I am shifting away from using the phrase “zero-waste” exclusively because the more I venture toward a holistically integrated life of love the more I realize how “zero” waste is impossible.
Zero-Waste as a movement is a powerful instrument of good. The movement invites and challenges folks to reconsider mainline consumerism as the only way of living. Specifically, Zero-Wasters want to empower folks to put down the fiscally cheap, but environmentally costly plastic and invest in the well-being of the whole earth community. Instead of only Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, we want to live into the truth as nature tells it: There is no away.
Creation in its natural state does not make waste—every single molecule of matter is, rather, transformed from one useful state to the next in order create and sustain more diverse and varied forms of life.
Poop, for instance, is not a toxic problem in nature. Instead it is a biofuel and a fertilizer. Notice the language there—what first-world people have been conditioned to consider the epitome of “waste,” nature sees and names Nourishment and Fertility.
The Zero-Waste movement is ultimately an invitation to live as humans, not consumeristic automatons. Instead of mindlessly sending bag after bag to the landfill, Zero-Wasters are trying to consume and meet our needs in ways that do no harm. Indeed, we want our choices to be part of healing of the world.
And it’s relatively all done through simple switches:
Carrying reusable totes to the market instead of filling those flimsy plastic bags.
Buying from bulk bins and conscientious retailers instead of bringing home yet another plastic bottle or container.
Glass, fiber, steel, and paper instead of plastic, plastic, plastic, or plastic.
Simple, mundane, tiny choices that make a difference. Try it for a week and you will see the difference in your trash bin.
That’s what Zero-Waste is all about.
My compatriots continuously inspire me with their creative and self-de-centering acts of care for the ecological community. My move away from using the term “zero-waste” exclusively is not a slight against this community.
My decision to change up my language is a recognition of my own bent toward individualistic perfectionism, a condition that haunts many a White American Westerner. Not just me.
Some folks refuse to consider the broader intentions of the “zero-waste” movement at the outset, dismissing the idea on a technicality. It is easy to say, “[Perfect] zero-waste habits are impossible in the world in which we live, so, I mean, you are wrong for even suggesting it. No thanks. I’ll keep doing what I have been doing.”
I hope this doesn’t come across sounding judgmental because I have had this knee-jerk reaction, too. At several points in my journey toward better ecological relationships I have gotten flustered and puffed up and just thought, way in the back in my mind, Forget it. I can’t do this perfectly, so just forget it.
This is a tough thing to admit. But I don’t see a way forward in the pursuit of ecological righteousness—that is, living in wholesome and holy relationship with all of my ecological neighbors—without calling this thing what it is.
Ego. And I gotta let it go.
I am not the only person in creation. I am not the only person who makes decisions about how I consume and inhabit creation. “Zero” waste is not possible because I am not in control of production lines; nor am I in control of the decades-long indoctrination of the plastic industry.
We consistently buy frozen bags of organic produce. It is the best way we have found to meet our needs for nourishment, to waste less actual food, to support organic agriculture, and to stay within our modest budget. But the veggies are still wrapped in plastic. A “zero” waste perfectionist would call this an outright failure, but someone who has the broader goals of the Zero-Waste movement in mind would call it a contextual step forward with room for creative improvement in time.
I could just be content with this, and some days I am. Some days I am content that we are doing the best that we can, that we are making less waste than ever before, and that we are looking for ways to do even better. Other days I just wanna say forget it because I will never be in control of how the market wraps their veg and the tension is hard to hold.
But I am not the only person in creation. I am not the only person who makes decisions about how I consume and inhabit creation. We have to move in the systems in place in order to make a difference in those systems—defecting only when absolutely necessary and when we have the privilege to do so.
Which brings me to this really important bit: I am not the center of the world.
Individualistic perfectionism ignores the needs and realities of others. Some people (and it kills my heart to even write this out) will never be able to afford locally-grown, pesticide and hormone-free, plastic-less food and other necessities. Never. Because of the ways our capitalist and racist society is structured, they will never be able to enjoy relationships with Nourishment and Fertility as the Creator intended. And that is an atrocious violence we must reckon with.
Realizing that I am not the center of the world remembers these people. Choosing to diversify my language in pursuit of ecological righteousness is an act to welcome and empower my systematically oppressed siblings. It is a movement away from individualism and toward communal well-being.
To wrap this up, our collective and communal engagement with one another and the rest of the material world impacts the decisions we are able and willing to make—for better(!) and for worse.
Zero-waste is still the endgame, but less-waste is the language I need in the trenches.