The Limits of Individual Change in the Zero-Waste Movement
Up until this point, a primary focus of mine has been on the individual ways we can make positive changes to our habits, and how those habits affect the environment. I’ve mentioned here and there that it is a systemic issue that goes beyond ourselves, but personal boycotts and “voting with our wallets” is one way to further push back.
For this post, I want to focus on consumerism, but not individual consumerism, our collective consumer systems.
How do our products get from extraction from the Earth to our stores, and eventually to the dump? How much waste is produced in a household versus the supply chain? Why do we invest so much time in waste systems instead of waste reduction?
What can we do as consumers with a problem so much bigger than just ourselves?
This Isn’t a Waste Management Problem.
This is a Waste Production Problem.
When we look at the issue of waste from a management standpoint, we are missing the more significant problem at hand: we are producing too much waste. It's not a question of if we are innovative enough to manage it.
There are some excellent systems in place, such as recycling and composting, but these cannot be the answer to our addiction to waste. I’m not saying that these systems should not be improved upon or implemented in all cities, but tackling an issue as big as waste, we must first look at the source.
Our Current, Linear Model
Our current production model is a linear one. It feeds our desire for consumer goods that are cheap, easy, and instant. The problem is that Earth’s resources are finite. So, within a linear system, we are taking more resources than we can give back.
The linear system consists of five major components: extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal. We will explore these in more detail below.
For the linear economy to survive, we need an infinite supply of resources. The first step in our current system is to take, exploit, and destroy the natural resources we do have—all without returning anything useful.
As human animals, we are a natural part of the ecosystem. We have always used natural resources. The difference now is that we are no longer a hunter/gatherer or agrarian society. Humans, for the most part, lived within the limits of their immediate resources until the Industrial Revolution. Since then, the human population has continued to grow, which only increases our demand for natural resources, such as fossil fuels, metals, minerals, and biomass.
On average, every person on the planet consumes more than 11 tons of natural resources per year. People in rich countries consume 10x more per person than those in poorer countries. That’s almost 90 billion tons of resources taken and not replenished each year.
As this extraction rate continues to grow, it is expected that wealthier nations like the United States, China, and some countries in Europe will need to cut their consumption up to 90%, or we will run out (NICR 2013-05).
Production & Distribution
Once the resource has been taken from the Earth, it moves into production. One thing that must be mentioned is that much of the extraction and production processes happen in impoverished nations. As consumers, we are often ignorant of how our goods are made. In my own life, I am usually more concerned about how much money I am spending than where and how the product is produced.
In our current extraction and production process, the exploitation of the Earth and other humans is crucial to making affordable products.
In the production of certain consumer goods, the natural resources extracted are processed into something new using energy, other resources, chemicals, and synthetics.
One specific product example I want to highlight is electronics. We use electronics throughout our daily lives. I’m writing this on a computer, I have a smartphone, and there are various other electronics I use in my home daily. It wasn’t until recently that I slowed down and started to consider all of the different raw materials required to make one electronic item. Then, it made me question how often these things need to be replaced before they become obsolete.
Many companies specially design their products to be “designed for the dump.” They can exploit low wage workers in 3rd world countries to produce products so that production prices are low. Then, to sell more products each year, they create new systems that can only be updated when we buy an entirely new product. We don’t often have the option to repair or replace only specific parts of our electronics. If we do, it is usually more affordable to buy something new.
If we had to pay the actual price of any of our consumer goods, we would not buy products as often. It is usually cheaper to source materials internationally, transport internationally for production, and then transport internationally for distribution.
Have you ever wondered why a locally sourced and produced product costs more than something made in China or Vietnam? Perhaps it is because, for once, we are paying full price for the materials and labor that went into production.
So, a lot has happened before we even get to the store or pull up our internet browser to shop. A lot of waste, destruction, and pollution has happened. As consumers, we are not meant to see these processes or even think about them. Our purpose is to consume and to keep consuming our entire lives.
For much of our lives, we have been told that our worth equates to the amount of money in our pocketbook or the number of items that we own. When do we stop to wonder why we are told to consume so much?
By the time products get to the store and get to the consumer, the damage has been done. Not only that but at the distribution level more waste is produced without us knowing. Think about the waste stream of a grocery store. We usually only consider the waste we produce as individuals. While this can be substantial, we often miss the rubbish behind the scenes like individually wrapped pears, plastic-wrapped pallets, or imperfect product packaging that must be thrown out.
As consumers, to continue to buy new things, we need our old stuff to become obsolete, break, go out of style, or become dull. When this happens, some of us may recycle, but this is not always an option, so we throw it in the trash.
When we throw something away we often have an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality. We roll our bins to the curb and a truck comes the next day to collect. We hardly question where it goes or even think of it again.
Then we have recycling. Recycling seems like the good samaritan and eco-conscious thing to do. Well, it is if the recycled materials are reused effectively.
Consider when we recycle a plastic bottle. Our idea of recycling is that the bottle we recycled is turned into a new plastic bottle and this repeats until someone throws it in the trash. However, when plastic is recycled by mechanical means, the materials become weaker. A process known as downcycling makes the plastic recycling process possible. Plastic bottles can then be downcycled into plastic bags or single-use plastic items, giving them new life for a short time, only to end up in landfills down the line.
Another example is electronics recycling. We would think this works wonders for the environment. Well, unfortunately, many electronic devices that are recycled are sent to other countries. Then, at the recycling shops, only valuable and accessible items are removed, and the rest is thrown away.
If recycling isn’t working, what will?
Exploring Closed-Loop or Circular Production
Both linear and reuse economies are being utilized in various forms across the globe. As we search for a solution, a circular economy often enters the conversation. A circular economy is a zero-waste economy. The extraction of resources does not exceed what is necessary, we return what we can, and everything we take is continually reused.
To make a circular economy work, an entire societal and economic shift needs to happen. This is a big ask, which is why there is so much pushback from large corporations and some governments because it is hard to do on a large scale. With current globalization, a linear model is ideal. However, with a closed-loop economy, more localized systems make sense.
Still, some parts of the world have begun to adopt zero-waste and circular models. For instance, the Dutch Government has a Waste to Resource plan to reach a fully circular economy by the year 2050. This would mean that they no longer create waste. They would reuse, repurpose, and return all of their resources.
These changes are not going to be made overnight, and likely not all at one time. Most of these changes to move towards a zero-waste, circular economy seem to be driven more by the people than by the government.
There are three examples of zero-waste and localized systems that I want to highlight. These examples can all be adopted into our communities. They will take some planning, but we have trailblazers that did some trial and error for us.
Zero Waste Grocery Store
NADA. is a grocery store located in Vancouver, British Columbia that produces no waste and uses no packaging for its products. Their goal was to take a broken food supply system and try to make it better. They proved it could be done! NADA. reduces waste in the supply chain, provides high-quality products, and supports local food security and environmental justice.
Zero Waste Restaurant
Located in London, England, Silo is an example of perseverance and innovation in the zero waste movement. The service industry creates a substantial amount of waste, and it is often not acknowledged or discussed. At Silo, they created a system that relies on local food supply, reusable containers and materials, and compost. Learn more about their story in the video below.
Localized Food System
The third example is more of a general case. The local food movement has grown over the last few years and has become commonplace in many communities. Things like farmer’s markets and Community Supported Agriculture have found their way into even big city life. The COVID-19 Pandemic has put these systems into the spotlight as they provide local food security in uncertain times.
What Can Consumers Do?
All of this information was overwhelming to me when I first began digging deeper into the production systems. It was hard to see how, on a consumer level, we can do anything to help move us towards a zero-waste society. While pushing for systemic change through policy change is always necessary, a few other ideas came to mind.
We can enact closed-loop systems into our daily lives. The easiest way to do this is by composting your food waste and eliminating unnecessary food waste.
We can choose to boycott companies that we know exploit workers and resources for profit, and we can choose not to fall into the trap of impulse buying.
We can opt to reduce, reuse, repurpose, and repair as much as possible.
When we make a new purchase, we can make sure that we buy a high-quality product that will last most of our lives. We can make sure it is something that can be repaired, and we can research companies to see if they source and produce products locally.
We can support local business initiatives as small business owners transition to zero-waste systems. Better yet, we can be the business owners that enact the systems into our communities. If you are thinking of starting or reopening a business, a zero-waste model is not only possible, but it can be more cost-effective as well.
In the end, the best thing we can do is to rethink our daily behaviors. Are we blindly consuming because it is what we have been told to do our entire lives? Are there small changes we can make to encourage others to change as well?
For more ideas, see these 5 ways individuals can help the environment.