Don’t Let Consumerism Co-opt the Zero-Waste Concept
The movement began as anti-consumerist. Yet now there are marketing ploys, feelings of inadequacy, and misplaced responsibility.
Last year I tried out Loop, the zero-waste pilot project put together by consumer product conglomerates. It functions sort of like a cross between Amazon and the milkman, delivering food and personal care products in reusable containers that you send back when you’re done.
I received a large cooler filled with Lysol disinfectant wipes, Hidden Valley ranch dressing, and Tide laundry detergent, all in minimalist aluminum containers. Ignoring the fact that I never buy any of those products, I diligently used them all up, saving, cleaning, and storing the empty containers for three months.
I then placed the cooler downstairs in the lobby of my building for pickup. A couple hours later, the UPS guy buzzed to ask where it was. When I later found out a family in my building had taken it, thinking it was a giveaway, I was struck by how silly this whole corporate-led zero-waste initiative really was. It’s a rich-person solution to a problem that overwhelmingly has the greatest impact on low-income communities.
Loop taps into the trendy and aspirational zero waste movement, in which consumers obsessively catalog their household’s output and try to get it down to the volume of a mason jar. Vowing to minimize one’s consumption and waste is a natural reaction to seeing viral photos of sea turtles strangled by beverage rings and a seahorse wrapped around a Q-tip. Well, it’s a natural reaction if you feel like the only power you have is over your family’s grocery shopping list—because you’ve been systematically blocked from decision-making positions in government or consumer product corporations.
The work of pursuing a zero-waste lifestyle is almost always carried by women. And when I say “carried” I mean that metaphorically and literally, as we tote around reusable bags, straws, utensils, and napkins, plus the mental load of finding alternatives to convenient, single-use everything. We then demand emotional labor from service workers, who are tasked with explaining to eco-warriors why corporate policies and government health codes—largely made by men—prohibit them from refilling a personal water bottle.
Still, it feels morally wrong not to try in the face of our wanton wastefulness. An appalling 91% of plastic waste globally isn’t recycled, and one study estimates we will have more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. The United States deserves a large share of the blame, generating the largest amount of plastic waste of any country in the world according to one recent analysis: almost 6 pounds of plastic waste per person per day. Of course, this calculation implies that it’s the individual at fault, when really, the system pushes us into complicity. Much of that plastic waste happens behind the scenes in the industrial supply chain, long before a product reaches us.
Because there is a fairly high-functioning waste infrastructure in the U.S.—despite the fact that much of that waste is exported—we rarely have to confront the impacts of our consumption. In 2018, I visited one of 365 idyllic islands of white sand off of Panama that are home to the Indigenous Guna people. The side of the island with the hostel was almost pristine, but one morning I set off down the beach picking up little bits of litter and putting them in my reusable bag, feeling quite good about myself. When I rounded the end to the other side of the island, where the villagers lived, I was confronted with a dump truck’s worth of plastic trash piling up on the sand. More plastic bags and jugs were floating in on the waves, like product zombies. Ten feet away, an elderly woman dressed in a hand-embroidered mola blouse and sarong sat in the door of a thatch-roof home, regarding me impassively. I wanted to tell her I was sorry, lo siento, but in that moment, everything—my poor Spanish, my little beach clean-up, my zero-waste travel kit—struck me as inadequate and embarrassing.
Pick through beach waste anywhere in the world, and you’ll notice that the labels are from Western multinationals. Now that wealthy American consumers have started to turn up their noses at soda and chips, these corporations have been aggressively marketing their toxic products to Indigenous populations. Nestlé, notably, has been employing door-to-door saleswomen in Brazil to hook people on packaged products. In a diabolical closed loop of harm, production of single-use packaging primarily pollutes Indigenous communities and communities of color, whether it’s deforestation for paper packaging, oil extraction and fracking for the chemical components of plastic, or dumping plastic nurdles (pellets used to produce everything from water and shampoo bottles to polyester) into waterways.
The global petrochemical industry is in on this too, having invested about $200 billion since 2010 to build out plastic production, making plastic bags and disposable containers ever cheaper, with another $400 billion in investment coming down the pipeline. Plastic production will grow an estimated 40% by 2030.
I live in a low-income co-op in Brooklyn. Our wonderful superintendent spends hours re-sorting our recycling every week, lest the building get fined by the city. Take Tetra Pak cartons for example. Technically New York City accepts them, but because the material involves multiple layers of adhered plastic and paper, the cartons are probably driven for hours to a facility that can handle them, negating much of the environmental benefit of recycling. While Tetra Pak says 70 million U.S. households (out of 122 million) are in municipalities that take them for recycling, it’s on consumers to look up whether theirs is one of them. And then do the same for dozens of other products.
Packaging—and recycling it—has gotten so complex and dirty that China now refuses to accept our waste. The value of recycled materials has plummeted at the same time that the proportion of packaging that is recyclable has eroded. Almost every municipality, from small towns to big cities, that used to recycle for free or even earned a little revenue from selling its cardboard and cans to recyclers now has to pay to get rid of them. New York now spends more on recycling than garbage collection. Philadelphia has to pay $40 per ton to have its recycling taken to the landfill, so the city has resorted to incinerating some of it, which, not incidentally, pours more air pollution into low-income neighborhoods.
How did we get here, where consumers are responsible for the labor—and taxpayers are responsible for the cost—of responsible waste disposal, when it’s corporations who reap the profits of single-use packaging?
Well, it all started in the 1970s, when packaging and beverage companies formed what we would now call an astroturf organization: Keep America Beautiful. They hired an Italian-American actor to play a Native American crying about motorists littering. The commercial was a hit, and, by appropriating the image of Indigenous connection to nature, convinced us that the solution to the plastics problem was to hunt down and levy fines on individuals who threw bottles out their car windows.
We fell for it. I remember my mother, a huge Coca-Cola drinker and liberal Newsweek reader, muttering under her breath about the kind of people who littered as we walked down the road bordering our property, picking up empty bottles. It never occurred to her to take it up with her favorite beverage brand.
Toward Meaningful Change
This tactic continues today. America Recycles Day, which takes place every November and aims to educate consumers about the importance of recycling, was created by Keep America Beautiful to forestall expansion of state bottle deposit legislation. A report by the Changing Markets Foundation released in 2020 pointed out that the world’s largest packaging companies are happy to join voluntary initiatives like the 2016 New Plastics Economy, which acknowledge the waste problem and promise to fix it. But these companies also pay into trade associations and lobbying groups that work to undermine any meaningful legislation.
Bottle deposit legislation is one effective and equitable solution to waste. States that have deposit laws see double the recycling rates of states that don’t: Oregon hit a 90% recycling rate for containers with deposits in 2019. Deposit laws can also transfer money from corporations, to whom five cents means nothing, to underemployed people who can use the income.
The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which would institute a federal packaging deposit system and ban certain single-use products, was recently reintroduced by lawmakers. And several cities and states are now considering plans to tax corporations (rather than consumers) based on the amount of unrecyclable packaging they produce, in what is called Extended Producer Responsibility. The hope is that this will encourage the design of simple, recyclable packaging, and free up taxpayer money for more worthy public services, like health care and education.
But taking financial responsibility for their waste is exactly what these consumer goods companies don’t want to do. Hence Loop, a needlessly complicated marketing ploy created for the kind of people who already have curbside recycling, plus doormen and the headspace and finances to avoid sending something to the landfill.
The truth is, the zero waste movement started out as anti-consumerist. For a short, hopeful period at the beginning of the 2010s, its adherents shopped at the farmers market instead of mega grocery chains, reused homemade beeswax wraps instead of plastic wrap, and DIYed their personal care products. But it quickly morphed into an Instagrammable hobby for upper-middle-class women, and thus a market ripe for profit. We’re at the point where the executives at multinationals are trying to co-opt the movement’s message to sell even more stuff.
We can’t fall for this again. We can’t buy our way out of this problem. And real systemic change is not going to come from individual consumer choices. It will come from interrupting the beginning of the pipeline, where fracking projects make virgin plastic cheap and ubiquitous, and where it is intertwined with the effects of climate change and air pollution on vulnerable communities of color.
Our power doesn’t lie in saying no to plastic straws. It lies in the incremental but crucial work of building better infrastructure and regulating the systems flooding the market with plastic. Until we have the courage and clarity to do that, we’ll continue to play the packaging industry’s game: deflect the blame, and dump it—the blame and the waste—on the communities who are already shouldering far too much of our shit.