On March 21, Lauren Singer, arguably the foremost influencer of the zero waste movement, posted a message to her 379k followers. The ten-slide exposition was immediately different from most of her posts, which focus on strategies for reducing everyday waste or her work as founder of Package Free Shop, a source for packaging-free beauty products and home goods. “Two weeks ago, when the reality of COVID-19 set in, I made some choices that went against the way I have lived my life for almost a decade,” she wrote, revealing that she had purchased plastic (“lots of it”) and thus created more waste in one shopping trip than she had over the course of several years. The final slide showed Singer’s pantry, filled with numerous aluminum cans, glass jars, and yes, in the bottom right corner, a plastic bag.
“I feel like right now, not going outside is the best thing that you could do. That's the best value you can uphold,” she says, looking back on her decision weeks later. “But it was really hard and it made me feel really conflicted — it’s like being a vegan and saying, ‘I haven’t eaten meat for all this time, but I’m eating meat now.’”
Singer says her post received positive feedback from her followers and others in the zero waste community, which is comprised of people who have pledged to produce “zero” garbage (in reality, it’s often more like a mason jar’s worth over the course of a year or more — Singer famously fit eight years into a single jar). “If I didn’t take responsibility and own up that I have been living this lifestyle and I shifted my values, it would be incredibly dishonest,” she says. She adds that she probably could have stocked up in a way that was more true to her beliefs, but it would have required going to multiple stores, interacting with more people, and generally putting herself at greater risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19. It’s a reality that raises questions about access, privilege, and how to balance priorities when there are so many things going wrong at once.
A lot of ink has been spilled outlining the flaws of the zero waste movement — it has some weird gender dynamics, it’s a misnomer, it sets people up to fail with an unrealistic and arbitrary goal when really maybe all they need to be doing is recycling better and buying less random crap from the internet. But in the context of coronavirus, the concept of zero waste provides a unique lens through which to examine both the sacrifices that have been made as environmentalism understandably takes a back seat to surviving a global pandemic, and how we might move forward from this and rebuild our economy in a way that’s both more equal and less destructive to the planet.
Bea Johnson, another zero waste pioneer whose book Zero Waste Home is often cited as required reading for folks interested in cutting back their waste, paints a different picture of life during coronavirus than Singer. She’s currently living with her family in an Airstream as part of a now-canceled speaking tour, having rented out her house months ago. When we spoke, she was in Arizona, one of the only states where campgrounds are still open. She and her family are still living off food they bought weeks ago at a grocery store in Texas, a trip she concedes meant buying some packaged in ways she would ordinarily avoid. “I pick the less evil option, if I don’t have access to bulk bins, or if I can’t get my container refilled,” she explains. But she isn’t stockpiling — she doesn’t have much extra space in the caravan anyway — and she certainly isn’t eating processed foods, instead relying on long-lasting veggies like pumpkins and squash, and whole wheels of cheese.
“I think it’s very important to keep calm and just do the best you can,” she adds. “But I see, you know, these pantries with cans of food, prepared meals, junk cereal. We’re not going there. I don’t like canned food, I don’t like pickles — this is, to me, not healthy, and I’m not gonna give up my values when there are ways around it.”
Some of the central tenets of zero waste — like consuming less and being discerning about what enters your home — make even more sense now. Conversely, certain behaviors seem unfathomable in a post-COVID world. Buying from bulk bins, for example, is a popular practice that has been largely banned at grocery stores across the country. Whether or not they’ll return remains to be seen, though Chloe Lepeltier, a blogger who describes herself as “low waste,” says she will “100 percent go back to shopping in the bulk bins, though I don’t expect everyone to.” Similarly, many grocery stores are now refusing to allow customers to bring their own bags. In early March, Starbucks temporarily banned reusable cups, with others following suit.
These may seem like small things, but even for those of us without zero-waste ambitions, they’re increasingly mainstream ways to cut back our personal environmental footprints. Sure, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to all that needs to be done to actually slow climate change, cut down on pollution, and stop ecological destruction, but it helps, and it makes us feel good. For some, everyday decisions like bringing a tote bag to the grocery store or a reusable mug to Starbucks can be a gateway to bigger acts and more environmentally-conscious thinking. But they’ve also been a Trojan horse masking the real things causing those problems, which are corporate greed and weak environmental policy.
“We're in a really bad recession. People are really hurting and there's going to be a lot of resources going into restructuring or booting up our economy. So the question is, are we going to do things the same way or differently?” asks Jacqueline Klopp, co-director at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
While coronavirus has made it harder to engage in some of the everyday acts and behaviors that add up to taking personal responsibility for the state of the planet, it’s also meant pressing pause on much-needed top-level action. For example, the COP26 United Nations climate change conference, which will likely determine the Paris Agreement’s success in reducing emissions, has been indefinitely postponed from November. According to a report in Time, “it has the potential to totally derail climate talks at a delicate time.” (While emissions are down for the time being, as soon as stay-at-home orders are lifted, they’re likely to return to previous levels.) Even much smaller governmental enterprises like New York’s composting and electronics recycling programs have been suspended. Around the world, whether in business meetings or local grocery store aisles, a similar restructuring of priorities is taking place. We’re all just trying to get by and stay healthy, even those of us who have made successful careers out of living sustainably.
And yet, coronavirus has also made our environmental problems screamingly apparent. Scientists believe that human impact on the planet is a primary reason for the increased number of pandemics we’ve experienced in recent years. “A lot of pandemics are linked to the way that we're engaging in deforestation, habitat destruction, and how our food systems are bumping up against wildlife in ways that they didn't before,” Klopp explains.
The zero waste movement may get more than its fair share of flack online, but at least its devotees are engaging with the reality that it’s going to take some pretty big behavioral, societal, and economic shifts — not unlike those we’ve had to make to flatten the coronavirus curve — to get our planet out of crisis mode. With coronavirus, things that may have seemed unfathomable months ago (remote work, the ubiquity of face masks, not going outside for weeks on end) are suddenly par for the course, though still incredibly difficult. How can we create a similar shift in how we think about the environment? Is it possible that — however problematic zero waste might be — it’s the kind of out-of-the-box thinking we need right now? Maybe. But it’s also not enough.
The conditions that zero wasters and other privileged, environmentally-conscious folks suddenly find themselves under — stressed, scared, worried about their health, their livelihoods, and their families — aren’t all that different from what millions of Americans face every day. Those burdens are, of course, compounded now. This reflects larger issues with placing so much of the onus for change on individuals, and points to the need for major social and economic reforms —- a Green New Deal, or something similar — in order to meaningfully tackle our spate of environmental issues.
“It’s hard to say ‘I value sustainability’ if you're someone who is undocumented working in New York and you can't have access to a paycheck right now,” Singer says. “How do you even care for one second about sustainability if your day-to-day needs aren’t being met?”
This isn’t to say individual action and grassroots activism don’t matter. They do. If you’re able to commit to a low waste lifestyle, or some other way of reducing your footprint, that’s great and worth investing in. And, as Johnson notes, it’s not just about being charitable to the planet; there are significant personal benefits to be reaped. “I really want people to understand that we don't do this just for the environment,” she says. “Once you have adopted this lifestyle, you realize that not only is it healthier for you because you end up eating healthy, whole foods, but also, you eliminate all toxic products from your life. I’ve also found that you save a huge amount of money — 40 percent of a household budget.”
But if we take one thing away from the current pandemic, perhaps it should be that we need to be much more understanding of each other and much more demanding of those in power.
“I think this pandemic has made us realize that we are in this together,” Klopp says. “It shouldn't be up to us just as individuals, but up to us as individuals in networks, in movements to say we need to do things differently. It's important to give people encouragement that they can act, but that’s never enough. We need to keep pushing.”