Zero Waste and a Sense of Unease

abundance agriculture bananas batch
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I have a half written blog post in my draft folder, and it’s been there for months. I keep revisiting it as I try to articulate my thoughts, and I never quite seem to get there. Having said that, I think it’s time to stop letting perfect be the enemy of done, and put the post out there.

I am a big fan of zero waste. It’s important that we are reducing waste, and I want to do what I can on that.

However. I am a middle class white woman. My household only brings in one full time salary (and a basically negligible amount from my work. Most of my income goes on keeping the business running, but that’s a discussion for another time), but it is above average. Because I work from home, we don’t have to pay full time childcare costs. If we did, my contribution to the household would still be… er, crap. Why am I telling you this? Because I look at zero waste options, and I quake at the cost. We are in the privileged position of being able to choose to make certain changes, but we are not so privileged that we can do so without consequences to our spending capacity elsewhere.

And this is why the movement makes me feel uneasy. To what extent is this essentially a middle class and able bodied phenomenon?

Generally reducing our waste asks us to make sacrifices around time, money, our own energy/abilities, and sometimes quality of products. These are sacrifices that not everybody can make, and of course, not everyone wants to. Especially if they see it as making their lives harder.

Time: This is often a question of seeking products with limited or no plastic packaging. The problem being that finding them takes time, and then, often, so does buying them. Your local bakery may well sell bread in a paper bag, and your local greengrocer may sell you veg without shrink wrapping. But! A) your local bakery or greengrocer may not be particularly local B) they may not be open at times when you’re available to go shopping C) you also need to have the time and ability to visit multiple shops to buy your food (or to visit any shops if you normally shop online).

Let’s be honest, if you’re working full time then these are problematic. Or if you have a small child who doesn’t enjoy shopping and you just need it done as quickly as possible before toddler misery hits. Or if you have mobility problems, again needing to be able to shop quickly, then it might simply be wildly unrealistic.

Money: For good or for ill, supermarket shopping is generally the most cost effective. And things you buy in one usually involve at least some plastic packaging. Which means either, going to your local butcher, baker or candlestick maker, or choosing products in the supermarket with less plastic packaging. And often this involves parting with more money than you would in a supermarket or on own brand products. Which isn’t to say that the local shops aren’t good value, but if you don’t have the money then you don’t have the money. Likewise, if you want to buy pasta that doesn’t come in a plastic bag, the cheaper options are unlikely to be open to you.

Quality: And ultimately, if you’re able to compromise on time and money, there’s the pesky question of quality. When it comes to food, the quality may actually be higher, but the shelf life may be shorter, say, for bread. Which may or may not work for your family and lifestyle.

I guess what I’m getting at is that there is a lot of privilege attached to the notion of reducing waste. Does it need to happen? Without a doubt. But is the way we talk about it always fair? Nope. Do we need to think and talk more broadly about what is and is not realistic for people in different situations? Yes please!

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