Airport essentials- my @packagefreeshop reusable utensils and my @kleankanteen insulated food container, available at @packagefreeshop - I made myself a spicy, vegan rice and vegetable dish to hold me over on my way to Stockholm!
Further, there is inherent tension between packaging food to minimize food waste and the waste from the packaging itself. Compared to its sinful plastic counterpart, the virtuous glass bottle requires much more packaging to not break in transit. The plastics industry itself was borne from repurposing the waste from petroleum refining; the affordability of plastic goods, from kitchenware to clothing, has democratized consumption and blurred class lines, facilitating social mobility for many and ultimately leading to a more sustainable (ahem, less wasteful) use of human capital.
This extends to what we wear. A recent Harper’s Bazaararticle, “The Ultimate Zero Waste Guide for Beginners” suggests to “look for ideally (organic) cotton, cashmere, wool, and silk” when buying new clothing. However, cotton accounts for a disproportionately large share of global insecticide use, water pollution, and water scarcity, while the lesser yield of organic cotton tends to result in an even lower water-use efficiency. More confusingly, a recent study showed that polyester fiber contamination in agricultural fields actually enhanced soil microbial activity and plant growth — so maybe plastic waste can be contextually... good?
While some zero-wasters proudly announce that they have avoided food packaging at the airport, one flight can negate a year’s worth of otherwise environmentally conscious behavior.
All of this is to say that waste is being generated everywhere always and it extends so far beyond the final product in your hand. Waste is water and land and emissions and human capital — not just the plastic straw in your drink. It would be great if there were easy answers, but the only answer is to question everything. I recently attended a lecture on social sustainability in agriculture during which the speaker, a professor of interdisciplinary education in agriculture, insisted on answering every question with two words: “it depends.” This was infuriating in its accuracy.
I should clarify that I do not believe the burden of fully understanding the lifecycle of every conceivable item should fall on the consumer. It’s inherently damaging to even suggest that an individual’s purchasing power and the free market can correct massively environmentally damaging production systems. There is something paradoxical that a movement centered on consuming less relies on consumers to use their consumption habits to signal to industry to change.
The whole point is that the stuff shouldn’t be made in the first place, or that the environmental externalities of those items should be forcibly internalized so that prices spike precipitously. If purchasing more items — like a plastic-free toilet brush or Goop-sanctioned “Zero Waste Starter Kit” — makes you feel like you are helping the environment, perhaps ask yourself why.
It helps to be a conscious consumer, but government and policy is needed to facilitate major shifts to sustainable production systems, demand transparency, and hold industries accountable. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 22 percent of municipal waste is food, making it the single largest stream of waste. It might be more effective to push municipal composting programs than to make your own deodorant.
So, by all means, turn a critical eye to your consumption habits. But try not to get in caught in a swirling compulsion to fit a year’s worth of trash in a small mason jar. I would argue that that is a waste ;) of your time.
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