Imperfections of the Zero Waste Movement

The zero waste movement encourages consumers to reduce their trash production and urges a shift to a circular way of using resources. Emphasis is placed on items lifecycles including production and end of life. In the 2010s, images of sea life dying from plastics in the ocean and the statistic that the average american produces 4.9 pounds of trash a day brought the movement into social media users’ and the public’s consciousness. While still recognizing the obvious benefits of the movement, we must examine its faults. 

This movement placed the responsibility solely on the individual. While individuals stressed about buying a coffee in a plastic cup, the companies producing them continued to flourish. The movement almost served as a distraction from larger issues of environmental injustice and lack of political action by those in power. 

The movement exists in a space of privilege. Those with money and time are able to participate in the movement and contribute to a certain aesthetic of mason jars, metal straws and tote bags. Sustainable alternatives to wasteful items along with resources such as bulk stores and farmers markets are not available to everyone based on income and location. We must understand reducing waste and consumption can look differently for everyone while still sparing negative environmental effects. 

The zero waste trend led to the commodification of environmental awareness. The goal of the movement was to consume less and subsequently produce less waste. Companies seized the opportunity to mass produce reusable straws, bags, utensils, containers, or products of “sustainable” origins. However, sometimes the most low impact thing to do is to use what you already have. For financially able people, buying and implementing these items is easy but mindful consumption may be hard. Your environmental awareness should not end with ditching plastic wrap and buying a few reusable containers. We must also challenge our other, potentially more harmful habits and ignorances. This looks different for everyone based on their situation but can start with education. 

Further the movement led to a culture of shaming, particularly on social media. People were called out for using single use items or appearing wasteful. This rhetoric is unproductive and inhibits an inclusive movement. This superiority complex is echoed throughout the environmental awareness movement and must stop. 

Despite the unintended consequences, the movement’s goal of reducing human impact is positive. Environmental awareness from the movement is responsible for some positive changes, such as the plastic bag ban in New York State. Unfortunately, the pollution and environmental issues we face can not be solved alone by individuals reducing their trash production. We need more institutional changes, education and innovations that alter the way we live and consume for a better future.

Alyssa Swett is a freshman at Stony Brook University majoring in Sustainability Studies. She is passionate about sustainable agriculture and environmental justice. She is happy to be an Ashley Schiff Preserve volunteer and contribute to the solution of our environmental issues

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