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Chasing adventure & living mindfully while parenting through mental illness

Lessons In Zero Waste Living, Part 3: Systems of Power

Lessons In Zero Waste Living, Part 3: Systems of Power


Zero waste involves thinking complexly about how your wants impact others you may never meet. In making these changes and thinking this way, you inevitably start questioning the systems of the world. One of my issues with Bea Johnson's book is, in her zest for teaching people that zero waste living is attainable, she doesn't address the systems of inequality that frustrate so many people into not trying in the first place.

Zero waste living should cause you to question a lot of the “isms” in life. Unfortunately, you don't always come out on the pro-zero-waste side, at least in the moment. Things are rarely black and white. And the competing systems of capitalism, classism, ableism, and gender essentialism can mean many complications for zero waste living.

Classism and Ableism

Climate change is a global issue. As weather becomes more erratic, the most vulnerable citizens are the ones in the most impoverished classes. Hurricane extremes in the Caribbean largely affect people of color. Extreme cold largely affects transient and homeless populations. But poverty also affects one's ability to make eco-friendly choices in the first place.

Having a choice about what one buys is a privilege. Someone who is poor doesn't always have the time or means to cook from scratch. Food deserts are real in the US. Fresh food is more expensive than processed (there is a reason we all lived on ramen in university).

Ableism is a big problem for sustainability. Breccan has sensory issues, and finding used or sustainable pants that are soft and inexpensive is hard to do. I don't question the supply lines or material processes of his fidget toys or the chocolate production methods of his Kinder egg incentives. For some disabled people, using plastic straws is necessary. Same with pre-cut fruits and veggies. Here is a good article on eco-ableism from Eco Warrior Princess. I adore her perspective here:

Is the world worth saving if only the privileged can stay?Again, we’ve been tricked into fighting between ourselves instead of the industries that created such waste. Instead of relying so heavily on individual action, we should pressure the market to create new solutions… Live your best, most green life. Consider your fellow humans and non-human animals. Just don’t assume others have the same opportunities or privileges that you do. We can create a sustainable, equitable society, but only when we do both together.

Capitalism and Gender Essentialism

Zero waste living naturally causes you to question capitalism. Buying a new outfit because people have seen you in an old one. Redoing countertops because the old ones weren't the right color. Buying boxes and boxes of dollar store decorations for every holiday, beyond Christmas and Halloween. Spending hundreds of dollars at Target, Costco, or Ikea when you were only there for one thing. We do these things because we are raised in a system where status is determined by what we buy, and our worth is decided by how much we make.

Confession: I spent over $1000 at Ikea last year. I can't really say on what. But I feel disorganized and judged for not being tidy. I am a mom, my house SHOULD be clean and organized for my children. I am lacking in that skillset. And every time I go to Ikea, I feel like a few $10 baskets or a $20 lamp or a $50 storage piece will solve that anxiety. Plus they watch my kids for an hour for “free”.

You question gender essentialism by questioning things you buy simply because of your gender. When I was younger, I did my nails every night. I wore make up every day. Now that I'm older, that is no longer a priority - and not just because I have kids. I would rather spend that time in the evening doing yoga, taking a bath, or sharing a beer with my husband. My skin is much clearer when I don't wear foundation, and my eyes really hate mascara.

I held on to a lot of makeup and nail polish because of the idea that it's something a woman “should” have. Then I realized that if I had that time, I'd fill it differently; neither of those things were so expensive that I couldn't restock if I did happen to change my mind; and my collections were so old they probably needed replacing anyways. I kept a few lipsticks, some light foundation and concealer for the few times a year I do want to wear a bit, and brushes that are still in good shape. Everything else went out the door.

How much energy, money, and waste goes into fulfilling those “shoulds”? Anything you feel like you “should” do relates to a coded system you've learned. And it deserves to be questioned. And for me, that means I'm saying goodbye to most cosmetics and I'm leaving my cards at home if I go to Ikea.

There is no perfect way to do zero waste living. We all have to do what we can as we can. We can't reverse climate change while ignoring the systems that have gotten us into this climate crisis to begin with. We cannot rage against the status quo while upholding its power structures. In order to get out of this, we need to prioritize the needs of marginalized communities and pressure those in power to do better by them.

I came across this beautiful quote from Zero Waste Chef recently:

We don't need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.

Up next time: some of the things that have made my imperfect zero waste transition smoother.

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