I recently participated in the zero-waste challenge, which required me to carry my trash around in a mason jar for a week rather than throw it into the garbage. By the end of the week, I had half of a jar filled mostly with packaging and waste from groceries, including stickers pulled off of apples and plastic packaging that held a bunch of grapes.
Now, as I’m walking around my local grocer, I can’t help but notice unnecessary packaging in every aisle. I’ve become increasingly aware of how difficult it is to live a zero-waste lifestyle due to our culture’s want for convenience. It was a jar of garbage that forced me to face my privilege: I am able to dispose of single-use plastics and waste on a daily basis without facing the consequences of my consumption. Once we consider the individuals who do have to live with our waste, it becomes clear that environmental justice and waste are inextricably connected. Our consumerist culture places marginalized neighborhoods into poor environmental conditions; therefore, we must change the ways we interact with the products we buy and how they are packaged.
As the food waste director at the Natural Resource Defense Council summarizes, “Packing is inextricably linked with convenience and modernity.” We are only beginning to realize the consequences of opting for convenience, consequences that particularly affect vulnerable and marginalized communities that are forced to live with the waste that they took no part in producing. Most privileged individuals don’t recognize how their consumption may be degrading another community’s quality of life. According to David Pellow in his book, “Garbage Wars,” the human race has a history of imposing elitist problems onto the vulnerable: “The ‘non-elites’ and ‘despised minorities’ not only were saddled with the duty of cleaning up the refuse of the ancient cities, they also tended to live in the quarters where this waste was eventually placed” (p. 23).
Shop with care, not convenience
With nearly a quarter of landfill waste coming from containers and packaging, it is time to become mindful about where we buy groceries and at what cost (EPA). We must accept that the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality is not viable in our interconnected world. We must shop with care, not convenience. We vote with our dollars, and corporations will respond when people stop purchasing single-use plastics and unnecessary packaging.
Complementing and promoting this call for conscientiousness, a rising chain of entrepreneurs hopes to steer society away from its typical production of waste by making it feasible to shop without purchasing plastics. Zero-waste grocery stores are popping up around the country, and within the past month, the Twin Cities have recently become a part of this crusade. Located at 2717 E. 38th St., only a few blocks from the 38th Street Station Blue Line stop, Tare Market advertises itself as an accessible, affordable grocery store that lacks wasteful packaging, capitalizing on bulk purchases and refillable containers; as the mission statement from its website says, “We want to make sustainable living convenient and accessible to all people, so as a community we can decrease our environmental impact.” Supporting such stores can greatly shift the way our culture perceives waste, and they also make it possible to implement the changes we need to truly be a less destructively consumerist society.
A still-limited movement
However, it is important to acknowledge that this zero-waste movement is still limited to privileged individuals, for it assumes that customers have the ability to buy in bulk and buy fresh produce. It assumes that one has the time to use glass and metal containers, sacrificing the convenience of single-use packaging. It assumes that all communities can access wasteless grocery stores, yet the Tare Market will be placed in an affluent neighborhood that is 72 percent white, with less than 8 percent of its population below the poverty line — for reference, 20 percent of all of Minneapolis is below the poverty line. Regardless of the store’s environmental mission, its service to mostly white, upper-middle-class individuals reinforces the privilege of living without waste: Only through its success can such practices benefit those who need it most. As a society, we’ve become increasingly aware of the environmental issue of packaging, but when we widen our lens we see the very real impact that our privilege has on vulnerable and low-income communities.
Despite the limitations of the Tare Market, I believe that this is the change we need within our societies to limit the amount of waste being created. “Worldwide, I believe the zero-waste and bulk movement has a great future ahead,” Raphaël De Ry, founder of a zero-waste market in Hong Kong, says. “Shops, concepts, associations are popping up everywhere. Awareness is growing, and customers enjoy the interaction with the products and the people behind the operation.”
We need to be a part of the zero-waste movement, and actively work to cut back on the amount of waste we personally produce. We need to support zero-waste grocers and movements in our local communities, which can radically improve the lives and amplify the voices of traditionally marginalized voices. Carrying around a mason jar filled with plastics is about more than just changing our perspectives; it’s about fundamentally changing the way we interact with the waste we produce in our society and not separating the two.
Alison Lange is an undergraduate at Macalester College studying environmental studies and geography.
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