I hate lumping this into one post, but people have written me quite a bit recently about their frustration with the zero waste movement and how discriminatory and ableist it can seem. To hear some describe it, it's the "You can't sit with us!" of environmentally-driven movements. I'm definitely guilty of saying anybody can be zero waste, and I'm sorry for that, because it isn't practical for everyone and not always appropriate. Judging by the comments on most articles about zero waste bloggers, many feel the lifestyle is overwhelmingly represented by young, affluent women who can afford pricey stainless steel containers and have the time / ability to run all over town for ingredients before investing the labor necessary to make vegan food and natural beauty products. What about people suffering arthritis, or those confined to a wheelchair? How about those who are on food stamps or rely on food pantries? Shaming people for buying plastic or pre-peeled fruits and vegetables isn't an effective motivator towards environmental change. Nobody should feel obligated to lead a zero waste life- being conscious and aware of our environmental impact is good, but people shouldn't be judged for their personal choices, which vary by circumstance.
It's important to realize that until hemp, cellulose, and chitin packaging becomes the norm, plastic packaging and convenience foods have their place. Those who can may drive consumer demand for biodegradable materials on the retail end, and those who can't shouldn't feel bad about using products that improve their quality of life. There are many disabled or low income people who are naturally environmentally conscious; here are some things they do to save money or strength while still lessening their carbon footprint.
Going Zero Waste (Without Spending a Lot of Money or Energy)
- Eat less meat and dairy. I grew up with a single mom, and while she worked really hard to give us a great life and we're very comfortable now, there were times when things were really lean. Our income qualified us for government subsidized food programs in our state, but our celiac disease, which there were no provisions for at the time, precluded us from taking advantage of it. She managed to feed all of us, sometimes for as little as $2 a day, with creative, delicious meals made from vegetables, beans, dried spices, and rice. We stayed healthy and got plenty of protein, and my brother and sister are very tall, so it's not like it stunted our growth or anything. Lentils and beans are cheap in bulk, and homemade plant based milks are less expensive than cow's milk (this obviously doesn't apply to everyone, but my neighbor, who is over 70, makes one tiny bag of garbage per week, and has arthritis along with other health problems, says putting ingredients in her blender is easier than opening a Tetrapak). If you don't have access to bulk bins, don't worry about bags or cans. Eating vegan just one day a week saves so much oil, energy, carbon, and water! In Paris, there's a vegan, gluten-free delivery service called Funky Veggie that contains everything you need for one vegan night per week, all in recyclable packaging, so people don't have to run all over town sourcing ingredients for a healthy meal- perfect for a city with limited handicap accessibility. Just remember that your health and well being comes first. I do know frugal people who used their food stamps to shop at Whole Foods, they just skipped the fancy stuff and focused on bulk, frozen, or canned items. In Ohio, many farmer's markets will accept food stamps or SNAP cards.
- Shop secondhand / reuse. Saves money, saves resources, and, at least in Paris, spares people with limited mobility running around because it's one stop shopping for household goods, clothing, etc., instead of heading to the little specialized shops favored by the French :) I noticed many Emmaus shops around here are handicap accessible, whereas some of the more expensive places are too crowded and lack ramps or elevator-equipped Metro stops. Also, I feel like a jerk for saying this because I recommend Weck jars all the time, but don't feel like you need a matching set of Weck jars or the same "zero waste essentials" another zero waste blogger uses. Reusing the bottles you already have is beautiful too! Before I moved here, I didn't even have a mason jar. I reused all my mom's old stuff and only bought jars and bags secondhand when I moved and couldn't take it all with me.
- Grow your own / make it yourself. This applies more to people with low incomes than with disabilities, although when I worked with disabled and terminally ill children, they found gardening and making seed balls easy and therapeutic. Freecycle or Craigslist often has listings for free seeds, clippings, or even mulch, and sometimes people give away canning equipment (which you can often buy secondhand). Making your own condiments and preserving your own fruits and vegetables can cut down on expenses, depending on where you live. Growing your own herbs or re-growing from food scraps saves a lot of money, and composting means free fertilizer!
- Clean naturally. I received emails from people with ALS, MS, arthritis, and lupus that they love their Brush with Bamboo toothbrushes because of the easily openable, plant based packaging- remember the plastic toothbrush packaging you had to struggle to cut open? Using baking soda is also easier for some people than dealing with a twist up deodorant or squeezing toothpaste from a tube, not to mention cheaper. Save money by cleaning with plain soap and vinegar from an easy-to-use spray bottle, instead of harsh, expensive industrial cleaners and detergents with child-proof packaging. Switch to rags instead of paper towels and try water only or no poo to slash expenses.
- Incorporate reusables judiciously. Safety razor shaving, menstrual cups, and cloth diapers save so much money. I was amazed at how much my monthly expenses went down just by switching to a safety razor and Mooncup alone. Using cloth napkins and real silverware is a one time investment, and sometimes shops give a discount if you bring reusable bags (Target still does this, and all the family run groceries in my hometown).
Volunteer run community garden in Paris, filling reused jars at zero waste shop Day by Day
Also, I hope it's okay that I write this, but one of the ladies suffering from ALS said she loved bulk wine in the swing top bottles too- maybe for some people it might be easier than using a corkscrew? I was also thinking that eating bulk snacks from drawstring bags can be more convenient for some handicapped people than struggling with plastic bags you need to cut open and reseal. I can't imagine what it's like to suffer from daily pain and still carry the weight of the world's environmental problems around with you, and I feel bad that people feel that way. These people should be proud of doing the best they can without sacrificing their health or their dignity. Those of us who do not suffer from a chronic illness or who have more income at our disposal can work to make zero waste more inclusive. For instance, in Paris and in Cleveland there are programs that turn brownfields or abandoned / unused space into community gardens, to give people in food deserts access to fresh, free fruits and vegetables. On Rue Leopold Bellan, there is even a free herb garden one resident started (pictured above), inspired by the movie Demain. Paris also has some shops with bulk bins situated low to the ground, so people in wheelchairs can use them. Could you volunteer to collect food that would otherwise go to waste and redistribute them to the needy? Petition local shops for more accessible bulk bins? Or assist handicapped or elderly persons in your community with the grocery shopping? The point is to be balanced- obviously there are more important things in life, and you can't spend all your time and energy on zero waste. Anyway, I tried to avoid using insensitive or ableist language here, but I don't always know what's politically incorrect anymore, so please tell me if any of the suggestions seems unrealistic or offensive. I believe zero waste shouldn't be solely a function of privilege, but maybe, as things stand now, it actually is.