Since it surfaced on social media around a decade ago, the zero waste movement has grown into something of an aspirational lifestyle — one with which many of us BIPOC don’t identify. Indeed, zero waste Instagram posts often evoke vaguely Goop-y images of upper-middle class white women wearing flowing dresses made by pricey sustainable fashion brands, their airy, spacious kitchens lined with mason jars of dry goods. The zero waste movement reeks of privilege, in other words, and some BIPOC want to change that.
These activists want to make zero waste more accessible to BIPOC and expand the conversation to include systemic issues, like the plastic industry’s role in disproportionately polluting communities of color. This way, the onus doesn’t fall solely on individuals, especially low-income BIPOC, for whom a low or zero waste lifestyle may not be feasible.
“When people have the privilege or power to be talking about these issues, they need to really incorporate an intersectional lens,” says Isaias Hernandez, the 24-year-old Los Angeles-based environmental educator behind the queerbrownvegan Instagram account. “I see zero wasters banning plastics to save the animals but really failing to talk about how the petrochemical industry is harming and killing low-income BIPOC.” The petrochemical industry, which uses fossil fuels to manufacture plastics, has historically built its plants near communities of color.
The notion of zero waste began as a set of guidelines for businesses and communities to practice responsible consumption, reuse, and recovery of products and packaging to avoid harmful discharges to our land, air, water, and neighborhoods, Hernandez explains. But along the way, zero waste has turned into “an individual lifestyle moment that focuses on being eco-friendly” without really advocating for, say, the removal of petrochemical facilities that pollute low-income communities of color. “I always argue that zero waste is a human rights issue.”
The emphasis on consumer habits in the current lifestyle-focused incarnation of the zero waste movement can keep it beyond reach for many low-income BIPOC. Zero waste products are often more expensive than their plastic or plastic-packaged counterparts. “It’s a hard sell to a lot of these communities or people from there because it’s placing the burden on them, that they need to be spending this kind of money to live this kind of lifestyle, and if they’re not living it, they're not actually helping the environment,” says Kristy Drutman, 25, a youth climate activist in Oakland, California, and creator and host of the Brown Girl Green podcast.
Instead, she believes people with the privilege and platform in particular need to assume the responsibility of demanding that companies use less plastic, which can help bring down the price of zero waste products. They also need to pressure government officials to regulate plastic, and educate others about practical, affordable options. “There are zero waste hacks that save you money,” she says.
While going plastic-free this July and last, she found that buying canned and bulk foods lowered her grocery bill — but she also needed to plan way more than usual, like remember to bring her reusable utensils to restaurants, which not everyone has the time, energy, or education to do. Hernandez adds that the zero waste movement also needs to do a better job of encouraging people to use what they already have rather than buy new sustainable alternatives.
In fact, that’s what cultures around the world have long done: reuse the resources they have out of necessity, rather than the need to achieve a certain aesthetic, Drutman says. In her Filipinx household, that looked like using every object to its full extent and wearing hand-me-downs. Hernandez had a similar experience. “As a low-income individual, zero waste was based on survival,” he says of being raised to reuse plastics and other objects. “It was seen more as a poor thing.”
I can relate, having grown up in an immigrant family that repurposed empty food containers as Tupperware, bagged our lunch in plastic grocery bags, and shopped at Goodwill. But even if we’ve always engaged in zero waste practices, they’re not exactly cute enough for a zero waste Instagram post, which has made me hesitant to associate myself with the movement.
Drutman also cites reusable boxes that people in parts of the Philippines fashion out of pandan leaves, while Hernandez tells me about circular waste practices developed by the Aztecs. Yet the zero waste movement largely erases this history and knowledge, and the cultures from which they originated don’t always embrace them, thanks to Western colonization, Drutman says.
“They didn’t label it as zero waste, but this is a part of daily life. A lot of the messaging has gotten lost,” she explains. Now, many immigrant families view plastics as the only option, and as a sign that they’ve “made it” in America. “It’s about unlearning that in our generation to know there are other options there. Maybe we do need to have a modern twist without erasing those cultures, and more so pay homage to those cultures, and incorporate that into mainstream use.”
Hernandez believes acknowledging these cultural practices can also make the zero waste movement more accessible to BIPOC communities. “If [zero wasters] want to create more accessible conversations, they really need to highlight those people in the movement,” he says. He encourages them to “hold themselves accountable to their own work and how it reflects and how it could discard or harm BIPOC who follow this lifestyle but don’t relate to the term ‘low waste.’”
BIPOC struggle to see ourselves in the zero waste movement in other ways, too. “The aesthetic that comes with it isn’t actually culturally nuanced,” Drutman says. Not only do many zero waste brands tend to use mostly white models, but their products aren’t always designed for BIPOC. Although shampoo bars for BIPOC hair have begun to emerge, Drutman says most of the shampoo bars available will wreck her thick, curly hair.
She believes that talking about the systemic human consequences of plastic consumption on communities — not just on sea creatures — could convince more people to embrace the zero waste movement. It could also spur needed conversations about sustainable alternatives to plastic industry jobs, so that people don’t have to choose between financial security and living in a healthy environment, which could further make the case against plastic.
To Hernandez, the refusal of many zero wasters’ to address environmental racism because their followers might consider doing so controversial, or incongruous with their aesthetic or work, is dangerous. The fact remains that the petrochemical industry is taking a toll on the health of Black and brown people, and not publicly recognizing this only further marginalizes them.
On queerbrownvegan, Hernandez creates educational graphics that helps people examine plastic pollution through a larger intersectional lens in a safe, classroom-like space. Drutman similarly broadens conversations about the climate crisis by interviewing environmental leaders about diversity and inclusion on her podcast.
“Protecting the planet doesn’t start at individualism, it starts at collectivism,” Hernandez says. It’s not so much allowing more people to have a seat at the table as doing away with the table altogether. “It’s more dismantling the current situation that has been punishing BIPOC communities,” and reimagining new, more just systems.
In other words, plastic pollution is an urgent issue, one that endangers already marginalized communities. Hiding that reality behind a photogenic lifestyle that both erases and alienates BIPOC might look good on the ‘gram, but that’s about it.
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