Is promoting a zero waste lifestyle elitist?

Oct 13, 2018

A few months ago, I participated in Plastic Free July, a whole 31 days of using as little disposable plastic as possible. Preferably none at all.

After months and months of dipping my toe into living a low-waste lifestyle (refusing all disposable straws and feeling pretty smug about my efforts to save the turtles), I decided that it was time to dive straight in. It was time to hold myself accountable as an individual and to stop telling myself that I “can’t possibly make a difference when Sandra down the road never puts a recycling bin out on collection day”.

It was a month of no excuses. And trust me, I came up with my fair share of them that I had to ignore along the way: There are no bulk shops near me. I’m travelling this weekend. I already accidentally used one piece of plastic, so I may as well buy myself a ready meal. Each of these thoughts ran through my head on an almost daily basis and it took constant effort to not give in and go for the easy option.

Yet, there was one excuse that came up again and again that, of all of them, actually held some weight: I don’t have the money to sustain this lifestyle.

I know, I know. I’m committing the cardinal sin of zero wasters by suggesting that it’s an expensive way to live. I can already hear people shouting, “BUT IN THE LONG RUN IT’S CHEAPER TO BUY SOMETHING THAT LASTS” and “BUYING IN BULK IS FAR CHEAPER THAN BUYING IN A SUPERMARKET” at their computer screens. I can’t and don’t want to suggest that either of those statements aren’t true.

Of course it’s less expensive to buy something which is better quality that you won’t need to replace every few months. Of course buying 60 rolls of toilet paper works out cheaper than 4 packs of loo roll per sheet and uses less packaging. Those are simple facts.However, I haven’t been able to get rid of this icky feeling since I finished (and failed at) Plastic Free July. As inspiring as the whole process was and as much as it encouraged me to make huge lifestyle changes, it did make me realise that living waste-free isn’t nearly as accessible as the pretty profiles on the internet want us to think.

Can anybody and everybody make positive lifestyle shifts that benefit our planet and reduce plastic pollution? Yes, and we should all recognise that it’s our responsibility to do so. Is it possible for anybody and everybody to live a completely zero waste lifestyle? I’m going to have to hesitantly say “no” to that one.

As far as I can tell, the belief that everyone can and should live zero waste comes from a two-fold place of privilege: Having excess time and having excess money.

Let’s talk about the money thing first. As I said, I totally agree with the argument that living zero-waste works out either cheaper or the same price as conventional living in the long run. But that’s the key phrase that everyone is using when they’re talking about these matters: “In the long run”. Being able to invest is a privilege, and a big one at that. Suggesting that someone should be able to spend £10 on a stainless-steel container instead of a plastic one from Pound Land because “after 10 months you’ll have ended up spending the same anyway” is the small-scale version of telling someone that buying a house works out a hell of a lot cheaper than renting for ten years. People know this stuff. It’s common sense. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone has the money to go making those sorts of investments.

If you need somewhere to live right now but you don’t have a £50,000 deposit sitting in the bank, you have no choice but to rent. If you need somewhere to store your sandwiches right now, but you don’t have £10 spare in your budget to spend on the eco-friendly option, you buy the bloody plastic. Because that’s just what you need to do. On top of that, buying “in bulk” certainly didn’t work out cheaper for me throughout Plastic Free July. I’m sure that this isn’t the case for everyone, but getting to a bulk shop just wasn’t all that accessible.

My nearest plastic-free shop was over an hour’s drive away. If I had gone there (which I didn’t because using that much fuel for the sake of saving the planet seemed like too big of a contradiction to me), the pricing would’ve probably been slightly higher simply because it’s an independent shop and I would’ve spent at least £10 on travel. That’s great if you can manage it, but I was a fresh graduate who just didn’t have that sort of money going spare.So, yes, money is and obstacle when it comes to living a more eco-friendly lifestyle.

Now onto the one that I think people consider even less than money: Time. In my experience, living zero-waste takes more time than living conventionally. It just does. For me, it’s totally worth it and I’m more than happy to give a few more minutes a day (and money, if I have it) to making sure that the way I’m living is as harmless as possible. But that simply cannot be the case for everybody.

There are people all over the world, including here in the UK, who do not have the time to go between three shops to find which sells rice with the least packaging. As much as it would be great if the minimum and living wages allowed people to have spare time to focus their energies on causes they’re passionate about, that’s just not the reality. As it stands, people continue to have to work ridiculously long hours, whilst still finding time to do all of the “life admin” that comes with being an adult. Again, I’m sure that a lot of people would argue that it’s only initially a time-consuming lifestyle: Once you’ve found the shops, the products, the system that works for you, you’re sorted. However, that also relies on people having a certain amount of free time to begin with.

The argument that you “make time” for things that you care enough about is only slightly true. When you have the choice between working so that you can afford to live or cleaning so that you’re staying healthy or, dare I say, doing something actually fun for the sake of your mental health, I think that should take priority. Of course, this leaves us with the same massive problem we started with. We all know that plastic is causing us more problems than we ever thought possible. If David Attenborough taught us anything, it’s that there needs to be a big change.

Recently, news has landed that we will soon be past the point of no return in terms of climate change. So, believe me when I say that I want everyone to do as much as they physically can to change the way they’re living for the better. I want everyone who can live a zero-waste lifestyle to live a zero-waste lifestyle. I also massively respect the people that promote it because, without them, I probably wouldn’t have even considered it a possibility to live without plastic. They’re absolute eco warriors who are doing undeniably incredible things.

However, I stand by my point that it is not possible for everyone to completely forgo plastic in every area of their life, though I do believe it’s possible for everyone to lessen their usage. If we want to see huge, positive changes, the responsibility cannot solely lie with individuals. Non-plastic alternatives need to be more accessible, regardless of how much spare time we have or how much money we make. I’m talking about big business making shifts. Huge corporations can afford to make changes and they should be the ones that take the financial hit in order to positively influence this whole toxic system. I guess it comes down to this: Everyone has a responsibility to do what they can to slow down the decline of our environment. However, not everyone has equal opportunities to do so.

  1. Ella Jones

    October 13th, 2018 at 8:47 am

    I was thinking about this the other day in terms of fast fashion, some people just don't have the money to invest into better quality more eco friendly items- they just buy what is cheapest and what is the more accessible to them. I'm sure if the only shop located in an area was a bulk shop, they'd use it- but when you have alternatives that are easier to use, you just don't bother! The way to make everyone zero-waste is to make the wasteful lifestyle more expensive, which at the moment seems pretty unlikely. I'm glad you've written this – it needed to be said!

  2. Unknown

    October 15th, 2018 at 6:58 am

    Thanks for writing this, Bethany! I've been contemplating this lately too and I realized that the whole lifestyle shift thing (zero-waste, slow fashion, organic eating/cosmetics, etc) is rather expensive. It's not to say we shouldn't do it, but that those who are able to make the shift are, as you accurately put it, privileged. And this has to be recognized and addressed if we want to inspire more people to make the shift.


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