Is ‘Zero Waste’ living a form of privilege?

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What’s so privileged about re-using containers, op-shopping and buying second hand goods you ask?  Inherently nothing – but when you break it down you start to see how the society we live in today tries so hard to go against all of this, and everything to do with a zero-waste lifestyle.

If you go back 20 years ago you’d say definitely not – people living on low incomes re-used jars, grew their own food and bought everything second hand out of necessity.  But in this day and age we’ve been groomed to become reliant on convenience whether or not it’s cheaper or beneficial for us.  We have two choices in a capitalist world – join or starve.  It’s sad that such a humbling, sustainable, hard-working movement of the past has become so inaccessible to those who could benefit from it most, to something that as seen as a ‘privileged movement for young rich millennials’.  It’s a pretty sad reality that anything trying to get back to basics and help the environment is at times so hard to achieve that it is a privilege.  Capitalism has morphed our lifestyle into one reliant on convenience products that are heavily packaged because we are so time poor, or because of where we can afford to live it is our only option.

So what about privilege in the zero-waste movement? A quick google search led me to think that it hasn’t been discussed much.  All I found thus far was a counter-debate stating why it makes people’s lives easier, which is awesome and what I was hoping to find (if you’d like to have a look it’s here) – but it doesn’t paint the whole story.

Privilege is a word that gets thrown around a lot during debates – both on social media and in person – and it is at times a word that can lead to some cringe-worthy responses, but also lead to some good discussions and realisations, depending on how people react to the word. Just remember before you read any further that when someone says you experience privilege it is not an insult, nor does it mean they’re invalidating any negative or troubling experiences you’ve had in your life. It may just mean that in certain contexts or discussions you are unable (or shouldn’t) provide a balanced opinion based on how your privilege has shaped your worldview. People experience it differently, and it’s important to acknowledge where you personally experience it, and where others may not.

So I thought I’d take some time to muse over my thoughts – because it’s something I’ve been considering ever since I got into the concept of zero-waste (I guess as one would say I checked my privilege early on) and I think it’s a very important topic to break down and acknowledge.

I’d like to firstly state that I apologise if anywhere on my blog I come across as dismissive of where I stand with my privilege – if I’ve ever said something along the lines of ‘it’s easy’ or ‘anyone can do it’ – then that is where the problem lies. Because not everybody can do everything I’m doing, and that’s what I’d like to address here. I do however believe that if you CAN do something then you should – because every little bit counts. Every plastic bag you say no to saves a fish or a bird. Every loaf of bread you buy without a plastic tag saves an animal from choking. So please don’t be put off by the sheer amount of suggestions and tasks I do myself – pick what you know is possible and do them as best as you can.

In fact, someone else has already provided a few small tips for those who are low income or people with a disability: Paris To Go

There are 3 main aspects of the zero-waste lifestyle that I consider part of my ‘privilege’:

  1. Accessibility
  2. Affordability
  3. Ability

Accessibility

Many times I’ve been asked by friends or family about where I shop, and what I do. And there’s definitely been a few times where I’ve been truly stumped as to how I can help these people.

For context: I live in a suburban/metropolitan area of Sydney. I am able to either get public transport to the nearest bulk food store, or walk past one that is on my way home from work to pick up supplies. For me it’s as easy as shopping in a supermarket. Every weekend in Sydney there’s farmer’s markets and stalls in almost every area. Every day of the week you can head to the Farmer’s Markets in Flemington and bulk buy all of your fruit and veg and take it all home in boxes.

But this is not how everyone lives – I have friends who live in small rural towns who rely on large chain supermarkets for 90% of their food – the concept of a package free store is un-heard of, as are a lot of the ingredients I use to make home-made products like vegan cheese.  Many of them have no choice but to shop at the local shopping centre instead of being able to access all the op-shops I go to.  In terms of city dwellers most people live in apartments or small rental houses – growing food from scratch, or even composting, isn’t an option.  Whilst some areas have community gardens, this also requires a lot of work and dedication.

Whilst there is not much you can do to avoid this, there are plenty of things you CAN do (more about Tips and Tricks for shopping in Supermarkets here) – or if it’s possible have a chat to some local farmers about buying fruit and veg straight from them, or start a community garden! Talk to local takeaway restaurants and ask if you can BYO container – you may even have better luck than I do because they know you 😉 As far as home-made beauty or cleaning products go the best advice I have is to just do your best. If you can make your own with ingredients you can source – AWESOME. If not just recycle =) or you may try your luck with some online shopping (a few stores here)

Another thing I have a lot of is – TIME. I consider myself a busy person, but I am single and I only work one job. I don’t have to deal with children (other than at work), I am not a carer, nor do I have any commitments other than what I CHOOSE to commit to. I’m willing to put in the effort to spend time making all these home-made products, soaking beans, making my own sauces, growing my own vegetables etc. But once again it’s not a possibility for everyone, and for some it’s a necessity they wish they didn’t have to do after spending an entire day working 2-3 jobs.  For me it’s therapeutic and I acknowledge that. One day I dream of a world where it’s easier to buy everything un-packaged, but for now as I’ve said above – do what you can and when you can. I’m not here to guilt, I’m here to guide and inspire.

Affordability

 My privilege also displays itself in an economic sense and ties in a lot with the way I view my lifestyle – that it’s perfectly convenient for me to work towards a zero-waste lifestyle. I support only myself, and all my other financial commitments are choices I’ve made. I’m not living day to day just to pay my rent, bills or food. I’m not supporting a child or someone else. So for me it is easy to do things like buy products in bulk, or opt for what is at times the more expensive fruit and veg that comes in packages (yes, that does happen A LOT).
I’m able to shop at boutique online ‘eco friendly’ stores for my lingerie instead of Kmart, and I also have the economic means to purchase products to replace items of mine that break – and whilst I purchase second hand, it is still a cost that others may not be able to afford (new blenders, dehydrators, kettles etc.) – a lot of which I’m reliant on to make products that I would otherwise purchase.

I haven’t bought a brand new phone since I was 20 – many reasons (ethical and environmental being the main two) including the fact I don’t want to contribute to unnecessary landfill. But it’s a huuuuuge outright cost that I know not many people are able to bear, and I have yet to find a company that offers a monthly re-payment option for second hand devices (business idea, anyone?)

So what point am I trying to prove? Mainly that I acknowledge my choices and suggestions might not appeal or be available to everybody, but I’m hoping that I’ll find solutions for everyone one day – and to not feel dissuaded if these are things you can’t do!

Ability

 This is the biggest one I find puts up a lot of barriers – not just in zero-waste lifestyle but many other social justice movements. Ableism is one of the most common issues I see, especially in the vegan movement. There have been many times where my anxiety has prevented me from doing more activism, and I’m sure there are many other people who have been told they’re ‘not doing enough’ for a myriad of reasons out of their control (be it time, money, commitments, physical, social or psychological ability) and the shaming that occurs at times from other ‘activists’ is tiresome and counter-productive.    In some ways I can see it being potentially replicated in the zero-waste movement if it isn’t acknowledged early on.  Sometimes people get so carried away with promoting their own movement they forget that there are people around who would love to join but can’t, because it is inaccessible to them.

So for me: I am a fully able bodied, financially secure, well educated human, with a background in cooking spanning over 10 years. And whilst at times my anxiety has an impact on my life, it doesn’t prevent me from cooking quality food, shopping where I choose, or preparing foods. But what seems like an easy task for me to go shopping, carry around produce, and make my own butters, dips, sauces, meals etc. can be incredibly difficult for someone else – be it people with arthritis, chronic depression, cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, lack of education; or anything else that may mean someone struggles with the tasks I do.

And I am so grateful that I am able to do everything I am. I can peel my oranges and make my own juice, I can cook up a batch of fresh pasta and sauce with my two hands and not need assistance, I can compost my fruit and veg and grow my own vegetables. So what I’m most concerned about is being dismissive of those who cannot. Ultimately I’m aiming to make my recipes and tips as accessible as possible, but sometimes it may not be. Once again I’ll say this – do what you can, when you can.

So what does this mean? I want the low impact zero-waste movement to be accessible and available to all – but given it’s still in a very young development stage, right now it means you have to put in a lot of effort to achieve your goals, and for the most part it is still DEFINITELY easier to buy everything packaged and pre-made. But what I’m hoping is that as more people who have the ability to join grow this movement that we are able to work together to make it accessible for all. That one day we will see paper packaging replace most – if not all – packaging in supermarkets. That one day we will be able to throw our food scraps into council green waste bins – or that convenience foods will be made with degradable packaging such as ‘hemp’ so those who are unable to make their own meals can still reduce their impact.

But until then, we have what we have. So to those of you who have been put off by the zero-waste lifestyle because you feel it comes from a place of privilege – you are probably right in some aspects. But I encourage you to consider all the positives this lifestyle brings to the planet, and possibly to your own life. As many people have said to me before – ‘Intention, not Perfection’ – and this rings true in everything you do.

To those who may have not considered their privilege in this movement – I implore you to discover new ways to make this lifestyle accessible to everyone. We will be stronger as a community if we work together to achieve common goals.

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10 thoughts on “Is ‘Zero Waste’ living a form of privilege?

  1. Yoonede says:

    Great post, and great discussion.

    I recognize that I am privileged along many dimensions, but I do struggle a lot with money and have been quite destitute at different points in my life (including periods of homelessness).

    While I love the zero waste movement, I have to say I feel a lot of inner resistance to what feels like an air of, well, unchecked privilege among many of the thought leaders in the movement. When people suggest only buying good quality goods so that they will last a lifetime, for example, I get this feeling of guilt and despair and a sort of anxious anger–because I just can’t afford top quality. Often the suggestion is to do without the item until you can afford quality, but this is rather ignorant. How long should I go without a bed, exactly? Or underwear?

    Another suggestion is often to make it yourself. I’m a resourceful person and love the idea of making what I need from scratch. But then when I look at the supplies list for these projects and see I have none of the tools, materials, or space required, I go back to that angry/discouraged/guilty place.

    I also feel anger bubbling up when people with money talk about thrift and second hand shopping like they invented it. I’ve been thrift shopping my whole life, and not because I got a conscience about my impact on the environment, but because it was my ONLY choice, and a struggle to afford even that. It’s the same anger I felt when I saw some teenagers “slummimg” at the goodwill to put together a prank outfit for a party. Oh, how they chuckled at the used underwear and the old lady sweaters. What a lark!

    Sorry to rant on your blog. I didn’t realize how much emotion I have about this topic!

    Anyway, in summary, I aspire to a minimalist, cruelty free and zero waste lifestyle, but I’m pretty darn broke, and I appreciate it when people recognize that that creates special challenges. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. youmeanme says:

    This! Everything you and Yoonede said hits home. I’ve found myself not fill many of the “leaders” because they seem out of touch with my reality in spite of my own privilege.

    Like

  3. mysmudge says:

    Wow thanks for this! It really resonates with me.. but on an other topic that you’ve mentioned: Veganism. I’ve been asked why I’m not vegan and the only thing that came in mind was that it was hard (financially, time consuming and that I knew very little about it). And after reading your blog I understand a little better the feeling of helplessness I have.

    I will definitely share your article !

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mira says:

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve been checking out the movement out of curiosity and right away encountered the discouraging attitude mentioned. The ableism is what gets me the worst. When you have restrictions on how much you can lift, so can’t carry glass containers that have anything in them, I’m not even mentioning bulk anything. Too heavy = days if not weeks of pain. Or sometimes have to make choices between bathing and making a meal because you have energy for just one of those, it becomes a bit too much.

    Interestingly I came from a culture and area of the world where we canned, pickled, etc. for the winter and saved ever jar for that. So I have the skills to do it, and when I have energy, I do. But it’s a big when. If my job takes most of my energy, it just can’t happen. I’m lucky that my husband is super supportive and helpful since some weeks after all I’m able to do is the essentials and then sleep. At that point, the really unhealthy packaged ramen looks real good, just because it’s food that can be eaten easily and quickly.

    Eating better won’t cure this fatigue, it’s genetic for me. Doing too much just makes things worse.

    When I do have the energy, I do canning, I make soup stock in bulk, and help in my mother’s garden. Then I share what I made with other family members. They return the jars to me for refills. When they can’t I do, when I can’t they do. Share as much as you can. That’s a better way to reduce waste positively.

    Liked by 1 person

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