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Waste Not, Want Not

Moving beyond the seductive promise of the Zero Waste lifestyle

I began following Zero Waste Instagram a few years ago, for the same reason I sometimes follow accounts of early-rising yogis or healthy, photogenic meal preppers: Zero Waste is soothingly aspirational. Its proponents aim to stop producing trash, particularly plastic and Styrofoam waste, through changes in habit like replacing plastic sponges with natural-fiber dish scrubbers or getting their takeout in Tupperware instead of Styrofoam. The #ZeroWaste Instagram grid is pristine; it makes me want to jettison all my belongings for analogues in glass, wood, and warm neutral linen. Zero Waste celebrities—which, yes, exist—document every aspect of their lifestyle, from how to make zero-waste cleaning solution (white vinegar, citrus rinds) to how to trick-or-treat with zero-waste kids (homemade cookies, UNICEF boxes). They seem to have impossibly orderly, intentional lives, and when they misstep—by, say, buying a glass jar that happens to have a plastic seal—they publicly, hyperbolically repent.

I grew fascinated by the religious dedication of Zero Waste devotees, yearning for such an intimate relationship to my own waste. The appeal of Zero Waste on an individual level is clear. Late capitalism fosters a sense of helplessness in the face of systemic injustices, a yawning global wealth gap, and rapidly approaching climate catastrophe. That, in turn, gives rise to purity cults like Zero Waste that serve more to provide a sense of individual penitence than do anything about powerful systems we’ve already agreed we can’t change. In an era that feels increasingly defined by unchecked destruction of the environment, the obsessive restriction of Zero Waste is like a fad diet, for the earth. It can appease your first-world guilt and apocalyptic anxieties! It is Paleo for your carbon footprint! Your friends who roll their eyes at your refusal to get coffee to-go? They should be thanking you.

The obsessive restriction of Zero Waste is like a fad diet, for the earth.

As a lifestyle movement, Zero Waste has given rise to a whole niche industry of packaging-free and alternative products. A bulk grocery store recently opened up in the hip Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City, and I passed by one free, meandering afternoon, with no intention of buying anything, just to admire the uniformly ordered jars of spices and jugs of jewel-toned oils and vinegars. I lifted unpackaged rose hip soaps to my nose between aisles of shimmering mason jars. This was Zero Waste as an aesthetic, no tacky fluorescent plastics in sight. It reminded me of an old-timey apothecary, or a general store, something from The Oregon Trail or Laura Ingalls Wilder. But more important, it made me feel like I could decontaminate myself, return to an earth before microplastics. I could walk through the streets after spending my day reading about ocean acidification, trash seas, and climate change refugee crises, with the wind whipping Doritos bags and Styrofoam cups around me, and feel those twinges—of guilt, anxiety, aesthetic distaste—assuaged by the knowledge that at least I was not taking part.

If Zero Waste is to end here, it may well remain a fad for wealthy liberals who read too much news. For as long as it stops at banishing trash from the household, leaving it all the better to Instagram, it will lack potency. But a Zero Waste movement—Zero Waste as a global idea—has the potential to move beyond green environmentalism.

Insofar as Zero Waste operates on a kind of religious logic, its political power may lie in its eschatology. Beyond providing a temporary remedy for climate anxiety, it allows us to confront our planet’s bleak reality and still believe that our decisions—individual, but also collective—might matter. Because Zero Waste emphasizes not what we consume, but what we produce, it also allows us to situate ourselves within a larger, interconnected waste trade.

I have long fantasized that I could banish trash from my life: to me, it has always seemed to represent the destruction of the planet in an abstract way. But at the root of this belief is a form of alienation from my trash, fostered by class, nationality, and geography: growing up in the United States, in a gentrifying upper-middle-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, I never had to live with trash. All over the country, waste—including plastics disposed of for recycling—is not only quickly swallowed up by trucks, but packed away in shipping containers then sent to Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Climate activist and director of the Basel Action Network Jim Puckett expands on this practice in his essay “A Place Called Away”: our hazardous electronic waste, for instance, finds its final resting place in rural China or urban Ghana, where residents are then exposed to toxic chemicals as that e-waste is processed. As with many aspects of the contemporary economy, the comforts of first-world daily life have a near-exact reverberation elsewhere. Trash is just one part of a vast system of environmental racism, and some activists refer to this particular process as “waste colonialism.”

In my current home in Mexico City, I sit with my trash a little longer than I’d previously been used to: instead of dragging trash bags out to a can in an alleyway, then wheeling the can to the curb for pickup by men who jump rapidly off a truck and back on, my roommates and I wait for the trash guy, wheeling a cart with a barrel full of the neighborhood’s waste, to holler—a deep-throated basuraaaa—as he walks by each morning. Inevitably, we scramble for the bags we’ve left on the patio, which may have already begun to waft odor through the kitchen, and rush barefoot down the stairs, dripping trash juice all the way, to breathlessly catch up with him on the corner, hand over our trash, and tip him ten or twenty pesos. Still, once I give him my trash, it is gone. It disappears into a sort of void.

For others, though, my trash is far from invisible. Much of Mexico City’s waste ends up a few dozen miles away, at the Bordo de Xochiaca dump on the eastern edge of the city, where up to twelve thousand tons of trash arrive each day. Hundreds of people make a living sifting through and re-selling the city’s residues. This, too, is a Zero Waste practice, though a decidedly less aestheticized one.

When it becomes more than a hashtag or a branding strategy, Zero Waste thinking provides an opportunity to reevaluate how we relate not just to trash as a physical artifact, but to trash systems, allowing us to adopt a framework reminiscent of the local food or food sovereignty movements: Where does our trash go? What communities are affected by our waste management systems? How are those systems shaped by racism? Neoliberalism? Who makes decisions about our trash, and what decisions do they make?

The worst fantasy of Zero Waste is that we can neatly atone for humanity’s destruction with individual rituals of purification.

Movements across the world already seek to address many of these questions. Grassroots waste picker cooperatives who fight for the legal recognition of their livelihood, environmental justice organizations pushing back against toxic waste dumps in communities of color: these groups, rather than beatific influencers, ought to be the face of Zero Waste. At root, the divergent visions of Zero Waste get at a question about how we relate to systemic injustices larger than ourselves, like gentrification, climate change, or imperial violence. The predominant way to describe our positions inside these systems is complicity, but complicity also suggests a deliberate, individual entanglement that can be undone. It is without an understanding of the larger power dynamics behind waste that Zero Waste runs the risk of becoming a defiant withdrawal from any sort of collectivity or communal responsibility.

The very worst fantasy of Zero Waste is that we can neatly atone for humanity’s destruction with these individual rituals of purification. That by purging our homes of single-use grocery bags, plastic toothbrushes, and disposable razors, we can breathe a sigh of relief. But truly imagining a Zero Waste world, one in which we don’t merely displace our trash but rather work toward a circular economy where trash is no longer produced, might guide us toward a more holistic vision of environmental justice. Because of its preoccupation with the very physical stuff of trash, Zero Waste gives us an aperture to move from green environmentalism to a broader, deeper, more intersectional strategy of combating the climate crisis. What’s necessary now is a more collective vision of waste, one that can undergird and support meaningful political action. 

The political future of Zero Waste is not on Instagram or in the glamorous bulk grocery store—it’s at the dump.