An Analysis of the Zero Waste Movement

By Gwendolyn Tan, GLOBUS Correspondent

The zero waste movement was first started to reduce the production of waste and decrease the volume of rubbish that is sent to landfill, by recycling more and consuming less. (i) In our capitalist, consumerist, and industrial contemporary world, this can prove more challenging than it might seem. Zero waste shops have hence become a welcome addition to many communities, introducing unique products like menstrual cups and package-free toiletries that are more accessible to the average consumer.

There is, however, a lot of criticism targeted at the zero waste movement. Firstly, it depends on individual action. This means that its cumulative impact could be minimal, especially considering that the zero waste movement has not yet seen significant growth. Secondly, the zero waste lifestyle is heavily dependent on specialty stores and the dedication of time. (ii) These niche stores are far and few between and having to get there more often than not requires lengthy travel, which means either that one cannot carry a large number of items back, or even worse, that one has to drive to make a special trip there, which may itself negate the benefits of visiting a zero waste store. Becoming zero waste also requires making more products by hand; for those who have hectic working lives, this tends to be something they cannot afford to do.

Zero waste attempts to combat consumerism, which refers to the preoccupation of our capitalist society with accumulating material products. It is thus ironic that in doing so, zero waste shops tout products, and help to build up an industry that at times promotes the necessity of products to become zero-waste. This is especially seen in the latest metal straw craze, with many online sellers duplicating patents and cashing in on this green trend. (iii)  Reusable metal straws boomed in popularity when individuals began to realise the damage caused by plastic pollution, in particular that of disposable plastic straws. The US alone produced 33.3 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2014. (iv) However, what was problematic was that while metal straws were growing in popularity due to perceptions that they represented an ‘eco-friendly’ alternative to plastic straws, no one really knew if that was the case. Environmental damage comes in many forms, be it plastic pollution of the ocean that threaten marine ecosystems or the emission of greenhouse gases that would enhance global warming. This is why it is difficult to immediately conclude that metal straws, being reusable, would be better for the environment. Plastic straws are bad because they are non-biodegradable and marine animals choke on them, just to name a few cons. Metal straws may be superior in those aspects, but as metal has to be mined, the mining process may be even worse for the environment than plastic straws through air pollution, loss of biodiversity, etc. Additionally, anything reusable has its own hidden environmental costs that have to be accounted for: for example, how much energy and water is used in washing the straws, or how much fossil fuel is burned to import these products from abroad. To be more sustainable, one has to understand the product well enough. For example, if people buy a reusable tote bag, then they should also buy it with the knowledge that they would have to use it 104 times before they break even with the environmental cost of producing such a bag – as it requires more resources. (v) Hence, until the marginal environmental cost of producing and distributing individual metal straws, compared to plastic straws, is understood, it remains difficult to judge which is truly the bigger evil.

More importantly, movements such as the zero waste one should not be analysed with regards to only the environment. It is worth looking at its political economy: it perpetuates inequality. The less well-off, generally, can’t afford to be sustainable, because they have less disposable income. Not only that, but if you were to compare the long term problem of the earth being inhabitable in a billion years (vi), or the earth becoming a hothouse in a matter of decades (vii), to the short term problem of living from hand to mouth, then it is only to be expected that the poor tend not to prioritise environmental issues – a decision that, ethically, we cannot blame them for. The rich, on the other hand, can afford to be sustainable, but tend to consume the most energy in their daily activities. Even if they become zero waste to alleviate the negative impacts of their other activities, it still does not negate the fact that they are more equipped to make a change to begin with: the zero waste movement is more accessible to the rich because they have more money at hand at any one time, so they can afford to make investments in zero waste products like reusable cups, unlike those from more impoverished backgrounds. From another perspective, the mining of metal to produce metal straws tends to be detrimental to countries hosting the mines – usually those with developing economies. As the mining process causes air pollution, the first to be affected – and to a greater extent – would be the miners and the individuals who live in these countries. Thus, considering critical theory like post- and neo-colonialism is useful in examining who wins and loses with regards to the zero waste movement.

At this point, I should note that I have made rather gross generalizations about our world today in this article. Not every country can be considered industrialised, not every nation incinerates trash, and not every country has zero waste shops. Not every rich person leads a life of decadence, and not everyone who’s less well-off is incapable of leading a zero waste lifestyle. However, despite the occasional viral video that showcases an altruistic individual going out of their way to become sustainable, these are generalisations that more often than not ring true. It also does not help that there has been little research into the nascent zero waste movement, rendering its analysis based on the opinions of bloggers and personal experience rather biased. As such, this article is one that merely seeks to raise awareness of this movement and shed light on some of the pros and cons of zero waste.

Ultimately, I do believe that the zero waste movement is not global, and I don’t think it ever will go global. It remains a movement that is predominantly made up of those with privilege, but it is not a bad thing that these are the people who are trying to become more sustainable by investing in reusable products and consuming more local produce. (viii) After all, if you are able to help in any small way possible, one should definitely try to do their part for those who can’t. Of course, it is important that in participating in the zero waste movement, one should also do their research and check if what they are doing is really helping the environment.  

The zero waste movement is merely a tiny band-aid on a much bigger issue. Arguably, there are very little large-scale alternatives that can be undertaken by individuals to combat our overly consumerist society. Thus, while there is much to criticise of it, at the same time, there is little the common person can do to change the environmental issues we are facing on a larger scale. After all, 71% of global emissions of carbon dioxide stems from the activities of just 100 companies. (ix) These MNCs are the ones who have to make a difference, and till they finally do, the zero waste movement is just one more responsibility pushed to the common man in order to slow down the environmental degradation we face today.











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