Paris To Go

Environmental Justice


Lately I've been thinking a lot about the zero waste movement's association with privilege. Recently I visited my old neighborhood and entered an old factory full of carcinogenic asbestos, stuffed to the rafters with trash. You have to climb a pile of garbage three stories high, with trees shooting up out of it, to even enter the building. One level was covered exclusively in e-waste, chemicals from which leached into the ground. Another housed treated wood, needles, and other biohazards. Sadly, illegal dumping wasn't limited to a single factory, threatening the nearby community's water supply and putting residents at risk for low level lead poisoning. Some were seriously injured stripping abandoned buildings of scrap metal and other materials for resale. The surrounding area appears post apocalyptic- bombed out-looking roads, homes with collapsing roofs and porches, deserted cars lining the block. A man slowly pushed a broken shopping cart full of aluminum cans down the street, picking up smashed ones rolling by. One lady shouted to be careful and make sure I didn't take my phone out around others.

The trash comes from affluent suburbs within the greater metropolitan area, and waste removal companies were allowed to dump as they pleased- but if local residents were caught tossing anything, they faced fines among other, often more severe, penalties. This is but one example of severe racial disparity in proximity to hazardous waste sites and enforced environmental laws. Cleaning up these sites is difficult because some of the owners are now in jail, or they owe back taxes, making them hard to track down. When you finally do reach them, liability provisions make owners unwilling to relinquish or assess contaminated land. Then there's the trouble of funding. Land use regulations limit prospective developers' flexibility. Discriminatory real estate, lending, and insurance practices put secure housing out of reach for most. Decaying urban areas with shrunken tax bases have no money for necessary municipal services like trash collection and disposal. Who wants to invest in an area literally overflowing with waste? How do you rezone a place like that? And how do you get residents to trust developers after decades of disinvestment, broken promises, and disappointment?

People talk a lot about how sustainable living is too expensive or impractical for the general population. But when I see people living like this- and there are a lot of illegal dumping sites and makeshift landfills in my area- it makes me think discarding trash and having it carted away is really a function of privilege. If I throw out packaging from a Daiya pumpkin spice cheesecake, I don't ever have to deal with it again. My trash gets shipped off to a lower income neighborhood, or a so-called developing country, where somebody my age, with probably the same aspirations and desires as me, literally gets buried alive in it. Their children will suffer from asthma and other low level chronic health threats caused by industrial chemicals I use and purchase- not mine (speaking hypothetically, I still don't want children). So it bothers me that the zero waste movement is associated with environmental racism, when garbage is so widely used as a tool of oppression.

I worked in sustainability for almost ten years, primarily with urban communities, and saw many ideas to improve living conditions shut down by bureaucracy or political barriers. Zero waste is the only professional arena where I actually saw concrete change, where people actually told me they felt healthier and happier, like their lives were better. Almost anyone, regardless of income, can say no to a plastic straw or a paper napkin. Everyone benefits when they buy primarily because they need something, not simply because they want something new. The underlying causes of environmental racism are systemic and deeply entrenched. They are not going to be fixed with a social media post. They're not even going to be fixed by government! I was at COP21. The throwaway mentality causing humans to view things- and people- as disposable is essentially a spiritual problem requiring a spiritual solution, and you can't legislate people's attitudes. But you can influence them.


When you vote, you're accountable for whatever that politician does, because you put them in office. Shopping is voting, and we're accountable for everything we put in the trash. Corporations frequently ignore governments, but they can't ignore consumers. Force their hand, and things happen. Raw materials are cheap right now, but the costs associated with recycling, repair, and biodegradable goods are high. Anyone can use social media to demand better materials, and more recycling and repair options. Anyone can stop buying unnecessary items. If those who have access to unpackaged products take advantage of it, or use their means to repair instead of buying new, we can lower the cost of raw materials and increase accessibility to durable goods. That's why I think zero waste is a real way to mitigate the environmental evils people face now. And I KNOW zero waste isn't just an elite concern.

Eight years ago I did a guerrilla gardening program with kids from an urban housing project. Recently, one of the girls, who at the time wasn't even a teenager and had already been shot and worse, told me she was upset I wrote here that some people are so poor, and struggling so much, that they can't afford to care about zero waste. That was the most disenfranchising thing I could have said, because, believe it or not, struggling people do think about things beyond mere survival. They imagine more beautiful, greener lives too, and assuming they can't do anything for the zero waste movement strips them of agency same as speculation and displacement. Historically a lot of urban programs fail when they focus only on housing, legislation, and zoning, but don't account for things like beauty and culture, which everyone- yes, even poor people and minorities- need. And zero waste is beauty and culture.

Sunday I went to an urban garden in an adjacent neighborhood. My sister and I rototilled that land, which was once an abandoned lot, and neighborhood kids took ownership of it. Now, seven years later, they have fresh berries and currants and lettuce and the most delicious ugly carrots and tomatoes in what was once a food desert. My friend Stacie, who started speaking to classes in inner city schools about racism after her son's friend was shot to death by a white police officer in 2014, met me there. She pointed out the upcycled bird feeder her son made out of plastic bottles, the rain barrel kids painted, and compost they turned themselves. She also introduced me to four boys sitting on a bench laughing. She caught one trying to break into her car and literally dragged him by the ear to pull weeds. "They weren't up to any good, so I gave them something good to do," she explained. "If anyone thinks zero waste is equivalent to victimization, tell them to come to Forest Hills and see real victimization. Put that in your blog post."

For every person that says zero waste is only for the privileged, the white, and the affluent, I have an email from someone who associates the behavior with cheapskates, ascetism, or Depression-era thinking. I mentioned this to a friend who suffered extreme racism growing up (she did not grow up in the US). At one point, as a direct result of prejudice and exclusionary legal practices, she scavenged streets for spare change just to afford enough for a single meal. To this day she saves every little scrap and wastes nothing. She thinks it's funny zero waste is perceived as an elitist trend, because, as she put it, "I was zero waste before blogging was even a thing, only we didn't call it that. It was called desperation then." I've mentioned my elderly neighbor in the 7eme before, who is wealthy and white and reused little confiture and yogurt jars and produced maybe one tiny bag of trash per month. I told her I had an objectif zero dechet, because of a French woman named Bea Johnson. She said she had one too, because of the Nazis. She was a child when they occupied Paris, and she's Jewish, so she learned to save and reuse everything back then, when she was suffering. 

The point of this all is, dismissing zero waste as a marker of affluence won't contribute to environmental justice. And drawing dividing lines between the privileged and not (who's the judge of that anyway? I once called a coworker privileged but she'd worked in Atlanta inner city schools for fifteen years and did amazing things- I felt so stupid) won't help, either. Based on case studies and my (admittedly limited) working knowledge of sustainability in urban communities, here are some things that can bring about workable solutions now:
  1. Follow the money. To tackle deeply entrenched problems, I'm sorry, but you have to move rich people, if success stories like Dudley Street are any indicator. Show investors brownfields and abandoned industrial sites aren't liabilities, they're assets. Get them to see these places, not as health threatening eyesores, but as potential playgrounds and parks and spaces for homes and businesses. You can do this by eliciting stories from local residents and being strategic about use of media. Overcoming legal hurdles heavily depends on gaining clout with officials, and they're not going to do anything unless they think it'll benefit business and wealthy people, so highlighting inspirational stories from the local community can help them see reinvestment as a benefit to cultural and institutional arrangements.
  2. Organize massive cleanups. It has to be extreme- my mistake in the past has been planning small scale cleanups when in reality you have to tow away tons of cars, scrap a bunch of shopping carts, literally strain rivers of cigarettes and plastic bottles, etc. Like decluttering or dieting, little steps won't help much, because it's just enough to make you feel deprived, but not enough for immediate gratification, i.e. visible results. Social media is a good way of mobilizing people- especially youth- to take part, but for long term sustainability, you need to get people off social media and away from their phones so they can actually work and help.
  3. Involve everyone. Planning committees, trustee boards, and community leadership must equally, not proportionally, represent all races and income levels to prevent infighting. Plus if you want tackle problems like absentee landlords or unfair zoning, if you want government to delegate eminent domain to low income communities, if you want development without displacement, you need all the lawyers and developers with all the cultural inputs and sensitivity you can get.  When building and institutionalizing civic capacity, it's especially important to get youth involved- in the long term, this ensures a well-developed economic base so longtime residents, not just incoming hipsters, benefit equally. This is why places like the Flats in Cleveland failed in the past. If the businesses and housing are too expensive for the existing community, you have gangs coming back, and it's going to go downhill again, same as it did when I was a kid, and again when my mom was younger... but places like Fairmont Creamery or businesses like Dave's Supermarket and Perfectly Imperfect, which reinvest in the community and provide fresh produce and healthy food to people in food deserts, will sustain growth in the long run.
  4. Enable low income residents. This might mean teaching kids to propagate their own plants from clippings, food scraps, and donated seeds; or establishing free classes and counseling on everything from zero waste to finance assembly (which a lot of zero wasters are already doing). Prospective homebuyers, and hopefully future zero wasters (I don't really like that term but whatever), need confidence, skills, and knowledge to overcome long-established obstacles.
  5. Landscape open space. A garden can fix any problem, be it societal or environmental, and it's a proven way to stabilize a community, restore unbuildable (is that a word?) land, and contain hazardous waste. A lot about a half acre large, depending on what you plant, can remediate lead-containing soil so it's clean enough to grow crops in as little as three years. Eventually these plots can be redeveloped for food production or value added food enterprises. In the meantime, urban gardens mitigate pollution and allow residents to affirm cultural identities. Public art (see The Heidelberg Project, House Poem) is similarly helpful in that it nurtures culture and fosters creativity, which is a hallmark of successful initiatives that transformed unlivable areas into vibrant ones.
  6. Focus on what you can do, not what you can't. I know not everyone can afford fancy jars or has the luxury of driving all over the place to bulk shops. I've been there. Not everyone even has access to real fruits and vegetables- this summer I gave a toddler his first raspberry and it broke my heart. He'd never had a piece of fruit that hadn't come in a can or plastic cup before. But everyone can say no to some disposables. Most people can use, say, knotted t-shirts or pillowcases instead of plastic bags. Use a rag instead of paper towel, or collect dishwater to flush the toilet, or turn the water off while brushing teeth, or use baking soda and bar soap instead of packaged toiletries. Everyone can make personal choices to consume as little of earth's resources and produce as little waste as possible according to their unique circumstances, and challenge their lifestyle to ensure future sustainability.

One of the women I mentioned just used a menstrual cup for the first time, and it was lifechanging for her, but she never had enough money at one time to invest in one- it was gifted. Right now, because everyone automatically assumes durable goods are too expensive without actually thinking about it, there's limited demand for loans for circular economy solutions. The infrastructure necessary for extended producer responsibility, recollection, and recycling can change business classification to include waste management, bringing a host of requirements and regulations many companies can't afford to take on until more consumers demand them. 

Instead of writing off the zero waste movement entirely, why don't we take practical steps to get reusables into the hands of people who could not otherwise afford them? I already know women who are using the money they've saved by going zero waste (or the money they've made from blogging about it) to donate to womens' shelters, or provide reusable feminine hygiene products, or purchase seeds for inner city school gardens. There's a lot of sacrifice and hard work going on behind the scenes that people aren't seeing on social media. If you have an idea- a concrete, specific idea, not just an abstraction- about how the zero waste community can help victims of environmental racism, tell me! I want to hear if there's a school or an organization you know of that needs reusables or a garden or a business that needs crowdfunding or something. I want to know how to do better. But don't just say zero waste is too expensive or unrealistic. I'm sick of hearing that from people who haven't tried it or who are too prejudiced to really look at the movement closely. And while I'm ranting, people can stop trying to guess my ethnicity too. You'll never get it right! I'm every color of the rainbow. I'm basically a Doug character!

Zero Waste Meals



I'm happy there's a farmer's market, a Dave's (which provides fresh produce to / reinvests in the urban community), and a Whole Foods right by work. It's such a luxury. I used to work long hours, and nowhere near any bulk shops, so I'd shop at whatever was open and buy a lot of loose produce, stocking up on bulk ingredients once a month. 

Most of my produce is homegrown or straight from small producers now, but I'm not the biggest fan of American farmer's markets. Comparing them to ones in Paris is like comparing Kylie Jenner to Meryl Streep. Still, it's nice being in America's breadbasket and having a car to get fresh maple syrup straight from trees, or forage wild berries from the side of the interstate, or pick enough peaches to last me and the local food bank all year. Before moving to Paris, I used to take two buses to go grocery shopping, which wasn't fun, but I felt good getting local apples and beans and not eating processed food.


The past few weeks were busy washing and chopping and freezing salad greens and fruits for winter. I freeze everything from juice to soup and kimchi in glass jars. It's safe! My grandma's been freezing in jars and metal containers for years with no freezer burn issues. FEMA recommends storing food in glass rather than plastic bags to prevent contamination anyway. According to Weck and Ball, the ones that have a shoulder are best for freezing, as well as jars that are wider on the bottom- just leave room at the top (below the shoulders) for expansion, and leave space between jars when storing. In all these years, I've only broken one jar, because I threw it on the ground, not because I froze it or anything.

I pack lunch and breakfast, but even though I commute by car, it's not very different from what I packed in Paris, when I had to carry food around all day. I still tote the same jars and tiffin in a cloth bag, or tied up with a napkin (no ice pack, just utensils). Breakfast is usually normal savory food, like Mung beans and kimchi, or nopales from my grandma's garden, or a homemade almond flour tortilla with avocado. I make grain free pancakes a lot too, mixing in nut butter, blueberries, or pumpkin. I mostly eat roasted veggies and salads from homegrown ingredients, with hummus or lemon, bulk almond butter, and bulk olive oil as dressing. This week I tried a Perfectly Imperfect box for the first time, so I'm eating a lot of sweet potatoes loaded with mango salsa I made from its contents, topped by homegrown beans and steamed homegrown Swiss chard. Sometimes I make smoothies, as a water alternative, never a meal replacement. I psychologically prefer sinking my teeth into things.

 

I don't buy a lot of traditional bulk ingredients- almond and coconut flour, quinoa, nutritional yeast, baking soda, and nuts are pretty much it. I make milks from almond butter, a trick Archana shared, eat homegrown beans, and use mashed fruit (normally homemade applesauce or pumpkin) as an egg replacer (oil as a butter substitute, maple syrup instead of sugar). I buy fair trade chocolate chips in paper and canned jackfruit when fresh isn't available. While traveling, I try to stock up on grain free, gluten free bulk pasta, which isn't always sold here. Otherwise I buy that in cardboard too, sparingly- I really only prepare pasta for other people. Typically dinner is just sauteed tomatoes with celery, onions, garlic, and chopped spinach or kale or beans. I pour it on zucchini or squash instead of waiting to boil noodles. Instead of rice, I use cauliflower for deconstructed bibimbap and pizza crusts.  I also like to slice eggplant, top it with tomato sauce and avocado, and bake for mini pizzas. Note: When shopping, I only bring one or two jars, for nut butter and olives or oils. The rest of my groceries go in cloth drawstring bags or netted produce bags.



I have a problem though, because no matter how much I pack for work, I'm always hungry. Like a goat, regardless of quantity, I can't stop until it's all gone, and the more I eat, the harder I am to satisfy. I'm trying to snack on whole fruit, nuts, and celery or carrot sticks with freshly ground nut butters instead of energy bars or packaged vegan snacks. I'll pack grapes or berries in my tiffin with peanut butter and veggies, and raw nuts in a cloth drawstring bag. I'm also trying to fill up on water- especially infused with homegrown cucumber and mint- to curb cravings, which is not very effective. This is gross but I've been keeping a mason jar of almond butter mixed with maple syrup at my desk and eating it with a spoon, for desperate situations (for zero waste office tips, click here).



When stressed, I crave macaroni and cheese. I've made every vegan cheese there is, but I can't make it like Daiya, so I've allowed myself one Daiya mac and cheese per month. I'm working on kicking that though. As my friend Tori points out, cashew queso is truly vegan crack, I just need to force myself through the dreaded task of making it at home. I've been making this cheesecake and fake Hail Merry tarts, and lots of vegan, grain free cookies, nut butter fudge and homemade peanut butter cups too. I even got ticketed for eating peanut butter cups in my car. I wasn't even driving! On Instagram a person asked if there was anything I missed about going zero waste, but not really. I can make most things at home or buy them in my own containers (even vegan cinammon rolls). Sriracha was hard to quit until I just started eating straight peppers and putting homemade kimchi on everything. No hot sauce will ever be hot enough for me again. 

Why I Went Zero Waste


I'm writing this because Bea Johnson's Zero Waste Home changed my life. Because I'm a narcissist, I assume it will change yours too.

Zero waste is an industrial term applied to a consumer movement towards a circular economy where, much like Amy Schumer’s comedy, material is reused and recycled infinitely. This means reimagining design, manufacturing, and recovery to divert or recapture as much as possible from the waste stream. It involves using only biodegradable or reclaimable technical nutrients that nourish, rather than harm, the environment. More importantly, it requires changing habits: buying less, choosing quality over quantity, and demanding durable, not disposable, goods. Zero waste is the way our grandparents lived, a lifestyle we rejected because we were too busy swiping left to cook anything but shrink wrapped meals.

The zero waste movement grew partly because of increased awareness of the dangers of climate change. According to a 2016 EPA report, municipal solid waste landfills were the third largest contribution of any methane source in the United States. Convenience comes at a cost, and we live with the consequences of having everything precut, prewashed, air conditioned, and delivered. Mostly, however, the movement’s increased popularity can be attributed to inspiring women like Johnson, who drew attention to the lifestyle via social media. The story of an empowered French woman forging environmental change in America resonated with me, though my background couldn’t be more different.

I grew up really far from the Gallic countryside, in an economically depressed suburb of Cleveland. My family composted, had a vegetable garden, upcycled everything from paper bags to twist ties, and owned Ferngully on VHS. We lived in a small, 200 year old farmhouse, where we climbed trees in thrift store clothing, picking apples and pears off the branches (we also played a lot by the creek out back, which was filled with sewage). My mom, despite working full time and raising us alone, sewed our clothes and cooked homemade gluten-free meals every day. Most people think I’m an only child, which should probably bother me. I’m the oldest of six.

This upbringing- at the intersection of post-Occupation Korean frugality and third-generation American conspicuous consumption- turned me into sort of a Beyonce / Sasha Fierce, ecologically speaking, minus the talent, money, and beauty. Anybody can be a good little planeteer until they hit puberty and start caring about what other people think. I went from scavenging $0.50 secondhand Comme des Garçons jeans to spending my whole allowance at Wet Seal. My curly hair, which I once wore long, like a Stevie Nicks dress, became frizzy and brittle under the eurocentric rigors of ceramic straighteners. I was trapped in a vicious cycle requiring more products, more chemicals, more time spent fighting my sister for the bathroom every morning, all so I could fit into a typically Midwestern thermos of jocks, cheerleaders, sk8r bois, and AP nerds whose names I don't remember.


They were different times, those dark days when my AIM buddy list looked like a Hollister catalog and I barely knew what a carbon sink was. I graduated high school and bought a ticket to Paris, my first trip outside the country alone, indulging in every mini disposable product and travel gadget Target had to offer. I went to Zara and spent graduation money on stuff I’d wear once, then toss as soon as photos appeared on Facebook. Back then, I pretended I didn’t derive unparalleled joy from identifying wildlife habitats listed in Janine Benyus’ field guides, or secretly extol Arne Naess’ ideas of all-encompassing natural relationships as I applied glitter lotion to my forearms every night.

Everything changed in college, when, confronted with the fact my family could never be proud of any major not requiring a semester of organic chemistry, I ditched plans to become a teacher. My mom suggested taking a sustainability course. The class opened my eyes to the absurdities of resource mismanagement, industrialized food production, and my own personal overconsumption. I suddenly understood why Morrissey preferred animals to people. The more I read, the more helpless and hypocritical I felt. I drove everywhere, drank bottled water, and ate too many Snickers. Frustrated with the disconnect between what I learned and how I lived, I asked a professor for guidance.

She sent me an article about the Johnsons, a family of four trying to live trash-free in California. Looking at pictures of their organized cabinets gave me the sensation of clean, crisp mountain air caressing my face while biting into a York Peppermint Patty. Unpackaged bulk items rested beautifully in the pantry, unencumbered by labels. Non-toxic, non-polluting bar soap surrounded by air plants lent a minimalist appeal to the bathroom. The zero waste home, in all its white, plastic-free purity, was the domestic manifestation of Tilda Swinton, better than any Nancy Meyer movie house.

Even more striking was what Bea Johnson herself represented. Here was someone living her values and inspiring others to do the same. Next semester, I tested the zero waste lifestyle for a school project. At first I tried a week, then a month. The experiment gradually slipped into a year. My allergies disappeared. Instead of buying paper towels and plastic wrap, I saved money by switching to cloth for cleaning or carrying sandwiches. I started eating vegan. I walked to class, and for the first time in my life, noticed a hint of Kardashian-like posterior tautness. Grocers quizzed me about my package-free objectives. I found this oddly gratifying, probably because I love attention. Once I saw how rewarding zero waste living was, I didn’t want to stop. It was kind of like seeing Kim and Kanye together for the first time- it just made sense.

That zero waste project showed me how basic I was. I chose to go from a simple, contented upbringing where I freely experienced culture and nature to letting others tell me it wasn’t enough- there was a ton of stuff I needed instead. The magazines I read and people I hung around influenced what I thought I should wear (fast fashion), or buy (pumpkin spice lattes), or look like (any of the original Laguna Beach cast members). As is the case for so many from my generation, I’d lost my sense of direction, becoming fully dependent on peers and marketers to shape my identity. Zero waste gave me my independence back, however dramatic that sounds.

It also helped me start a new life in another country. That year, I met a Frenchman in a speakeasy in the Marais. We married a few weeks later. I’d basically only ever lived in Cleveland, and suddenly found myself in an unfamiliar place, with a different language, and a culture surprisingly alien to me. Want a surefire conversation starter with Parisians? Tell vendors at farmer’s markets you want fresh produce or bread in your own cloth bags. Curious neighbors inquired about the glass jars and wicker shopping cart I wheeled around everyday. They learned my name, and I learned their stories. I asked about their kids, and they asked about my cats. I arrived a shy, scared foreigner, but zero waste broke the ice, making me feel at home right away.

It all went full circle, I guess, from the Cleveland girl reading about Bea Johnson’s zero waste activism stateside to the Cleveland girl composting on a little balcony in Montmartre. Critics argue, however, that zero waste isn’t practical for everybody. Can millennials, who are so obligation-averse they can barely commit to a Netflix series, go zero waste while still having enough time and money to cultivate their personal brand? I think so. I’ve seen firsthand how zero waste helps others achieve happier, healthier lives, and it’s not as difficult or extreme as one might think. That, along with my near pathological need for affirmation, is the reason I started this blog: to provide busy people a flexible means of transitioning to a simpler, more sustainable lifestyle. Not everyone lives in a city with bulk shopping, or has the spare time and resources to make everything from scratch. I wrote this for those who might not realize they have the circumstances to go zero waste yet.

To see Bea Johnson speak in Toronto for the first time, purchase tickets hereThis was supposed to be the introduction to a book I couldn't finish because, well, I'm not a good writer. I don't have the creativity required for a coherent Instagram message, let alone a blog post, let alone an entire book.  I meant to publish it as my first blog post but it was too annoying. By now you must be used to me so I figure this is as good a time as any, it's the spiritual sequel to this post. I took the photos in Amber and Dylan's beautiful Rooke's Nest.



Paris to Go