The Zero Waste Movement and Environmental Justice
If you’re on social media, you might have heard the term zero waste or zero waste movement and thought – what the heck is zero waste? And you might be reading the title of this episode thinking how do zero waste and environmental justice fit into the same conversation? Find out in this episode, when we talk about zero waste, the 7 Rs of Sustainability, a circular economy, and environmental justice!
What is zero waste
Zero waste is exactly what it sounds like – creating zero waste. But there are a few different ways people look at it. The zero-waste movement as many people relate to it is living a lifestyle that aims to eliminate their trash output completely.
The rise to fame for this Zero Waste Movement happened when Bea Johnson started her blog Zero Waste Home – and touted her family of four only producing one glass jar full of trash every year since 2008. Yes – only a jar, and it’s not a big one either – like the size of a pickle jar!
This might sound outrageous to you, as it was to me when I first heard about it – but now there is a global community of people doing just that. So we know it is attainable and admirable, but we also know that trash isn’t the only signal of being truly environmentally friendly – although it’s a good indication that you’re likely doing other things to help the planet too.
And the zero waste movement that only focuses on individual effort is missing the point. There’s an entire supply chain that needs rewiring so that it is more equitable, accessible, and sustainable for all humans, not just the ones that have the privilege. We’ll get deeper into that but first, let’s look at how many now define zero waste.
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The Zero Waste International Alliance defines Zero Waste as,
“The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.”
That’s a little less cut and dry than just making your trash fit in a jar. So let’s break it down.
The 7 R’s of Sustainability
At a personal level – being responsible for zero waste consumption and reuse means taking a look at the reduce, reuse, recycle cycle of sustainability. Some lists only have these 3, some have 5, some have 7 – but I like to take the longer route and lean towards 7 because I know personally if I don’t have more steps I’m lost in the sauce. Like you know how you get a set of instructions on how to put something together and it’s like step 1 – here’s your materials and tools, step 2 – put them together, step 3 – you’re done and you’re left wondering 3 hours later what the heck you’re supposed to do? Yeah I know I’m not the only one that’s been there.
So the 7 R’s of sustainability starts with rethinking and ends with recycling.
Do you really need it? Can you think of something that would last longer? Essentially just being mindful about your consumption habits.
Refuse to buy or accept a product if you don’t need it or involve single-use plastics, or refusing to support companies that are harmful to the planet or yourself or others.
Reduce the amount of waste you have and the amount of resources you use. The idea here is that if you consume less you waste less. So this applies to food, energy, water, and more.
Reuse what you have (or you could also fit in here – repair or repurpose). These two are pretty self-explanatory – and are absolutely the reason why I think I need every glass jar or good box that I encounter. Reusing is about reducing the need to buy something new when you have something that could work just as well (or better!) For people who don’t have the privilege to refuse – this is an awesome step to make the most of what you have.
Rotting actually means composting (or turning your food waste into nutrient-rich soil amendment). I am amazed by Compost – as my house of two composted into a small two-bin system for 9 months before having to dump it – saving an ENORMOUS amount of waste from going to the landfill. Check out how to compost at home here!
Recycling is admirable – and recycling absolutely keeps plastics and other items like paper and glass out of a landfill. But it comes last on this list because recycling is far from perfect. Paper and cardboard have high rates of recycling in relation to generation, but plastics and glass aren’t as efficient. There are millions of tons of plastic and glass recycled each year, but that only makes up for 9% and 25% of the total generation of those items, respectively.
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So we’ve only addressed a few things in our power on that list – consumption, and reuse while keeping discharges to the planet at a minimum by keeping things out of a landfill by our conscious effort to the 7 Rs of sustainability.
But we haven’t gotten to the root of this issue – the linear cycle of ‘take – make – waste.’ This means that in the economy we are in now, virgin resources are taken from the earth, then manufactured into products that are used until they are eventually discarded as waste. And in that cycle of ‘take-make-waste’ we are creating obvious waste that we don’t have a good way to handle, polluting the earth, contributing to climate change, and harming our health and the environment.
Which begs the question – what if waste and pollution were never created in the first place? That’s where a circular economy and a more holistic look at zero waste come in.
Linear Economy versus Circular Economy
A circular economy is the idea that through regenerative design we can gradually decouple economic growth from finite natural resources and encourage innovation, increase growth, and create more robust employment. Improving not only our economic impact but our ecological and social impact as well.
In our linear economy right now we create value by producing and selling as much as possible. You probably know this to be true by all of the ads you get served for the latest and greatest piece of junk that is bound for a landfill at conception. We’re called a throwaway society for a reason.
But in a circular economy, value comes from protecting the products and resources we have now long-term.
So in the linear economy, we are users of products, in the circular economy, we are consumers of products.
A circular economy has the goal of taking extraction of natural resources and landfills and incinerators out of the picture and using the 7 R’s we just talked and starting to hold responsibility for seeing them through at the top level of production and design, to political responsibility, all the way down to the community and individual level of responsibility.
Benefits of a Circular Economy
In theory, when this happens from the top down, it means that the people whose health and wellbeing are directly affected by pollution caused by our current linear economy have an improved means of living. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation outlines the benefits of individuals and companies alike if we make the shift to a circular economy.
For individuals, they say that shifting to a circular food system could lower the healthcare costs associated with pesticide use by 550 billion USD globally. There would be a significant reduction in air pollution, water contamination, and foodborne disease – improving the health of humans who are at risk.
It is also shown that it would increase the amount of disposable income in families because the cost of products and services would be reduced. There would be more skilled jobs created in the effort to remanufacture, recycle, and sell these circular products than the production of new products. And the innovation, new business opportunities, cost savings, and reduced volatility that companies would see in this circular economy would be immense.
The Real Zero Waste Agenda
So making your trash fit in a glass jar should only be the tip of the iceberg for a full-on systemic change. By using our power and influence to push the real agenda of zero waste, which is to equitably protect human and environmental health – we can call for transformation upstream as well as make the zero waste movement more accessible to all.
We should be using our individual effort for collective change. Our choices direct industry through conscious consumerism or using our buying power to support companies and products that have a positive social, environmental, and economic impact.
When we expand our definition of what zero waste actually means – the environmental justice piece is pretty prominent (if you’re doing it right.)
Inclusions.org notes that, “the zero waste concept is about using shared resources fairly, respecting others and taking personal responsibility for any waste that we generate –as individuals and as a community.”
It’s about caring for humans more than things.
Where the circular economy falls short
This is where the theory of the circular economy model falls short. The value in a circular economy comes from protecting products and resources – not people. It’s more about the benefit to the economy with a secondary focus on the benefits to the planet and people.
This structure should positively benefit society and the planet – but the social element needs to be addressed as a pillar of the circular economy model – which is where real sustainable change needs to happen.
In fact, any environmental work can’t truly be whole without the work on environmental justice.
Climate activist and founder of Intersectional Environmentalist Leah Thomas defines Intersectional environmentalism as:
“An inclusive form of environmentalism advocating for the protection of all people + the planet. Derived from the work of the Combahee River Collective + later, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectional environmentalism identifies the ways in which injustices targeting frontline communities + the earth are intertwined. Conversations within environmental spaces cannot minimize or ignore the injustices targeting vulnerable communities + natural ecosystems, but rather denote the ways social inequalities influence our perception of environmentalism, regardless of how subtle or obvious. In this way, intersectional environmentalism calls for justice for people + the planet.”
I ask that you please visit the link here to find out more about amazing work being done at Intersectional Environmentalist and support IE through the resources listed on their site.
Inequality and our Environment
It’s easy to draw a connection between how changes in our climate and extreme weather events affect inequality through elevated exposure and vulnerability of low-income, poor, and the elderly. Take the example of Hurricane Katrina, where minority communities were most affected because of their location, lack of access to transport to evacuate, lack of insurance, and limited resources to rebuild and recover to name a few. Which lead to negative ecological changes such as invasive species and disease development, contributing to a feedback loop of more inequality.
But in addition to this biosphere to inequality relationship – there is also a connection between social inequality affecting our biosphere that I’ll outline from a report published in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources. It says that there are four pathways where inequality has an effect on the environment through human actions – shaped by:
- “Our perception of inequality and beliefs about what is just and fair that can be a significant driver of behaviors toward the biosphere”
- Aspirations for higher socioeconomic status
- Willingness to collaborate and cooperate in a sustainable society
- Market concentration
The environment and inequality operate in a loop.
We must demand a more complete vision of a circular economy that addresses the issues brought forth in environmental justice work and brings ALL people to the table for meaningful conversation, as well as a more accessible version of zero waste and sustainability. Climate justice cannot happen without racial justice.
How can we fully heal our climate without standing at the frontlines with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color who are literally fighting for their lives – whether it’s breathing in toxic air or being at the receiving end of police brutality?
In order to make sustainable, long-term changes to repair our environment everyone needs to be on board with addressing the social and economic inequalities at play along with the environmental ones.
Something to grow on
In this week’s segment of Something to Grow on, I want to take a pledge. A pledge to put people at the forefront of our climate conversations. To make it a priority to welcome and amplify the voice of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color to this sustainability space. And make sure that our climate action always involves racial justice action.
There’s a lot of work to be done, and I can’t promise I’ll be perfect. But I do promise to listen use my privilege to serve the Hometown: Earth neighborhood as best of my ability.
This is not the end of our environmental justice work, but a beginning.