By Leyla Acaroglu
Earlier this year, I was invited to attend the Fourth UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya. Politicians, innovators, and activists gathered to discuss the future of global sustainable production and consumption, looking at what the next stages are for creating systems of sustainability and circularity and how to unlock the consumption paradox.
Despite the meeting not obtaining the desired resolutions to help bring about the significant global restructuring needed for a healthy and sustainable planet, the uplifting thing was that finally, after many years, the discussions centered on the roles of design and consumption for how to achieve global social and environmental sustainability. I, like everyone else, have my moments of disillusion, where the hope gets drained out of you by the fatigue of complaints, problems, and inaction. So allow me to focus on the flip side to that: the changes I see rising from the slightly nerdy world of sustainable production and consumption.
Not too long ago, terms like “zero waste” were boring policy directives thrown around by government departments with long-term strategies like “zero waste by 2020”. But in the last few years, ‘going zero waste’ and sustainable living in general have taken on an entirely cooler persona as a lifestyle trend of young, hip Instagrammers and savvy YouTubers are all helping to make this a movement and trend that now anyone can get involved in.
Yes, there are like any movements critiques of the gender politics and the validity of the claims of those who are promoting this lifestyle trend. Years ago, there was a claim that there was a growing trend called LOHAS: Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, and that people would actually start to make economic decisions based on the issues that matter to them. So for me, the Zero Wasters are the living incarnation of this marketing prophecy. And even more so, it demonstrates that the actions of a small group of people can have big impacts on the economy.
A ZERO WASTE LIFESTYLE
A zero waste lifestyler is someone who actively reduces their waste consumption by designing their life to combat acquiring things that are wasteful or will end up as trash, especially avoiding all disposable and non-recyclable products and packaging. Someone embracing a zero waste life usually plans meals in advance to avoid convenience packaging, and ensures they always have a reusable water bottle, coffee cup, straw, and bags on hand to actively refuse disposable items. This names just a few and varied everyday actions these lifestylers take to avoid contributing to the global waste pandemic.
These types of actions aren’t really new; they were well-practiced as normal before the lifestyle of hyper-convenience encouraged runaway disposability, beginning in the 1960s. So, the challenge hasn’t been finding alternatives as much as it has been rebelling against the current status quo.
Many of the heroes of the zero waste lifestyle movement share incredible stories of only making one small jar of actual ‘trash’ a year, often shared on social media through active lifestyle design and adopting simple everyday changes. Composting organic waste from their homes, proactively purchasing reusable products, or even making essentials like toothpaste at home are all part of their day-to-day practices.
While there are aspirational leaders in the movement who are very much tied to the brand of zero waste, the key takeaway is that a person who actively seeks to reduce consumption impacts through conscious micro-actions across several different areas of their lives is a positive thing that should be encouraged. Not just because it helps bring about a new normal around reusability in society, but because it helps change the economy. When many micro-actions are being replicated, it has impacts on the goods and services that end up being made available to all of us.
This can all be seen in the rise of products and services to meet the needs of the zero waste community. Putting aside the questionable environmental credentials from a life cycle perspective of many of the products, and just looking at the shifts in the economy, we can see change — positive change toward a new type of normal, whereby people are activating their agency to help solve the global waste crises.
There are now dedicated zero waste stores in many major cities around the globe (not just in obvious hipster strongholds like New York!). Modern plant-based restaurants, and even entire shopping centers that have sprung up to accommodate this growing trend of plastic-free, package-free, and zero waste consumers who are interested in sustainable consumption options.
As a result of many different interventions, companies have also started to embrace the global trend toward sustainability. We are seeing leaders emerge in the circular economy in some sectors, such as apparel, consumer goods, and furniture. The Loop circular delivery service was just launched this year, and the biggest IPO in two decades was Beyond Meat. Ikea recently announced that they would be 100% circular by 2030, and Lego is working on a plastic-free brick. These examples show a growing demand and substantial shift towards the normalization of products and services that go beyond recycling and start to move us into position where further positive disruptions can occur.
I know, there is still a shit ton of work to do to solve the complex social and environmental problems that occur as a result of the global supply chain marketed to quickly meet every immediate desire of the human needs. Walk down the aisles in any supermarket around the world, and it's obvious that the vast majority of product providers are yet to catch on to this massive cultural shift underway, where consumers are conscious of their impacts and want to avoid investing in wasteful plastic-laden unsustainable products and services. But, the shifts we are seeing are encouraging and should be highlighted.
THE REAL ISSUE IS DISPOSABILITY: THE ROOT OF ALL WASTE
Waste is the dark side of consumption, and despite two solid decades of zero waste policies, and many different approaches from cleaner production to eco-design and sustainable consumption, and now the circular economy, we are still seeing a global increase in waste generation. And not just in plastics clogging the oceans, but in high-tech trash, textile, and food waste.
The issues with waste is that no matter how much recycling or waste management is put in place, more waste is generated than can be dealt with. Many emerging economies have limited or minimal waste management systems, and many big Western countries have absconded their responsibility to manage their own waste efficiently, just exporting it to an emerging economy. Like the case of the Canadian trash that the Philippians refused to take on, or as evidenced by the collapse of the recycling industry after China refused to take the world’s plastic trash any longer.
There continues to be a significant trend in converting reusable products to disposable ones, combined with the painful reality of planned obsolescence in high-value goods, so many aspects of our daily lives are now marked by single or low-value use products. Thus, going zero waste is one defiant act that anyone can do to take a stand against this. The reality is that what we spend our money on impacts the economy. Just like investing in renewable energy increases the value of that industry, the same is said for every product or service. We get more of what we invest in.
And let’s not forget that all of this comes down to design. The World Bank estimates that at the current rate of increase, we will see 70% increase in waste generation by 2050. This is all by design. Waste, whether it be in trash or recycling, is a design flaw, so even with the rise of waste rejection, we have a significant trend to contend with. Products are designed to break, and systems are designed to increase disposability as they cut costs and respond to customer concerns of health and safety. A significant part of the entire waste/pollution/unsustainability problem is that we have designed a system that incentivizes waste, and that is why we need to design for a post disposable future.
Design is also an incredibly powerful part of the solution. We can design for a future that meets our needs in sustainable and regenerative ways, and it's no wonder that the waste backlash is coming at a time when people are more able to design their own lives and share these behavioral and cultural shifts online to audiences of others willing to buck the status quo. This new generation of active consumers, be it zero wasters or minimalists, they are exerting their personal interests on the economy. This is helping to challenge the dominant culture of hyper-consumption and instead showing ways of living a more intentional and purposeful life.
MAKE CHANGES EVEN THOUGH IT TAKES TIME AND EVEN IF YOU FAIL
I have spent years researching ways of effecting change, and the one thing I know to be true is that change is constant, but it also takes time. Many people are not willing to even try something new because they think that it won’t serve them well, but when they do actually enact a habit disruption and discover that there was not a negative outcome, they often then adopt the new change and share it with others. Change is socially contagious, in both directions on the positive/negative scale.
Change is often hard to see whilst you are in the middle of it, and it is even harder when it’s a resistance to the status quo. The global changes toward a sustainable, regenerative, and circular economy require multiple different actors shifting their behaviors and patterns in diverse ways. In the case of zero waste living, it's all about agency and having ownership of your own impact. More so, it is contagious, as the power of social influence kicks in and people see the positive outcomes that making these types of changes can have.
When enough people validate the new actions, it’s a free pathway to the new outcome! To be sure, there are many challenges ahead of us when it comes to sustainability, and major corporations are still far behind in the trend of adopting the significance of the changes needed to adapt to a circular economy. But the progress is real and transformative. The question is not if, but when will we see the tipping point of change where we, as a collective species, start to design goods and services to be a positive influence on the planet?
It's never too late to start swapping unsustainable daily decisions to more considered ones, and in fact, there are five simple actions we can all can start anytime.
Five everyday actions to start RIGHT now
Swap out some meat for plant-based proteins
Ditch everyday disposables such as cups, plates, bags, and take-out containers
Invest in the things you want to see in the world by buying repairable and long-lasting stuff (and make sure to repair it when it needs to be fixed!)
Opt for low-carbon mobility options like biking, mass transit, or ride-sharing
Move money from high-impact industries to renewables through swapping energy providers, banks, and investment portfolios