When I first became interested in the concept of ‘Zero Waste’, it seemed like such an easy to understand, if not always easy to follow, set of ideas to reduce my impact on the environment. By avoiding single-use plastic, buying food unpackaged (or if not possible, in paper, glass or metal), reducing and reusing the waste I created, I could reduce my carbon footprint and ‘do my bit’.
I was very proud that our ‘black’ bin (i.e. waste that would be landfilled or incinerated) went out just once or twice a year, got excited about milk bottle deliveries instead of throwing away plastic cartons, and carefully packed all my reusable ‘essentials’ to go on holiday – bamboo cutlery, reusable coffee cup, solid shampoo and more.
But I’ve come to realise that this idea of ZW is too simple and isn’t really tackling the actual problem or source of all this waste. With daily news stories of a growing planetary emergency of climate change and biodiversity loss, I propose to you now that we need a rethink of how we ‘do our bit’ and what ZW really means.
No simple solutions
Thanks to the work of campaigners, activists and the BBC’s Blue Planet II series, awareness of the seriousness of plastic pollution is greater than ever before. For people who had lived through years of trying to refuse plastic straws, carrier bags and get their takeaway coffee in a reusable cup, only to be met with strange looks and embarrassing refusals, it was the dawn of a new era.
It was a lovely surprise when coffee shops started offering money off for using your own cup. And much easier when supermarkets starting presuming you would bring your own bag. I was among many people celebrating this new, plastic-reduced world, which was surely only a good thing for the planet, right?
Wrong. Well, potentially wrong.
Did you know, depending on the cup, reusable cups need to be used anywhere from 20 to 1000 times to make up for the impact of a single-use cup? And honestly, how many people have just one? Whether a present, or a freebie from a conference, a lot of people have a couple lurking in the kitchen cupboards, collecting dust.
And cotton bags? A study commissioned by the UK Environment Agency found that a cotton bag needs to be reused 131 times before having a lower carbon footprint than a single-use plastic bag.
How many cotton bags do you have? Even without trying to accumulate them, I’m sure I must own at least seven or eight. And I have refused many, many more. That’s 1,048 uses of those bags before they’ve even broken even on their carbon footprint!
“But it’s not going to choke up our waterways, or suffocate turtles, or any of the other terrible things that happen to plastic bags when they get into the environment“, I would cry about my reusable cotton bag! No, it isn’t. But:
- cotton producers apply 25% of all insecticides used each year.
- in developing countries, half the pesticides used on all crops are applied to cotton.
- studies have estimated the human impact from pesticides used on cotton to be as high as 20,000 people killed and three million poisoned every year.
So, while I may not have a recycling bin or understairs cupboard full of plastic bags, and my rubbish bin remains mercifully empty, my reusable cup and my tote bag are anything but zero waste. The damage and the waste are further up the chain, with the environmental impacts most likely being felt by people living in incredibly vulnerable situations.
It’s what’s inside (the packaging) that counts
A few months ago, I switched to a plant-based diet. The evidence that showed it to be the most environmentally sound choice was too overwhelming for me to ignore.
But all of a sudden, I found myself in a whole new world of plastic packaging – goodbye returnable glass milk bottles and paper-wrapped butter, hello plastic-coated cartons of oat milk and plastic tubs of vegan spread. You can buy an unwrapped block of cheese from the deli counter at the supermarket, but only a vacuum-packed block of tofu.
UGH! Had I made the right choice? Our recycling bin went from going out every six months to every two months – perhaps not loads, but still three times more!
And herein lies one of the problems of the ZW focus on the waste you produce yourself – it doesn’t take account of the waste produced further upstream. Yes, a carton of oat milk takes up space in the recycling that a returnable milk bottle doesn’t, but can you really say that the dairy industry is not creating more waste? The BBC recently reported on a study undertaken at the University of Oxford, which found:
“Producing a glass of dairy milk every day for a year requires 650 sq m (7,000 sq ft) of land, the equivalent of two tennis courts and more than 10 times as much as the same amount of oat milk.”
The BBC has also made a handy tool that calculates the of environmental impacts of all sorts of foods. It says that drinking 200ml of oat milk a day contributes 65kg to annual greenhouse gas emissions and uses 3512 litres of water to produce. The same amount of dairy milk contributes 229kg to annual greenhouse gas emissions and uses a staggering 45,733 litres of water.
Tetrapak’s website estimates that each litre carton (similar to the type used for lots of plant milks) produces 31g of CO2. Over a year, calculated at the same consumption as the values above, that’s 73 cartons and therefore 2.263kg of CO2. All of which is still a drop in the ocean in comparison with dairy milk.
Yes, plastic pollution is a very real and HUGE problem. I hate, hate, hate bringing plastic back into the house and do have plans to start making my own oat milk (blender/suitable device recommendations welcome). But, in this case, the waste I can now see is still less of an environmental catastrophe than the refillable option it has replaced.
Travelling Zero Waste
If I haven’t already offended anyone kind enough to come and read my ramblings (which I really do appreciate by the way), then I’m going to have a proper go now, with what may well be a massively unpopular viewpoint:
Bringing your refillable water bottle, solid shampoo or non-plastic wrapped sunscreen on holiday isn’t going to make the slightest bit of difference, if you’ve taken an aeroplane to get there.
A return flight between New York and London results in the melting of three square metres of Arctic sea ice. That doesn’t sound like much, right? But that’s only one person. If you’d like a slightly more alarming stat, the Environmental Transport Association states:
“Just one return flight from London to New York produces a greater carbon footprint than a whole year’s personal allowance needed to keep the climate safe.”
The latest stats I could find suggested 4.2 million people took this specific trip in 2016. And of course, all the other flights taken all over the world have this effect too – it’s estimated that 3.7 billion flights were taken in that same year.
While of COURSE it’s a good idea to try and avoid bottled water, and those cute-but-ultimately-wasteful hotel mini shampoos, any waste saved has already been eclipsed many times over by how you got there. It can’t even compete.
But, what IS the solution, if not ZW?
So, what does all this mean? Have I started getting coffee in takeaway cups if I forget my reusable mug, or using a carrier bag rather than an armful of groceries in the absence of a canvas bag? No. And I’m not going to start.
What I want to propose is that we need to rethink zero waste in two key ways:
One – It’s time to channel Mary Poppins, when she said “Sometimes a person we love, through no fault of his own, can’t see past the end of his nose.” We have to stop taking ‘waste’ at face value, and we need to start asking questions: who made this, where did it come from, and where will it go when I’ve finished with it?
We also need embrace the ‘zero’ of ZW – say no to that free canvas bag, ask if we really are ever going to use that beautiful stainless steel straw. We need to not get distracted by that sleek, shiny water bottle if we have an ugly old container that will work just as well. It’s about seeing consumption as a choice, rather than an inevitability. For a reusable anything to be truly sustainable, it needs to be reused and reused and reused.
Two – This one I think is the most important. We need to start seeing ZW and personal action as an impetus to wider change. It’s great that committed individuals are sorting through a sea of plastic waste to find more sustainable options, but the real problem here is that the plastic waste still exists, and will most likely be bought by someone else.
So, please keep flying the flag for your personal choices, but my plea to you is let’s take our fight out on to the street, both digital and real – if you’re angry about the amount of plastic in your weekly food shop, email the CEO, or post pictures of the packaging on Twitter. Walker’s Crisps, here in the UK, actually brought in a recycling scheme for their empty packets after people started posting them back to the company. The message is loud and clear – it’s not YOUR rubbish, but THEIRS!
And don’t just do it alone – join your local Extinction Rebellion group, or other local climate change organisation and tell them about zero waste. Amplify your voice and reach out. Personal action is a statement of intent about the world we want to see, but the power of a group raising their voices in unison shows governments and businesses that it is something to be heeded.
In conclusion, Zero Waste needs to be a way of identifying waste, and then making the people producing the waste in the first place do something about it. Stop feeling guilty about your own waste – you’re doing the best you can – and let’s loudly and visibly point the finger at the real culprits. Let’s make it a movement for social change, not individual responsibility. That way, everyone benefits.
Credit: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash