below poverty line but I know I am still exceedingly more well off than many others…and it’s a struggle to be zero waste in even an urban environment, especially living in a place where the rent is cheap enough to afford–meaning all the options for food are corner stores or a massive Walmart a bus ride away. I would love to hear your opinions on practically introducing zero waste practices to a low income community…. Because I have no idea

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    • It’s very difficult if there’s no infrastructure to support it!

      I think it’s important to remember that poor folks generally live as zero waste to the best of their ability already – and by necessity. Shopping at thrift stores, using old shirts as rags, reusing ziploc bags and other containers, using mass transit, repairing when possible instead of buying new… these are all things that, for a long time, was a hallmark of poverty instead of a “green” lifestyle. I once read a piece by a second-generation Chinese immigrant who grew up with the stigma of her Hmong parents growing food in their yard, because where she grew up edible gardening was for poor immigrants who couldn’t afford to go to the grocery store or who refused to assimilate into US culture, and the experience left a bad taste in her mouth that she carried with her into her adult years.

      So the first step is to include low income families and communities in the conversation, and to really hear them instead of talk about them as though they are perpetual outsiders to our own communities. (There’s a good saying for this: “Don’t talk about us without us”.) Meet them on their turf every once in a while, you know? Only then will you be able to know the needs of these communities instead of preach to them about what you think they ought to do. This goes hand in hand with solidarity – as opposed to charity – in that you let the people you’re trying to help dictate the terms of your involvement instead of doing it the other way around.

      Aside from that, every community has its own immediate needs, and that’s where it stops being a one-size-fits-all thing. One neighborhood might be wanting better tap water so they don’t have to buy bottled, or another might be fighting for the right to plant gardens in the road verge or to have chickens in their backyards. These are the sorts of fights that might be worst getting involved in.

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  5. My husband and I are the upper middle class yuppies living in a mortgaged single family home buying zero-waste exclusively from Whole Foods and farmer’s markets, posting pretty pictures on Instagram. I just want you to know your blog reaches all types. We’re all trying to turn a critical eye to consumerism, and I don’t mind turning a critical eye toward ourselves either. I’m not sure how to include low-income members of the community in the conversation, but I am thinking about it now and open to suggestion. I don’t see these as mutually exclusive ideas. I think of zero-waste as an enjoyable hobby that brings personal pleasure and helps us to enjoy more minimal lives. It’s a feel-good, eco-tourism kind of luxury and I realize how privileged it sounds to say “We have so much that it was making us miserable, and this is a way for us to enjoy and appreciate our lives again the way we imagine those with less do, except obviously without any of the struggle or hardship”. This is where we’re at though. We want to do more good- turns out other people and this big blue rock we share are what makes life worth living, who knew? So we started here. I’m not claiming this is it- the end all, be all. Stop personally making garbage and we shall all be saved! But I guess the real question to ask is now what? How do I turn my excess into something valuable? How do I get involved in the community in a way that’s valuable to someone else? Shouldn’t we keep “posting pretty pictures” to keep this conversation rolling and inspire other people to care about living meaningful, intentional lives? Like “Hey, feeling depressed? Skip the pharmaceuticals and try zero-waste minimalism and giving a shit about other people…” I want to be inclusive and helpful, but you’re right that I don’t know how. Take Action Tuesdays? By all means if you have calls to action, I’m interested in hearing about them. If buying a tomato package-free from a farmer isn’t helpful, or helpful enough, then what would be? If all of us zero-wasters can do better, by all means challenge us to do so. Reading and being aware that low-income people exist and care about the planet is a start, but what can I do with this?

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    • I think it’s completely counterproductive to say things or write in a way that implies that monied people aren’t capable of being just as unhappy with these systems as the poor – but I do think that the more money you have, the more readily you can afford a bigger, comfier prison cell, so to speak. Unless you’re Mister Strauss-Kahn himself or a Walmart heir, we’re all actually pretty screwed. Some of us are just more screwed than others.

      But I guess the real question to ask is now what? How do I turn my excess into something valuable? How do I get involved in the community in a way that’s valuable to someone else?

      I replied to another commenter above, and said this:

      “So the first step is to include low income families and communities in the conversation, and to really hear them instead of talk about them as though they are perpetual outsiders to our own communities. (There’s a good saying for this: “Don’t talk about us without us”.) Meet them on their turf every once in a while, you know? Only then will you be able to know the needs of these communities instead of preach to them about what you think they ought to do. This goes hand in hand with solidarity – as opposed to charity – in that you let the people you’re trying to help dictate the terms of your involvement instead of doing it the other way around.

      Aside from that, every community has its own immediate needs, and that’s where it stops being a one-size-fits-all thing. One neighborhood might be wanting better tap water so they don’t have to buy bottled, or another might be fighting for the right to plant gardens in the road verge or to have chickens in their backyards. These are the sorts of fights that might be worst getting involved in.”

      When was the last time you shared a meal with someone who lived below the poverty line? Or had a conversation with a houseless person where you said more than “Sorry, I don’t have any”? I’m not saying to go do this right now, but if you don’t regularly encounter poor folks as other human beings sharing space with you (as opposed to in a way that makes it easy to turn them into objectified urban setpieces) then it’s important to ask why this is, what circumstances in your life allow this, and maybe being to tease apart the psychological threads that make it easy to dismiss interacting with the poor as something you’re not suited to, or you don’t have time for right now, or you’ll look into an organization you could give money to instead, or…

      You know?

      It would be easy for me to say “hey, you can start by throwing some of that excess cash my way, my adrenal supplements ain’t cheap”, but that, like the adrenal supplements themselves, are barely a stopgap. Many, many thinkers far greater than I have spilled oceans of ink over the decades figuring out just what is going on here and what, if anything, can be done to stop it. I believe that we in the West are in a world that is becoming less and less coherent to Marxism, and that dismantling capitalism would mean ushering in catastrophe on an unprecedented scale, due to how deep its roots have grown since Das Kapital. Some call what we have now Empire, others Leviathan – needless to say that charity and money won’t help. Imagine living in a world where a dose of ibuprofen or acetaminophen only works for 10 minutes; that is precisely how useful donating money is. (Thankfully, I’m “chronically broke”, not necessarily living in poverty, so a sudden influx of cash to the tune of $50k would help me a great deal – it wouldn’t help the fact that I’ve wasted many years from being duped by a for-profit school system that makes me nearly impossible to hire, so even after my debt were gone, it would still be hard going. But that’s “Leviathan” for you. However, if you or any of the other rich person I know – Christ, a good handful of my own family members make over six digits – wanted to give me money, I wouldn’t look the gift horse in the mouth even though it wouldn’t solve any overarching problem.)

      What I’m trying to get at here is that there is no easy answer, because the questions and problems are so many and so incomprehensible to the average bear. The one thing I know for certain is that we cannot wait for a crisis to do something, so I think that all that can be done for most people right now is to make as many inroads with as many different proximal people as possible, stop relying on authority figures to manage our interpersonal relationships (like make friends with your neighbors so that asking them to turn down the music at 1am actually WORKS instead of calling the cops) and decentralize, aka stop relying on California for your tomatoes or somesuch. The poor need this especially – big box stores and retail or fast food chains tend to dominate their landscapes, and we all know where places like that source their goods from.

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