Zero-Waste: The Debate Between Plastic and Reusable
Decades ago movements against the use of styrofoam were on the rise. Today, almost all of us know how long it takes for styrofoam to break down in our environment. It is estimated to be about 500 years… with proper recycling! And we know that it is full of toxic chemicals that leak out into our air during production and into our soils decomposing, posing a threat not only to our environment and species but to human health as well. We must remember that what we do to our environment we do to ourselves. Decades later, we find ourselves in a plastic war—which seems to have been put on pause because of this pandemic. Most of us are aware that plastic also has a horrifically awful impact on the environment. However it is still everywhere!
Organizations, individuals, and groups all over the world have pressured our governments and industries to abandon their use of styrofoam and/or plastics, and switch to alternative packaging, whether it be for restaurants, for grocery stores or even for shipping. It is a fabulous movement! We people, who live in a democracy, should always be advocating for what is right and just. We should be using our voices, and holding our politicians and systems of people accountable! We deserve to live in a healthy world and to live healthy prosperous lives. By speaking up and using our voices we have pushed change in the past and that is how we will see change in the future.
This activism against the use of plastic has motivated many individuals to adjust their own lives, leading to the zero-waste movement. Another great movement! The intentions of a zero-waste lifestyle quite simply put, is to waste nothing. That means shopping at stores which do not use plastic packaging, reusing what you have, and shopping in bulk. Of course much more than that, but those are the first categories that come to mind. Zero-waste living is a great way to put your mindfulness to the test. It’s all about being organized and knowing what you can and can not do. Just like any habit, or way of life, the beginning is usually the hardest part. I am a strong believer that we can all lower our waste and shift toward living more minimally/less wastefully through time. And when you are ready to transition, (I’ve said it before many times in past articles) think about why you really want to waste less, and make it a true, deep, meaningful reason why.
For some zero-waste livers, they have participated in buying some trendy zero-waste products, such as metal straws, metal bento lunch boxes, and bamboo brushes. Many of which are not necessarily that necessary when we already have great reusable products in our own household that can last a long time! What got me thinking about this topic is a video I watched last week on the impact of plastic straws on our environment (you can find it here). The video talked about not only plastic straws but all types of straws, even the reusable ones, having an environmental impact—which we often neglect to think about. When we think about the making of a product, in terms of environmental sustainability, we have to keep in mind that there are many factors that determine that—the emissions from factories in which the product was produced, the physical resources it took from the environment, and how it breaks down.
We need to look at our lives and build our own plan for sustainability. We can follow zero-waste principles but slowly ease into that lifestyle, or pick and choose what works for us! Not every person practicing sustainability needs several metal straws, an abundance of tote bags, and the most trendy of products, only those who will actually use them. If we forget our reusable bags for grocery shopping once, we can use plastic/paper bags, instead of having an abundance of reusable bags that pile up. Instead of buying a whole new set of glass jars, we can wash out the ones that we have already (but, if you know that new jars will assist you in your sustainability journey and that you will keep them for a long time, then you go for it).
What we need to do is consume less and when we do consume, consume in quality (perhaps from a local vendor at The Lupine Market)! If you use plastic straws everyday in your home, then I definitely suggest another type of straw that you can reuse (there are exceptions of people who need to use plastic straws, for example in nursing homes). If you buy your coffee from a local café and consistently use disposable cups, then I suggest you switch to bringing your own. However, we don’t all need these products if we are rarely going to use them. We need to think about our lives, our habits and way of life to really determine if buying a certain reusable product will be of a good investment, not only in terms of cost, but in terms of its practicality and usability in our day to day life.
Most importantly we must remember to use what we have.
When I first tried to minimize my waste/impact, I did everything I could do to avoid using plastic bags, even when I forgot my reusable bags. I would buy even more reusable bags, until they kept on piling up in my closet. In reality, I could have compromised to use a plastic bag once or twice. I now realize that multiple reusable bags are likely causing more of an environmental impact than a one time plastic bag use. However, now that I am in the habit of shopping the way that I do and am better at planning when I will go, it is something that I rarely forget about. It’s not an effort for me anymore, it is a part of my daily life and purpose.
Ultimately, as social beings, we see most change when it has been integrated in our culture. For example, when I was living in France, everyone brought their reusable bags to the supermarket. It was just the norm. It is more common in European culture to see that, as they have governmental laws in place, but more importantly, the people want to live this way. When we as individuals living in a society go out into the world, use reusable products, refuse plastic and ask for sustainable options, we make it easier for others in the future to do the same. We are contributing to helping make our communities greener simply by living green.
It may seem as if my writing is a little counterintuitive to advise against some zero-waste products, but the point that I’m trying to emphasize is that to see a difference environmentally, we must think holistically about the things we decide to buy—whether or not it is a zero-waste product. What I like to suggest instead is the concept of conscious consumerism.
According to Neguyen, conscious consumerism can be defined as “buying practices that are driven by a commitment to making purchasing decisions that have positive social, economic, and environmental impact”. I view conscious consumerism as also the practice of balance, of understanding our limits as individuals, and buying mindfully within our own scope. Conscious consumerism is consuming with intention and conscious thought. It is a positive shift in our lives—as well as in our system.
If you are someone who does not practice any of the above, or even if you are, I challenge you to a few things. I challenge you to:
Lower your waste.
Reuse what you have and commit to your reusable lifestyle.
Stop buying reusable products that you are not going to use.
Challenge others, governments and institutions to lower their waste and environmental impact. To get you started on that I have attached a few petitions from GreenPeace Canada below.
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that it is important for us to speak up to our governments/industry to seek for a better world. I also wrote about individual lifestyles. When we have a combination of both, we can make our everyday lives better and more meaningful, feel like we are contributing to a greater good, as well as being a part of positive change in our society and in our culture.
Be the change,
GreenPeace: Plastic Free SuperMarkets
If you are looking for ways to start living/transitioning to a low-waste lifestyle in the Saint John community check out Shop Juniper in Uptown SJ!