Climate change affects everyone, but not to the same extent nor in the same way. We are presented with plenty of environmentally-conscious lifestyle changes to make that are framed as being feasible alternatives for everyone, like biking instead of driving, buying second-hand clothing instead of fast fashion and cutting out single-use plastics.
However, not everyone has the same accessibility to sustainable choices, and especially not to drastic lifestyle changes.
The zero waste movement does more than just eliminate using plastic straws. Zero wasters eliminate nearly the entirety of their trash, focusing on reusing as much as possible.
A zero waste lifestyle is often characterized online by DIY projects making plastic-free cleaning supplies, lining pantry shelves with mason jars and carrying reusable utensils everywhere.
These efforts are in response to staggering amounts of waste generated each year (formally referred to as municipal solid waste, MSW). The EPA reported in 2018 that the US generated 292.4 million tons of MSW, which is equivalent to 4.9 pounds per person per day. 146.1 million tons of MSW was sent to the landfill that same year. While approximately 94 million tons of the MSW were recycled or composted, recycling programs in the US have faced challenges in recent years.
Cross contamination of dirty items placed with recyclables and a lack of effective federal recycling infrastructure in the US have both resulted in only a portion of what consumers intend to recycle actually being recycled.
By living a lifestyle in which everything is reused and repurposed, zero wasters are cutting out landfills and recycling plants from their daily routine. However, being zero waste may require access to a grocery store where food can be purchased in bulk or without plastic wrapping.
It can require time to cook certain foods from scratch and forgo conveniences such as pre-packaged meals, plastic bottles and paper towels — small sacrifices for some, but essentials for others.
Disability activists have pointed out that people with disabilities often rely on disposable products such as plastic straws to safely drink. Other alternatives like paper straws fall apart too quickly and silicone straws might not be flexible enough for people with limited mobility.
As Lei Wiley-Mydske, an autism activist who was diagnosed with autism in her thirties, explains, a plastic straw ban places a new burden on people with disabilities to come up with a new solution themselves, not on companies.
Additionally, people with disabilities are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis and extreme weather events. During Australian bushfires in 1994, people with disabilities were evacuated without essential equipment like wheelchairs and ventilators. Other factors such as inaccessibility of disaster-preparedness resources and planning without including people with disabilities are some of many contributing to higher death rates for people with disabilities during disasters.
I question why the zero waste movement doesn’t more frequently acknowledge people who cut out nearly all their waste from their lifestyle, or as much waste as they possibly can, given where they are living, what resources they have access to and how feasible some of these “quick changes” can be implemented. The perfectionism needed to live a truly zero waste lifestyle can be discouraging to start making substitutes and changes.
Remember that while eco-friendly substitutes in your life may be easy to implement, they might be challenging (or even life threatening) to others.
What frustrates me even more than how the zero waste movement is framed is how individual responsibility in addressing climate change is emphasized more than the responsibility of corporations and governments. Individual choices in our day-to-day life do make an impact on the climate, but such a small one when compared to the damage larger corporations have had.
Guilting or shaming people for their “inadequate” sustainability efforts turns the attention away from those who cause the most environmental damage and results in a non-inclusive and in turn, less effective, movement.
A 2017 report by CDP found 100 fossil fuel producers account for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Companies use greenwashing to market their unsustainable products as environmentally-friendly and when making efforts to reduce emissions, often do not account for emissions that occur from the product during and after it is used, only while it is being made.
Individuals can have a large impact on corporate decisions related to climate change by using their power as consumers. A Harvard Business Review survey found that while 65% of people want to choose greener options when shopping for products, only 26% follow through on this.
However, if greener options remain more expensive and not widely available (a result of environmental classism and racism which manifest itself in ways such as food deserts), pressuring corporations to produce more products in a sustainable manner, as well as products that can be used and disposed with minimal environmental impact, must remain central to the sustainability movement.
Additionally, without including BIPOC experiences in the sustainability movement, corporations who contribute to environmental racism will not be held accountable. Black people are more likely to be exposed to air pollution from many industries including construction, power plants and transportation, whereas white people are exposed to below average concentrations of particulate matter air pollution. More than half of people living within 1.86 miles to hazardous waste are people of color. The CDC found in a study that while 2.3% of white children are exposed to lead poisoning, 11.2% of Black children are.
Individuals can apply more pressure to corporations and governments to change their policies to reflect the values they claim to have. Governments often present mixed messages about climate change as Ian Christie explains in the Green Alliance’s 2010 publication “From Hot Air to Happy Endings.” Christie points out that although climate change is one of the most threatening issues to humanity, the time and geographical gap between individuals’ actions and their effects are large. Politicians often describe the climate crisis as a catastrophe that must be addressed, but present solutions to this is in a politically favorable light, such as the promise new technologies invented in the future will mean fewer lifestyle sacrifices.
I don’t have solutions to these complex issues, but if there isn’t more awareness of how the sustainability movement is failing certain groups of people by not providing feasible and accessible solutions, then the sustainability movement will fail at its central goal. Placing less blame on individuals for their choices and maintaining focus on larger corporations’ and governments’ policies is a good starting place.