Climate change affects everyone, but not to the same extent or in the same way. We are presented with many eco-friendly lifestyle changes that are touted as workable alternatives for everyone, like cycling instead of driving, buying second-hand clothes instead of fast fashion and the elimination of 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 the use of plastic straws. Zero waste eliminates almost all of their waste, focusing on reuse as much as possible.
A zero waste lifestyle is often characterized online by DIY projects that make plastic-free cleaning supplies, stock pantry shelves with mason jars, and carry reusable utensils everywhere.
These efforts are in response to the huge amounts of waste generated each year (formally referred to as municipal solid waste, MSW). The EPA reported in 2018 that the United States generated 292.4 million tonnes of DSM, which equates to 4.9 pounds per person per day. 146.1 million tonnes of DSM were sent to landfill in the same year. While approximately 94 million tonnes of DSM has been recycled or composted, recycling programs in the United States have faced challenges in recent years.
Cross-contamination of dirty items placed with recyclable materials and the lack of an effective federal recycling infrastructure in the United States have both resulted in the recycling of only a portion of what consumers intend to recycle.
By living a way of life where everything is reused and reused, zero waste takes landfills and recycling plants out of their daily routine. However, being zero waste may require access to a grocery store where food can be purchased in bulk or without plastic packaging.
It can take a while to cook some foods from scratch and forgo conveniences like prepackaged meals, plastic bottles, and paper napkins – small sacrifices for some, but essential for others.
Disability activists have pointed out that people with disabilities often rely on disposable products such as plastic straws for safe drinking. Other alternatives like paper straws disintegrate too quickly and silicone straws may not be flexible enough for people with limited mobility.
As Lei Wiley-Mydske, an autism activist diagnosed with autism in her 30s, explains, the plastic straw ban places a new burden on people with disabilities to find a new solution themselves, not businesses.
In addition, people with disabilities are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis and extreme weather events. During the Australian bushfires in 1994, people with disabilities were evacuated without essential equipment such as wheelchairs and ventilators. Other factors such as the inaccessibility of disaster preparedness resources and planning without including people with disabilities are some of the many factors that contribute to higher death rates for people with disabilities during disasters.
I wonder why the zero waste movement doesn’t more frequently recognize people who eliminate almost all of their waste from their lifestyle, or as much waste as they can, given where they live, the resources to which they live. they have access and the feasibility of some of these “rapid changes” can be implemented. The perfectionism required to live a truly zero waste lifestyle can be overwhelming to start making substitutes and changes.
Remember that while green substitutes in your life may be easy to implement, they can be difficult (or even life threatening) for others.
What frustrates me even more than the way the zero waste movement is framed is the way individual responsibility in tackling climate change is emphasized more than the responsibility of companies and governments. Individual choices in our daily lives have an impact on the climate, but so small compared to the damage large businesses have suffered.
Blaming or humiliating people for their “inadequate” sustainability efforts distracts from those who do the most environmental damage and results in a movement that is not inclusive and, in turn, less effective.
A 2017 CDP report found that 100 fossil fuel producers are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Companies use greenwashing to market their unsustainable products as environmentally friendly and when working to reduce emissions, they often ignore the emissions produced by the product during and after use, only during its manufacture.
Individuals can have a big impact on business 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 purchasing products, only 26% follow through.
However, if greener options remain more expensive and not widely available (due to environmental classism and racism manifested in food deserts, for example), pressure companies to produce more products in a sustainable manner. , as well as products that can be used and disposed of with minimal environmental impact, must remain at the heart of the sustainability movement.
Moreover, without including BIPOC’s experiences in the sustainable development movement, companies that contribute to environmental racism will not be held accountable. Blacks are more likely to be exposed to air pollution from many industries, including construction, power plants, and transportation, while whites are exposed to below-average concentrations of particulate air pollution. More than half of the people living within 1.86 thousand of 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 put more pressure on businesses and governments to change their policies to reflect the values they claim to have. Governments often present mixed messages on climate change, as Ian Christie explains in the 2010 Green Marine publication “From Hot Air to Happy Endings”. Christie points out that although climate change is one of the most threatening problems for humanity, the temporal and geographic gap between the actions of individuals and their effects is significant. Politicians often portray the climate crisis as a disaster to be faced, but current solutions to this issue are presented in a politically favorable light, such as the promise that new technologies invented in the future will mean less sacrifice in matters. lifestyle.
I don’t have solutions to these complex problems, but if there isn’t more awareness of how the sustainability movement is failing certain groups of people by not providing workable and accessible solutions, then the sustainable development movement will fail its central goal. Placing less blame on individuals for their choices and focusing on the policies of big business and governments is a good place to start.