Zero Waste – ‘New Old’ and Privilege

The concept of Zero Waste goes a lot deeper than the modern fashion trend, which is actually increasing consumption and mostly benefiting manufacturers and sellers. I probably sound pretty negative, but just think we should be aware that even good ideas can be harmful if we blindly follow the path of fashion. I will give an example: the reusable bag is super great, but if you buy 10, 20 or any number that you don’t actually need then it is already wasteful and creates unnecessary production (especially if they are made of dolphin skin, but that might just be a strange dream I had).

‘Zero Waste’ is a buzzword right now, but it’s not a new concept. Sometimes we just need to think a little about these new ideas to realise that the most important parts of them are actually old ideas. For example, when I was a small child, my grandmothers household was already zero waste.

My granny’s ‘eco’ household

She had a garden of fruit trees. Different varieties of apple trees meant that she could harvest apples in different months, and the later ones could be stored over the winter in great shape. There were a couple of pear trees, different plum and cherry trees. In between them all were bushes with currants, raspberries, and gooseberries. There was enough that not just my granny, but our family could collect all of the natural goodies, eat some fresh loaded full of vitamins, and of course make jams, juices, and freeze them to last until the next harvest. Everything was delicious and everything was organic!

The other part of the garden was more like a vegetable farm, with different kinds of onions, carrots, garlic, potatoes, beetroot, peas, beans, dill, parsley, strawberries, cabbages, cucumbers, tomatoes and probably many other things that I can’t remember. Of course, the best thing was to eat everything fresh, but there was always enough of everything to last until the next harvest season. Most of the tomatoes and cucumbers, along with plenty of cabbages and beetroot, were preserved to use through the winter time.

All the time the food leftovers and waste (actually I can’t really remember any food waste) was going in to the compost heap. Now that composting is fashionable you will find a lot of complex lists of instructions, but you know, this was quite basic compost without any deep knowledge. It was made up of just some old grass cuttings and leaves from trees, food leftovers, and grey water.

My granny was not vegetarian or vegan. She kept hens for eggs, and a rooster so that the hens would produce more eggs, and would want to make little chickens. For some time she also had a cow and pigs. So all of the products like eggs, milk, butter, lard, ham, and sausages were produced at home, as well as smoking hams, sausages and other meats. She was not going out and buying bread either, she was baking it both for herself and sharing with us.

Did she buy anything at the shop? Hmm, not so often and if she did it was more in bulk so it would last for a long time, which means not using lots of packaging. Jars were made of glass so she could reuse them for ages. She made bags herself from random pieces of fabric, old sheets, or old clothes. She made fabric dolls for me and I remember the old mats next to the door or by the beds made from leftover pieces of fabric – recycled and reused. She used some old metal boxes for storing things and there were really no unnecessary or disposable things around. It was a clean and tidy house with a great looking garden.

‘Modern’ urbanlifestyle

Obviously you can not have my granny’s living style in a small apartment in an urban area, but you should choose to buy products that are local, direct from farms if you can, and with the least packaging possible. Honestly it is not so easy when we live in the ‘fast’ modern society, it takes a conscious effort. Most people want everything to be fast, easy, new and modern. Sometimes we don’t have time, or don’t wish to think about the effects our consuming behaviours have.

I wouldn’t dare to judge people for all of their choices, because sometimes they don’t really have any at all, but I believe it is important to educate and inform new generations to have critical thinking and to see that our individual actions have an effect and consequences for the future.

The modern urban lifestyle puts a lot of pressure on people. Innovations are not always really good for us, but quite often we see them as practical and time saving tools, things like plastic bags, disposable or plastic tableware, mobile phones, the internet or whatever. We feel the need to have new innovations, and then constantly new versions of them, though actually quite often we can’t afford it.

It is a sad but I believe a very true fact that we don’t all have access to the best options. Better quality and long lasting products, Things that are healthier, more sustainable and ecological, that are better for the environment, zero waste tools are not affordable for everyone. I guess it is another topic… but how can you think about the long term investment when your kids needs to eat now.

ZWIA and Zero Waste Households

It used to be that tools we bought lasted for an entire lifetime, but is that useful for manufactures? No. Of course if you pay a good price you can still find great quality tools, but we can’t always pay the price. Or things still work, but sometimes we want something new, something more fashionable. By consuming lots of goods and creating more and more waste we endanger the environment, the flora, fauna, oceans, and of course we endanger our health, and the poorest areas feel the effects the most.

You might not know that there is a Zero Waste International Alliance, ZWIA for short, which gives a very clear definition of zero waste:

Zero Waste: The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of all products, packaging, and materials, without burning them, and without discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.

ZWIA puts importance on education and cooperation, you can read more interesting facts, their policies and about projects at their website.

These are impressive goals, but to be honest it feels sometimes that these great ideas are not rooted in reality. The Zero Waste concept provides guidelines and principles for continually working towards eliminating waste, but we are not anywhere near zero yet.

As a result of pressure (better later than never) our planets governing bodies, nationally and internationally have started to take notice and come up with new approaches and regulations. It sounds kind of ridiculous to talk about the trash not going to landfills or the ocean, but before somehow we didn’t think about it. Nowhere near enough plastic is recycled even now, and ZWIA encourage us to reuse materials until optimum levels of consumption. It is good that governments are finally making some laws about production, packaging, etc. but it needs a lot more.

If you look from a holistic point you could say that Zero Waste could make great changes to many things, the environment, food quality, saving expenses that could be used for health improvements. It’s not enough to leave this up to government regulation, we should all play a part.

Probably the first person who made the concept of the Zero Waste House famous was Bea Johnson, a French American woman in West cost California. She made the decision to apply these zero waste principles to her household and tell the world about it. In 2009, she started sharing her journey through her personal blog which became hugely popular, and later on giving speeches and writing books.

Zero Waste Good, Bad and Privileged

By definition, trends come and go, but hopefully some good acts and ideas stay for longer. Hopefully even if we forget some good ideas we will rediscover them again and again. Right now the whole Zero Waste concept is on a wave around the world and it is great. There are more natural and organic products like soaps, shampoos, toothpaste, reusable bags, organic crafts, upcycled furniture, biodegradable or compostable tableware, reusable coffee cups and water bottles, and so many other things.

But are these new ideas? I don’t think so. As I already said, in the country I come from 30 years ago in the rural areas most people, like my grandmother, had zero waste households.

So do we really need to present Zero Waste as a new super cool concept? Honestly I don’t think we do. Maybe we just need to look back to our elders and combine exciting new technologies with the great experiences they still have time to reintroduce us to. Maybe we need to start from letting kids spend more time outside and showing them the example of how to care more about the environment we live in. To respect each other and also the nature which is our main provider.

Another thing is that these incredibly good ideas come together with negative sides. Most of us who sit in front of laptops and read or write about zero waste can afford to think about the global issues. We can reflect on our actions and we can make decisions to reduce what we throw out or to go zero waste. As I mentioned earlier, not everyone can make changes in their lives.

There are millions of people living in very poor conditions and quite often they are judged for their ‘bad’ choices. They are judged for their ‘choices’, when some of them even don’t know that they had any choice to make. People who have experience living or working in developing countries (I don’t mean going for holidays) will know that many people struggle to survive each day, they suffer from hunger, poor health conditions, and domestic problems. We, the people who have the privilege to make choices, to afford better quality things, need to give a part to the ones who can’t and stop handing out blame and judgement. Someone once asked “Why do poor people make poor choices?” and the answer was simply “because they are poor”. They don’t make choices, assuming that they do, is like selling an electric car in a rural area of Malawi and then wondering why no one is using it. Obviously the electric car is such a great idea – zero CO2 emission, but not if you can’t charge it.

There are still more issues. People want to be trendy and go with the fashionable ideas, so they decide to implement the zero waste concept by throwing away things that still work perfectly but might be not so ‘eco’ – Hey like this you actually create more waste! Maybe buying massive amounts of the best quality organic food which ends up as food waste because we didn’t think about the amount we will be able to eat. Some people are buying new reusable cloths when they could cut up and use old unwanted sheets for it. These are just a handful but there are so many other examples, the bottom line is that all new production has a cost, so throwing away serviceable things and replacing them with new greener ones doesn’t always make sense.

So, like everything else, this great idea has it’s positives and negatives, as I believe everything in life has good and bad side. It depends as well on the point of view and the position people stand. The most important thing is to be aware, to find critical thinking, to think globally, but start to act locally. To try to understand that not everyone have the same experiences, conditions, capacity, understanding and priorities as we do. For the people who can make choices to understand that a small action like starting to use a metal or bamboo straw, or choosing to walk instead of driving 1km, is already making a difference.

I know that somehow all of my texts end up being a little bit chaotic and I am not so sure if everyone who reads them understands my point of view. If you have managed to make it to the end and had some thoughts on it I am very happy!

Leave a comment