Zero waste: is it accessible? Well, that’s kind of my thing (literally – look at my tagline). 100% zero waste isn’t accessible (or possible for anyone) but there are changes we can make to empower ourselves and improve the environment and our communities. Here’s my call – and some practical tips – to make zero waste more accessible by using our privilege.
Here’s my thing: while I love sharing information with everyone, the truth is the people learning from my website and Instagram are not the people being truly affected by our waste problem. Let me be very frank and say: (anecdotally) my followers are mostly white and middle class, (scientifically) ”race – even more than class – is the number one indicator for the placement of toxic facilities in this country. And communities of color and low income communities are often the hardest hit by climate change”. (source)
I both understand these facts and grapple with them daily.
It’s no surprise to anyone within the environmental movement that it’s disproportionately white/upper-class, and – spoiler alert! – it’s not actually because BIPOC or poor people don’t care. More likely it’s simply that BIPOC (typically living in more urban areas) and whites (in the suburbs or with access to urban green space) have different ways of thinking about the environment. Professor Dorceta Taylor remarks really hit home for me:
White people bring their experience to the discussion — that’s why they focus on the birds, trees, plants, and animals, because they don’t have the experience of being barred from parks and beaches. It’s just a different frame. But overall, we want the same thing: safe places to live, work and play, clean spaces and sustainable, long-lasting communities. (source)
It’s not to say all whites or all BIPOC experience the world in the same way – that’s obviously not true – but there are deeply disturbing, systemic patterns affecting our lives.
That’s a powerful thought, especially when you realize there’s a disconcerting number of people who think “the poor are too occupied with being poor, or black people are too occupied with being black to be occupied in green organizations”. (source) In fact, you may be amazed to find out that people can be preoccupied with multiple large problems at the same time! Come inside my massively anxious brain and you can be sure of that.
So if you’re in a relatively stable economic place, consider using your privilege* to spread the zero waste wealth throughout your community.
Here are few physical and non-physical items I think are a good place to start.
*See end of post for a few notes on this.
zero waste period items
One of the most immediately effective ways to help menstruating folks in a powerful zero waste way is to provide zero waste period items. Their usefulness cannot be overstated – here’s why it’s a great place to start:
- Offering zero waste period item frees up money for the years people don’t have to make monthly purchases of wasteful single-use products;
- There’s a good chance these products will be new information, and therefore offer the perfect opportunity to teach people about hygiene, safety, and other education they may not be aware of re: their bodies;
- A typical person with a period will use anywhere from 5,000 to 14,000 tampons in their lifetime – that’s so much water-intensive cotton and bleaching agents!
I’ve already written a whole post on zero waste periods as well as suggested products, but I can always recommend a few more highly. I’d say go with a RubyCup for the most bang for your buck (for every purchase, they donate a cup), but be mindful that some cultures who don’t like using tampons may not be OK with a cup either. For them, Thinx period panties or reusable pads are a great option.
Where to share them: homeless shelters or homeless services, domestic violence shelters, post them on free sites.
reusable produce bags
Good, sturdy reusable bags are a lifesaver but almost everyone has a tote or three hanging around their closet. What people don’t have – or may not even be familiar with – is a reusable produce bag. Help people kick the nasty habit of packing up two oranges in a plastic produce bag by showing an alternative.
You can make your own reusable produce bags (so easy!) and promote a sort of bag share program or purchase 100% cotton produce bags wholesale online. It’s a cheap, effective way of making people think twice about using unnecessary single-use plastic.
When sharing, be sure to touch on not only the wider environmental impact, but the fact that those with poor infrastructure (not enough dumpsters provided by landlords, city pickup is unreliable) can enjoy seeing fewer bags blowing around in their streets and parks.
Where to share them: farmers markets, grocery stores, food banks.
fresh food access
Reclaiming abandoned spaces and feeding your community is one of the most powerful things you can do for a community. And not just in a feel-good way – in real, substantive ways that counteract the effects of living in under-served, high-poverty, high-violence communities:
Results suggest that the garden programs provided opportunities for constructive activities, contributions to the community, relationship and interpersonal skill development, informal social control, exploring cognitive and behavioral competence, and improved nutrition. Community gardens promoted developmental assets for involved youth while improving their access to and consumption of healthy foods. (source)
One of the ways we can use our privilege is to start to reclaim abandoned spaces and put them to productive food use. Because the sad truth is a black male and a white woman will have a very different experience when wandering through an abandoned lot. If you’re white, use that privilege to your advantage. Use your whiteness in a productive way that may actually be very dangerous for others.
Mirror similar groups around the world and begin planting gardens in abandoned spaces. While it’s great if this is local government backed, the truth is it doesn’t have to be. Go guerrilla and make the world a better place without wading through bureaucracy. Clearing space for a few hearty plants is a great place to start.
People – regardless of race, class, or any other number of distinctions – often have a lack of information as to why they should make small, meaningful changes to help the environment. I mean, think to before you were interested in the zero waste movement: how much did you think or know about waste? How much did you connect your daily choices to wider environmental issues? Probably not at all.
Education is key.
And when I say education I mean classes and workshops, hands-on experiences that will excite the participants. Creating something themselves gives people pride of ownership. Not only will they be more likely to use the product if they made it themselves, but they’ll be much more willing to talk about it to friends and family.
Make workshop participants want to return to their communities and share all about the cool new thing they learned! It’s not your job to preach, it’s your job to educate and let the on-the-ground people use the information as an activism tool however they see fit.
Where to share the knowledge: the public library, community health and wellness organizations, food banks, local schools.
Notes on all this
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re a middle to upper class white person (female, probably). So, like me, environmental racism may be out of the realm of your life experience even if you’ve brushed it. I’ve spent several years working with and living in communities directly affected by environmental racism and classism so I can share what I’ve learned being a person of privilege in those spheres. All I can say is: shut up, listen, and use your privilege to facilitate change through channels that already exist.
Here are a few more pointed things to think about while trying to make zero waste more accessible:
Don’t make assumptions about what the community wants or needs. This is especially important if you’re working within a community that’s not your own. Nobody wants or needs a white savior. Community action is important and I’ve talked about other ways to do it before. Before taking on grand projects and injecting yourself directly into the community, partner up with local organizations made up of community members that have already identified projects to tackle. Your ideas are not more important than those of the people who actually live in the community.
Take the information and use your knowledge/connections in whatever ways actually serves the community and not your own vanity. For me, this means providing workshops to community partners that have already self-identified knowledge gaps. For you, it might be providing free services for community action (writing proposals, giving legal advice, interpreting, etc.) or using your connections as a privileged person to get the community in touch with people to help their cause. Maybe you have a space perfect for workshops or networking events that you can make accessible for local community groups.
Gently spread tangible zero waste practices. When people call zero waste a function of privilege, I can only help but think that they’ve only been exposed to the idealized Instagram version of the movement. Because zero waste is intensely powerful for anyone. In what other environmental movement can you see a physical, concrete change in your life like a shrinking trash can? Start a conversation by storing a water bottle and reusable mug in your work locker. Talk about how awesome it is to refuse a straw or bring your own bag to the grocery store! Small changes matter – share your enthusiasm at the appropriate time and in a way that makes sense to who you’re talking to.
What are some other ways we can use our privilege to expand access to zero waste and easy environmental activism? I’d love it if you shared your ideas in the comments below.