Zero Waste

To Have and to Hold

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Grocery run — don’t forget the reusable bags!

Checking out, we load these conscientious sacks with:

  • produce pre-packaged in plastic bags
  • produce wrapped in clingfilm
  • produce pre-packaged in plastic containers and wrapped in clingfilm
  • loose produce, hand-picked and collected into tear-away plastic bags, convenient and free

Also on the list:

  • laundry soap (plastic container HDPE 2)
  • dish washing liquid (plastic container HDPE 2)
  • body soap (plastic container PETE 1)
  • shampoo (plastic container PETE 1)
  • chapstick (plastic container PP 5)
  • yogurt (plastic container PP 5)
  • milk (plastic container HDPE 2)
  • hummus (plastic container PETE 1)
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The contradiction of a bag ban amidst a tyranny of plastic packaging cannot be reconciled. The matter is not discrete waste but systemic mass disposability. We have more to do than cherry pick plastic bags from our heaving petrochemical swill.

“We have more to do than cherry pick plastic bags from our heaving petrochemical swill.”

Recycling Fallacies

“Please Recycle” the label reads — and we do, rinsing the container and separating it out from regular trash, to be collected by our municipal or private garbage collector.

While our properly disposed-of container can be recycled, there’s no guarantee that it will be. In fact, 91% of plastic waste isn’t recycled.

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For decades, the world’s advanced economies have met landfill reduction goals by outsourcing waste to China. Swollen with imports, Chinese domestic waste streams into the ocean, repatriating on home and washing up on near and distant shores when not first consumed by marine life, snagged and smothering coral reefs, or snared by ocean gyres into the continent-scale plastics bouillabaisse coagulating in the Pacific.

There are at least 40,000 different types of plastic, and multiplying, which complicates the sorting necessary to distinct recyclable streams. 

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Recycling itself is far from environmentally benign:

  • First, the plastics have to be separated by type.
  • Next, they must be washed — only clean plastic is recyclable.
  • Sorted and cleaned, they are dipped in chemicals to remove labels.
  • Then they are chopped up and floated in tubs to separate the different plastics (i.e., cap plastic from container plastic).
  • These bits are melted down and extruded as plastic pellets, creating feedstock for a next, downcycled plastic iteration.
  • Plastic can only be recycled 2 to 3 times, after which it is “dead-end” waste.
  • Melting and extruding requires energy and releases toxic chemicals into the air and as wastewater, posing environmental risks if not properly managed.

Direct greenhouse gases from the petrochemical sector, the largest industrial energy user, are expected to rise by 20% by 2030 and 30% by 2050. Plastic is a key driver. Since 2000, demand for plastic products has nearly doubled, with advanced economies outstripping developing economies by 20%. 

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National Sword

In February 2018, no longer willing to be the world’s garbage dump, China initiated a new policy, “National Sword,” drastically curtailing plastic imports. Suddenly the U.S., which had been exporting 4,000 shipping containers of plastic daily to China, and other countries had to come up with a new plan.  For now, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand are catching the surplus, but not for long.  With nowhere to export, developed countries are finally being forced to address a libertine throw-away culture.

“Globally, we generate at least 3.5 million tons of plastic and other solid waste a day, a 10-fold increase from a century ago. “

Repatriating plastics aren’t the only threat to domestic landfills. Food waste decomposing in these oxygen-free disposal sites breaks down anaerobically, producing methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than the CO2 produced in above-ground aerobic composting.

Homegrown Alternatives

Americans reign supreme in trash production, generating 250 million tons a year — roughly 1,500 pounds of trash per year for the average American, or 4.4 pounds of trash per person per day.

Globally, we generate at least 3.5 million tons of plastic and other solid waste a day, a 10-fold increase from a century ago. 

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A growing international movement of zero- or low-wasters — typically women, typically young people but not exclusively — are forging an alternative path to mass disposability. Famous bloggers like Bea Johnson (“The Five Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot”), Lauren Singer (“Trash Is for Tossers”), and Kathryn Kellogg (“Going Zero Waste”) model their trash-free lives online, not only buying their coffee with travel mugs, going to the grocery store reusable tote in hand, and saying no to straws, but also refilling their stainless steel shampoo bottles, recycling their stainless steel razor blades, and even composting their wooden toilet brushes. It’s system-wide reinvention.

Living a zero-waste life is much easier in a community equipped with the necessary infrastructure: industrial composting, recycling centers, bulk grocery and toiletry stores. 

It’s also the (not so) little things: cashiers familiar with how to deduct your jar tare, baristas who don’t give you a hard time about your reusable mug, bartenders who wouldn’t even think to put a tiny plastic straw in your drink, with reusable ones on hand for those who need them.

“Living a zero-waste life is much easier in a community equipped with the necessary infrastructure: industrial composting, recycling centers, bulk grocery and toiletry stores.”

No more landfills, no more plastic in our oceans, no more waste — each individual effort in collective practice.

Waste is man-made; zero waste is better made.