Hello friends! Today I’d like to talk about a subject that is near and dear to my heart: garbage.
More specifically the amount of trash generated by individuals everyday and how we can reduce (if not completely eradicate) what I like to call our “trash footprint.”
At the beginning of the year I mentioned in a blog post that I was interested in learning more about zero-waste living and various methods to minimize my dependence on plastic products, and it’s finally time to share all that I learned with you guys.
Just a little disclosure: our society’s relationship with trash is complex and is tied up with a lot of other issues. I’ll try to touch on most of them in this post, but it is inevitable that I miss a few. Also, I don’t intend to sound preachy or sit on a high horse when talking about this problem. I fully intend on calling myself out and encourage you to do the same.
Alright, it’s time for some trash talk.
A Brief History
Plastic is pretty amazing, when you look at it objectively. Before plastic became a staple of modern life people relied on natural materials like wood or horns or shells for storage, personal care, games, you name it. There was no cheap or easy way to package things in the short term, and as a result objects needed to be built to last.
It’s hard to imagine a time when spoons were made of cattle horns, especially since our society is so deeply immersed in “plastic culture,” but that time wasn’t too long ago. And you can bet people back then freaked out when plastic was invented and provided a solution to almost all of their problems.
But as is the case with most things in this world, we simply took our reliance on plastic too far. People became dependent on the ideology that things were meant to be used once and thrown away – an ideology that paired well with our capitalistic tendencies – and the idea of a “single-use” product was born. As plastic infiltrated our everyday lives it gave birth to a new problem: too much trash.
See the thing is, when someone grabs a plastic cutlery set so they can eat one meal on the go and then throw it away without realizing that on average plastic products take 400 years to decompose, that single cutlery set will sit in a landfill (ideally) or in the ocean (not so ideal) with all the other cutlery sets and coffee cups and legos and ikea furniture for a really long time. After awhile, that stuff starts to pile up.
What’s the Big Deal?
So we’re in love with plastic and we’ve got a lot of trash. Who cares?
I’m not going to pretend to be the first person to tell you that plastic is negatively impacting our oceans and marine life; that fact has long since been shouted from the rooftops by people with louder voices than me. You probably already know that there are multiple garbage patches in the oceans, one of which that is twice the size of Texas. It isn’t news that the majority of plastic sinks, so the alarming number of trash that is floating on the surface is just the tip of the iceberg. And of course you’ve seen videos on Facebook of animals found dead with copious amounts of garbage in their bellies.
You already know about all of that. I’m hoping reading it one more time will drive the point home and inspire change, but that’s up to you.
While the environmental impact of plastic and waste is well known, people are often unaware of what it is doing to our own bodies.
Did you know that the chemicals that are coupled with plastic to make practically everything we own are often toxic? I didn’t until just recently. The Ecology Center has a chart on their website that lists popular forms of plastic and explains their uses in everyday life and the adverse effects each has on human health. Did you know polystyrene is used for food containers and disposable coffee cups and it can cause cancer? Or that PVC used in pacifiers, shower curtains, and cosmetics is linked to birth defects, ulcers, and liver dysfunction?
But that’s not all. The combustion of fossil fuels to produce plastic products and the methane released from landfills when waste builds up exacerbates climate change, which directly affects humans in countless ways.
The worst part is that the plastic-free and zero-waste movements that rose up to combat these issues have inadvertently created issues of their own: issues of race, class, and social justice. In her blog post “The Truth Behind Zero Waste: The Good, The Bad, and The Privilege” Renee Peters writes, “I came to believe that living anywhere close to waste-free, was therefore only really accessible to those who are privileged in some way. Privileged with either time or money, so you can spend 3+ hours every day preparing your food and exploring for the few waste-free options available. Privileged to not be working one or two+ jobs. Privileged to not be caring for children or sick family members 24/7. Or privileged in that you’re not so poor that all you can afford is plastic-packaged food. This list goes on and on.”
June, a mother of four and a creator of the blog This Simple Balance, has encountered similar issues with the zero-waste and minimalist movements. She discusses in a blog post how middle- and lower-class families often don’t have the luxury of splurging on plastic-free alternatives.
People who live in “food deserts,” or what the USDA defines as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas,” aren’t able to get the food that they need to survive and thrive, let alone food that isn’t packaged in plastic.
I’m sharing this information with you because it’s important to acknowledge the double-edged sword that is zero-waste living. If you are privileged enough to spend the time and money on a plastic-free lifestyle then by all means go right ahead, but don’t address these movements like they are accessible to everyone or shame people who aren’t able to participate.
What You Can Do
So now what? Now that you’re burdened with the knowledge that plastic and trash are harmful to us and to the environment, what can you do about it?
Check out the other blog posts in this series about how you can decrease your trash footprint in various areas of your life; from your bathroom and kitchen to your wardrobe and lifestyle. There are also plenty of resources out there if you want to do your own research and learn more about zero-waste living and shopping for plastic free essentials. Here are some of my favorites:
- Lauren Singer of Trash is for Tossers popularized the idea of zero-waste living. Her viral facebook video where she fits all of her trash from the last five years in one mason jar was what initially sparked my interest in the movement. Her blog deals with everything from how to reduce your waste during college to zero-waste dog treat recipes, and has been an invaluable resource for me when I first started transitioning into a minimal-waste lifestyle.
- Lauren’s shop, Package Free, is a one-stop-shop for everything zero waste.
- Tara created The Zero Waste Collective to encourage and inspire others to reduce their plastic consumption. The ZWC is centered around community and on their website they answer questions about zero-waste living, feature a member forum for open discussion, share tips on their blog, and have a link to their shop where you can find anything and everything you need.
- The Wild Minimalist is my favorite zero-waste store. They have products for the home, childcare, and even pets with the cutest design.
- Check out my Zero Waste board on Pinterest for more tips and advice!
- The documentary A Plastic Ocean on Netflix offers a deeper look at what plastic pollution is doing to the oceans and marine life. This movie is alarming and inspiring, and if nothing I said can change your mind about plastic then this certainly will.
- Although not directly related to zero-waste living, Chasing Coral is a breathtaking documentary that follows the disappearance of coral reefs due to climate change and pollution.
- Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things will inspire you to take a second look at the things that you own and the things that you want.
- The book Plastic Purge by Michael SanClements discusses the history of plastic and its detrimental effects on humans and the planet in a way that is fact-filled yet easy to read. It also includes easy tips for reducing plastic usage.
- Wasted explores the issue of food waste around the world.
- The True Cost breaks the silence surrounding the fast fashion industry and the harm it does to the environment and local economies.
- Mariah Reading is the queen of the instagram art movement of picking up trash from nature and drawing on it. Her stuff is absolutely incredible and helps raise awareness on how much trash is in the wild.
- Sarah Uhl describes herself as a storyteller and an earth lover, and her art reflects that. She is constantly drawing attention to environmental issues in her instagram stores.
A common question I grappled with when I started my zero-waste journey is what should I do with all of my plastic now? Embracing a zero-waste lifestyle requires intentional purchasing from this day onward, but you shouldn’t get rid of everything made of plastic when you first make the switch. Use what you have until you need to replace it with something new, and make sure that the replacement is sustainable and plastic-free.
One last thought that I want to leave you with is that plastic has not been around forever. It has become intimately entwined with life in the 21st-century, but that doesn’t mean we can’t live without it. A quote I read recently is “it’s a million unknown tributaries and streams that lead to the river of change.” Change doesn’t happen overnight, but it can happen. Every small step counts, every action can make a difference. So what’s stopping you?
Was this helpful? Have feedback for me? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Header photo taken by me.