January 19, 2019

Against "Zero Waste"

“I BEGAN FOLLOWING ZERO WASTE INSTAGRAM a few years ago, for the same reason I sometimes follow accounts of early-rising yogis or healthy, photogenic meal preppers: Zero Waste is soothingly aspirational. Its proponents aim to stop producing trash, particularly plastic and Styrofoam waste, through changes in habit like replacing plastic sponges with natural-fiber dish scrubbers or getting their takeout in Tupperware instead of Styrofoam. The #ZeroWaste Instagram grid is pristine; it makes me want to jettison all my belongings for analogues in glass, wood, and warm neutral linen. Zero Waste celebrities—which, yes, exist—document every aspect of their lifestyle, from how to make zero-waste cleaning solution (white vinegar, citrus rinds) to how to trick-or-treat with zero-waste kids (homemade cookies, UNICEF boxes). They seem to have impossibly orderly, intentional lives, and when they misstep—by, say, buying a glass jar that happens to have a plastic seal—they publicly, hyperbolically repent.

I grew fascinated by the religious dedication of Zero Waste devotees, yearning for such an intimate relationship to my own waste. The appeal of Zero Waste on an individual level is clear. Late capitalism fosters a sense of helplessness in the face of systemic injustices, a yawning global wealth gap, and rapidly approaching climate catastrophe. That, in turn, gives rise to purity cults like Zero Waste that serve more to provide a sense of individual penitence than do anything about powerful systems we’ve already agreed we can’t change. In an era that feels increasingly defined by unchecked destruction of the environment, the obsessive restriction of Zero Waste is like a fad diet, for the earth. It can appease your first-world guilt and apocalyptic anxieties! It is Paleo for your carbon footprint! Your friends who roll their eyes at your refusal to get coffee to-go? They should be thanking you.

As a lifestyle movement, Zero Waste has given rise to a whole niche industry of packaging-free and alternative products. A bulk grocery store recently opened up in the hip Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City, and I passed by one free, meandering afternoon, with no intention of buying anything, just to admire the uniformly ordered jars of spices and jugs of jewel-toned oils and vinegars. I lifted unpackaged rose hip soaps to my nose between aisles of shimmering mason jars. This was Zero Waste as an aesthetic, no tacky fluorescent plastics in sight. It reminded me of an old-timey apothecary, or a general store, something from The Oregon Trail or Laura Ingalls Wilder. But more important, it made me feel like I could decontaminate myself, return to an earth before microplastics. I could walk through the streets after spending my day reading about ocean acidification, trash seas, and climate change refugee crises, with the wind whipping Doritos bags and Styrofoam cups around me, and feel those twinges—of guilt, anxiety, aesthetic distaste—assuaged by the knowledge that at least I was not taking part.”

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