The most recent green bandwagon is “zero waste”.
Zero waste is generally understood to mean moving towards generating nothing that gets disposed of in the general rubbish. People are meant to reuse what they have, compost, recycle, not use plastic bags and so forth. This is all admirable and necessary and if, like me, you grew up in the 70s and 80s, you have been living your life like this since then (hey, remember the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle”?). But, very little has changed since those decades. Sure, there are more recycling facilities and recycled products, but we have not reduced the quantities of waste we generate, quite the contrary. In this piece, I assume the reader is vegan or already understands that any discussion about waste reduction or environment must acknowledge that animal agriculture and its concomitant waste has a devastating effect upon humans and the environment. Many pieces have been written about that man made catastrophe and this is not one of them.
I am glad that people are thinking about the impact of their behaviour on the world and I want to take it further. What should we be thinking about when we talk “zero waste”? The purpose of this piece is to encourage us to think critically about what we do, to make choices with eyes – and minds – wide open and most importantly to drive home that the best choice is almost always to reduce consumption.
The first thing that we need to understand is that even if an item is compostable, once it gets into a rubbish landfill, it will not degrade (actually, it will, but at a very slow pace). Rubbish landfills are sealed containers. They are lined with plastic and when they are full, they are lined once again with plastic and clay. The rubbish in landfills breaks down very slowly and does so anaerobically – meaning, without oxygen. The two main by-products of landfills are leachate and methane. Leachate is a contaminated liquid that generally (in modern landfills) gets filtered, collected and then disposed of or released into groundwater. Methane is the gas that comes from the anaerobic breakdown of things in the landfill. Methane is either released into the air or it is sold as energy. Methane is a huge contributor to greenhouse gases.
What’s my point with this bit about landfills? It is simply this: next time we are out and a business has recycle bins or is touting how they use only compostable disposable packaging, cutlery or containers, if that business does not have access to or does not or cannot actually compost or recycle those items, all that “compostable/recyclable” rubbish will end up in a landfill, making that packaging only something that makes us, the consumers, feel warm and fuzzy, but that ultimately does absolutely nothing but add to the growing mountains of rubbish.
Why might a business not actually compost/recycle? Because of a variety of reasons such as the council/city/town might not provide compost/recycling pickup, or the cost of such pickups is so great that the business would have to raise its prices, which consumers might be unwilling to pay, or the council/city/town would have to raise taxes or fees and, again, generally people are unwilling to pay higher taxes/fees.
What might we do about this? Talk! Ask the business or organisation what they do with their waste and why. Then contact local authorities and ask them the same questions. If the answers are not satisfactory and we feel compelled to get involved, then go for it. Change happens when we want it to.
The second thing to consider is that we only see a very small detail of the big picture when it comes to waste. We see plastic, for example, and think “bad!” and we see glass and think “good!” But are they? I do not believe that we can say either of those things. Let’s imagine two parcels of bottled kombucha, beer or whatever. One will be in glass and the other in plastic. The glass parcel will be heavier than the plastic and costs more to move it from point A to B in terms of the relative amount of resources (money, time, oil/gas, people etc) than the plastic parcel. But that’s just the start of the analysis. What about the costs of prime materials to make glass and plastic? Many glass manufacturers use recycled glass because it is much less expensive. But what are the costs – both financial and environmental – of that recycling? Are they more or less than the costs associated with plastic recycling? What about availability? Do we penalise places where there is no availability? If so, on what grounds and is it fair? And what about the waste that recycling itself creates?
We need to apply a similar thought process to the idea that buying/producing local automatically means better for the environment. Unfortunately, it simply does not.
Once again, we need to zoom out of our immediate selves and think globally. Sometimes producing and shipping items from one place to another costs less than does producing and shipping locally in terms of raw and other materials and overall environmental and even human impact. I like consuming locally produced items, but my preference isn’t based on it being “better” for the environment, but on other reasons, such as supporting the local economy (with full knowledge that I am not supporting another, equally deserving economy). Is that better? If so, how?
All these questions require data that we simply do not have at our fingertips. Sure, we can do research and come up with computer models, but those will change from place to place, when the impact is very much global. Does this mean I am advocating using plastic instead of glass? Consuming imports instead of local? Not at all. I still prefer glass and local. But I am conscious that my choice may be arbitrary and that it does not confer upon me a greener stamp of approval than anything else.
The third and most important aspect of all is consumption. We live in a capitalist world. Everything is measured in economic terms that are underpinned by consumption. Without consumption, capitalism collapses.
OK, thanks Emi, but how does this fit into zero waste? Let’s take straws for example. Those of us who are conventionally abled and healthy do not need them. We have hands, mouths and can lift a container to our lips, pucker up and suck. We do not need straws of any kind, whether plastic (certainly), bamboo, glass, steel or paper.
Remember that all those “green” straws must be manufactured and then shipped. All these processes generate waste; therefore, even if we buy non-plastic straws, we are generating waste (and refer back to stuff ending up in landfills… rinse… repeat). However, we are now being marketed these “green” straws and we are buying them to be part of zero waste and feel good about our consumer choices.
And let’s not even begin the conversation about the ubiquitous cotton shopping bags. How many of those do we need? Does every business really need them? After all, they are marketing tools. I am not saying that we should not use these bags. I have several at home and in my bag and I use them daily. But are they more or less harmful than plastic? And how do we even begin to measure that harm?
I have raised more questions than I have answered, which was my goal. My hope is that these questions will lead us to think critically and learn more about these issues. My hope is also that we recognise that all our choices have consequences and that we should continue to make “better” individual choices wherever possible because that matters a great deal even if they are imperfect. As consumers we have a vast amount of power to effect change and the greatest power of all is to abstain from consumption altogether. If we want to lead a greener or more zero waste life and lessen our impact upon the world, then we need to consume less. And that is no small feat.
Going vegan must be at the heart of any environmental discussion. And going vegan is easy than ever. This website can help you get started.
I really enjoyed reading all of the topics and questions you brought up. I think more people should be aware of landfills and what actually happens when trash gets picked up.
Thanks so much for reading and commenting mayari. Yes, it’s important to know and ask questions about what happens to our trash! It doesn’t simply vanish.