A lot of very smart, very influential people have talked before about trash. By now we all know that as a society we fill up landfills way too fast, and that they are filling up with all this single use plastic.
But is that all there is to it? Once upon a time the solution was recycling. Whatever happened to that? What is this Zero-waste stuff all about? Will it save the world?
Well, I guess, because it’s me, we will start with history. Humans have always made trash. Heck, every living thing makes waste of some kind of another. But, each waste product they make is of use for some other organism. For eons, humans fit into this system. Human garbage was still natural materials and still could be broken down. Until, that is, humans started to create new molecules that nature has no use for.
It only made sense for humans to figure out a way to reuse these new materials. So, yay recycling! But humans are really not very good at it. Some materials, like metal, and glass, can be recycled many times over, but our favorite, plastic, cannot. Each time it is recycled, it loses longevity. It degrades to the point where it is pointless, although it is still poisonous to the natural world.
So why did we settle on plastic instead of these other materials? Because it made more money for the people extracting the raw materials from the earth.
But even when the slogan, ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ was coined, they knew recycle was not the best option. There is a reason those words are in that order. Reducing how much you use is the first priority. And of what you cannot avoid using, reuse as much as you can. What cannot be reused, should be recycled. But that neat little system failed us.
Capitalism has several gifts to give us that have had grave consequences. One of the most obvious is single use plastic. Not just in to go containers, or necessary sanitary packages for food, but massive amounts of extra packaging for every item. The other is planned obsolescence. Every product seems to have a weak link. Something that turns this otherwise long-lived thing into trash. From kids toys that break easily, and the cheap plastic parts that hold together solar lights, to the choice to use gasoline engines instead of electric, everything seems to have an expiration date.
And very little of this can be recycled. Even when certain parts can be recycled, they are so intertwined with non-recyclable pieces, that it is impossible to separate them. Even when a person goes through the effort to recycle, the recycling system, as it has worked up until recently, is incredibly wasteful. The material that just got brought over the sea as products or packaging, gets sent back over the sea for recycling, using massive amounts of fossil fuels for each stretch of the journey. Today, most recyclables are just sent to the landfill too, because it is no longer profitable to recycle. Capitalism has determined that it is not worth it.
Reusing is not easy either. Most of what ends up getting thrown away does so because it is not able to be reused. Some things can: soup cans, egg cartons, cardboard boxes for instance. But so many other really can’t. Think about that vacuum formed plastic packaging, or those old Christmas lights, or torn up plastic grocery bags.
It is even terribly challenging to reduce. All this packaging is nearly impossible to avoid. If you have seen these supposedly ‘inspiring’ people who can fit all of their trash for years into a small container, it is not quite what it is cracked up to be. First off, they do not count anything they were able to recycle, which, is basically trash these days.
Secondly, it does not count the garbage they didn’t see. What does that mean? These people say that you should buy bulk, which, even with what I am about to say is still the better option. Even bulk is not without waste. That food was in a package to get it to the store. I would guess a big plastic bag.
And third, the things they recommend are not possible everywhere. I am so glad that they are available in some places, but where I live, there really aren’t those options. I looked it up. There are a couple places in the area that do bulk food. And upon investigation they only do candy, nuts and dried fruits.
On that note, let’s talk about these zero-waste companies that are starting to pop up. I want to start off by saying that I am so glad they are doing this, it needs to be done. I am not trying to say not to participate in these things.
But there are weaknesses that mean they are not the solution. Yet. First off, they are few and far between. It might seem like a weird point, since we have the internet, and they are therefore available almost anywhere. But, waste doesn’t only come in the form of garbage. If things have to be shipped, there will be fuels used. On the plus side, if they are shipping dehydrated soaps instead of premixed things including the water, that is a whole lot less space used, and less fuel. The normal kind gets shipped all over the place anyway.
Another problem is that when you start with a company, they often require that you buy their soap bottles or whatever. I have always bought soap refills and reused the same pumps. So why do I need to buy those specific pumps? And what happens if I want to shop around? I have to commit to a company before I know if I like their soap, which has to far stopped me from taking the leap at all.
And, there is another issue. Opportunity. Only under capitalism do you have to be privileged to buy less stuff. These zero waste companies are not cheap. I totally get not wanting to be seen as the cheap option. No one wants to do something the cheap way if they have a choice. That has been the fate of the city bus. It is motivating to have something be a status symbol. But, this needs to move into the affordable section before it is going to be able to make any real difference. As long as sustainability is a status symbol for individuals, sustainability at the societal level will not happen. This needs to be as easy and cheap to access as the alternative before people who don’t have extra time or money can and will participate. Let’s face it. There are a lot of people in this category.
Most people want to do the right thing. But, for most people, the right thing is unattainable. If most people aren’t doing a thing, it isn’t working for the world. It just makes the people who can participate feel self righteous.
One way to avoid a lot of these transportation and packaging issues is to shop locally. Buy locally grown food, handmade toys at local artist markets, and locally made soaps. And it cuts out the big corporations to boot. Yay! But, it’s still not accessable to everyone. Strolling through a farmers market isn’t something that you can do if you have work while it is open, or if the vendors can’t take food stamps. Not to mention, handmade things are more expensive.
Ok. So that was a downer. Recycling is a lie, reusing is impossible, and reducing is elitist. What are we supposed to do??? Well, you may have noticed a running theme through all of this. I have frequently mentioned that capitalism has gotten us into this situation. It is not going to get us out of it.
If we were able to do the right thing without having to worry about not having enough to eat and pay bills, we could do the right thing. If organizations were not obligated to make as much money as possible, they could also do the right thing. But as long as money makes the world goes round, our motivations are at odds with one another. We need a system that can align our long term and short term goals, and our communal and individual goals.
That’s not to say that we can’t do anything now. Right now, we can work together to provide the things we all need to one another. There are lots of zero waste recipes online, and I would love to try them out, but I sure don’t have the time.
As I am writing this, it occurs to me that it would be amazing to start a zero waste club. A single family could not make everything they need in a month, but if everyone works together, it ends up as less work for everyone. Each member in the group takes turns making a huge batch of something. So say one month, someone makes all purpose soap, someone else cans extra veggies for the winter, another person makes reusable pads, etc The next month there is a different group of tasks, and they are assigned to a different group of people. The bigger your group gets, the less often each person will have a task, and the more people are helped! Ok, so there are probably problems with this idea, like I said, it just came to my head and hasn’t had a good think through yet. But it’s worth tossing around the ol’ cranium.
As you can see, we as humans have created a massive problem. But in order to solve it we are going to have to really change our thought process. We need to change the system and the incentives, in order to really fix the problem, but there are things we can do right now to address it.