If You’re Doing Zero Waste Without Thinking About Environmental Racism, You’re Doing It Wrong

By Cheryl Ma

If you talk to an environmental activist (particularly a young, American one) you will likely pick up on their very different and sometimes odd lifestyle choices. Perhaps they are vegan, only thrift their clothes, and drive an electric car. Or maybe they take a set of reusable silverware everywhere they go and make their own deodorant. Whatever their habits may be, environmentalists can be easily stereotyped into nature-loving, waste-hating, enthusiasts of a cleaner future. 

The idea of lowering one’s own “personal carbon footprint” may stem from the altruistic mission inherent in regenerative practices, however, today this call to action has been co-opted by oil companies and more often than not, privileged, mostly white environmentalists. Instead of focusing on the systemic flaws of things like producer (ir)responsibility and the waste management industry as a whole, it leans heavily on guilt-tripping consumers for their relatively minuscule contribution to the global climate crisis.

Striving to live a “zero-waste” lifestyle is often seen as an admirable aspiration and it certainly can increase one’s mindfulness towards wasteful daily habits. Yet, the ongoing trend in the environmental community of shaming those who do not subscribe to purchasing things like minimally packaged products, sustainable clothing, and clean transportation is a myopic understanding of sustainability and often leaves BIPOC communities out of the climate conversation. This way of thinking also ignores the fact that these sustainable options often are more expensive and less accessible to BIPOC communities than their plastic, polyester, or fossil fuel counterparts. 

Take the U.S.’s current waste management system where burying waste in landfills or burning it at incinerators are the two main accepted methods of disposal. In the U.S., it is empirically shown that landfills, waste dumps, transfer stations, incinerators, and other waste facilities are disproportionately located in communities of color and are linked to poor health and a lower quality of life for these community members. Currently, 89% of waste incinerators in the U.S. are located in communities of color, and it’s Black neighborhoods that make up the majority of communities situated near landfills.  Native tribes are also disproportionately subjected to the environmental and health impacts of living in close proximity to hazardous waste due to a lack of safe waste disposal infrastructure at reservations.

When an individual reduces their personal waste and perhaps contributes a few less garbage bags to a landfill, it can increase the longevity of that landfill. However, zero waste practices are negligible if the actual waste at the landfill is improperly treated and unsafely managed. Moreover, this does not change the high likelihood that the landfill is located near communities of color. Unless environmentalists address these large-scale problems and their resulting racial inequities, the idea behind “zero waste” will be just that — an idea.  

This is an issue that reaches beyond racial injustices in the waste industry. In some cases, minimizing consumer waste at all costs has relied on prison labor to sort and manage waste, sparked anger within the disabled community, and extended into the international North-South debate. We cannot forget the social implications as we move towards a more sustainable futurea future that should not perpetuate unjust systems. Addressing these disparities will make a bigger impact than simply reducing your personal waste or carbon footprint.

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