I have questions about going Zero Waste

An open letter to the woman who fits five years of her trash in a Mason jar

5 minute read
If you've generated more trash than this over the last five years, could you be doing better? (Illustration by Hannah Kaplan for BSR.)
If you've generated more trash than this over the last five years, could you be doing better? (Illustration by Hannah Kaplan for BSR.)

Dear Lauren Singer,

I’ve enjoyed videos in which media personalities watch awestruck as you stand in your spartan Brooklyn apartment and display the contents of a single small Mason jar, which you say holds all the trash you have amassed over several years.

You had an epiphany while earning your environmental studies degree. You now live the Zero Waste lifestyle, which includes composting and eliminating plastic bags and containers in favor of reusable cloth bags and glass jars.

You shop at the farmers' market, make your own cleaning and beauty products, and buy in bulk. Now, in your 20s, you’ve spun your Zero Waste lifestyle into a brand with a beautiful website, blog, and YouTube channel; a media-appearance machine; and a retail empire (including a $38 “washable bamboo fleece duster” and organic cotton sheets starting at $149 for a twin bed). It’s genius.

Dark times

I realized the depth of your life’s challenges as you picked through your Mason jar of trash (things that you cannot reuse, recycle, or compost) and referred to a handful of plastic wristbands as “the bane of my existence.”

“Anytime I go to a music festival . . . I have to wear a wristband,” you said.

I don’t know how you cope.

Where’s your farmers' market?

Your website says that a Zero Waste lifestyle is “entirely possible for everyone and anyone,” and that if you can do it, anyone can.

I like your tips for reducing waste. Do I need 14 plastic bags every time I shop? No. Can I sip from a reusable container instead of plastic bottles? Yes.

But are you helping make eco-friendly living accessible to a maximum number of people when, for example, you make shopping at the farmers' market sound like something everyone can do?

It isn’t. According to the national nonprofit Feeding America, in 2017, 40 million Americans (more than 12 million of them children) struggled to get enough food. A 2008 USDA report says that almost 6 percent of U.S. households can’t access food they want or need because they live in poverty or lack transportation.

What's more, 5.6 million of the U.S. households located a half-mile or more away from a supermarket don’t have access to a vehicle. It’s also worth mentioning that in urban areas, limited food access goes hand in hand with racial segregation — i.e., racism.

Shopping at the farmers' market is great — and in Philly, it’s pretty accessible, with many markets and a Food Trust program where SNAP beneficiaries can maximize their dollars on farmers'-market produce. But it’s a different story for millions of others.

I’m not saying “What about hungry children?” to derail your point about going green. But when you say “just switch to the farmers' market,” it might be worth acknowledging that many people can’t even get to a grocery store.

Coming clean on compost

Contrary to a YouTube video shot in your apartment, composting isn’t just a dish of peelings in the fridge. In Philly, those without the real estate for a compost heap can sign up for a service like Circle Compost, which charges $18/month ($216/year) to empty your bucket weekly.

I had a compost bin in my kitchen once. I remember the surge of satisfaction whenever I popped an apple core in there. I also remember the smell that permeated the room as soon as I opened the lid. Composting is great. But it’s not effortless, and it’s not a cost every household can handle.

Here's the trash from one week in my household of four. We could definitely stand to cut down. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
Here's the trash from one week in my household of four. We could definitely stand to cut down. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

Doctoring debris

You note a total of two Band-Aids in your Mason jar and detritus from vitamin bottles (which you say you no longer need, now that you eat a super-healthy organic-produce diet). Are a few bandages and vitamins the only residue of your healthcare over the last several years?

Lucky you.

What about folks who rely on medications? Dressings and bandages? Plastic tubes? Syringes and injections? Vials and tapes, facemasks, sterile gloves, and antiseptic wipes? When you say “anyone and everyone” can live Zero Waste, do you mean people with disabilities and people with chronic illnesses, too?

Green privilege

What about the straws in the Mason jar you say some bartenders insist on putting in your drink? Are they really the total of your participation in trash when you hit the bar? What about the making and packaging and transportation of the booze, the bottles of disinfectant under the bar, the menus and coasters, the uncomposted lime wedges, the bathroom paper towels?

It’s not that minimizing waste is bad. Our complicity in trash just goes deeper than we think, and we need to look further than idolizing someone who claims to have opted out by refusing straws.

The name of your platform — “Trash Is for Tossers” — may reinforce the problem. I get the pun. But a tosser is (according to Dictionary.com) British slang for “a stupid or despicable person.” Is that how you frame folks who can’t cut their consumption as much as you have?

It’s not your breezy self-righteousness that irks me as much as your apparent refusal or inability to recognize the privilege inherent in your lifestyle. If we ignore barriers to going Zero Waste, do we perpetuate an aura of ableist elitism in the sustainability sector — and does that reduce our ability to go green on a mass scale?


A woman who makes toys for her dog out of old socks

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