Zero Waste Criticism: The Surprising Disadvantages of Reducing Waste

zero waste criticism
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The most obvious disadvantages of reducing waste via the zero waste lifestyle is how much work it is, especially in light of the environmental benefits. Sure, you can take sensible baby steps towards zero waste. But fitting a year’s worth of trash in a mason jar is a different story.

Here at R&R we typically proceed under the assumption that the most pressing environmental problem in the world is global warming. One could convincingly argue it is the most pressing problem faced by humans in the history of our species. It is not an exaggeration to say our the survival on this planet is on the line.

The question then becomes, if you choose a zero waste lifestyle, what kind of impact are you making in terms of global warming. Unfortunately, you will put in a lot of effort with relatively little to show for it in terms of reduced carbon emissions.

Converting to Renewable Energy vs Zero Waste

zero waste criticism rooftop solar is better
Photo by MICHAEL WILSON on Unsplash

Let’s use rooftop solar, specifically the panels on my house, as a comparison point against the zero waste lifestyle.

In four months of my average rooftop solar production you’d save as much carbon as achieving full zero waste status in your household. That is, sending nothing to a landfill for the entire year. 

But the big difference is we produce those savings passively. This is a different kind of zeroing out, a zeroing out of any effort on our part.

Not everyone can afford solar panels on their roof. Not all houses are on sunny plots of land. But the point is, the energy to run your house or apartment is likely a huge part of your carbon footprint. You will likely get more results by trying to zero out your energy usage as opposed to reducing your trash to a jar-sized amount for the month.

Zero Waste vs. Taking a Bus One Day a Week 

Let’s take another big chunk of your household emissions – transportation and the gases coming out of your tailpipe.

As we covered this in our deep dive on Mr. Average’s carbon footprint. We analyzed the carbon footprint of a hypothetical average person in the most average place in the U.S.

An average household emits about 15,000 lbs. of carbon emissions from driving vehicles per year.

Mr. Average’s trash added  2,000 lbs. of carbon emissions per year to his footprint. Even if you zero-wasted your life to the point of sending nothing to a landfill, it is a fraction of the carbon emissions from driving.

People have limited time and energy to devote to reducing their carbon footprint. We would argue that this misplaced effort is a major disadvantage of reducing waste.

Reducing your trash to zero is a lot harder than reducing how much you drive. Reducing your driving, even by a fraction, can result in big reductions of your emissions.

Taking public transit is better than zero waste
Photo by Kamil Ślusarczyk on Unsplash

Spending less time in the car also has the benefit of lowering your chances of dying in a car crash as well, as we illustrated in our other rant, um, I mean blog post, about why SUV owners are contributing to global warming in a somewhat flagrant way.

Reduce your miles driven by 15% and you could reduce your carbon footprint by the same amount as zeroing out all your trash for a year. Taking public transportation one day a week instead of driving might get you pretty close to your goal.

Not everyone can afford it, but buying an electric vehicle will take a huge bite out of your carbon footprint. Going back to our friend Mr. Average’s household. After switching to an electric vehicle, he’d reduce his carbon footprint by over 7 tons in one year (and every year after).

Or he could live a zero waste lifestyle for 8 straight years to achieve the same reduction in carbon emissions!

Schismogenesis: A Fancy Word in Defense of Zero Waste

Schismogenesis, yes that is a real word and not a typo. It is a big fancy word from the social science world that provides some insight into the zero waste lifestyle. In their amazing but dense book, The Dawn of Everything, Graeber and Wengrow introduce the idea of schismogenesis. 

Though their discussion is about prehistoric people, the concept may apply to the zero waste movement too.

Schismogenesis is how culture, especially of adjacent groups of humans, often evolves in a manner that is seemingly in opposition to the culture of other nearby groups. If you live near a culture that embraces war, your culture might evolve into one that values peacefulness.

Turns out that our contrarian nature here at R&R is deeply rooted in human nature. Phew, we were worried it was just us.

Anyway, it is a common pattern for groups of people to define themselves in a way that explicitly rejects the values of another, nearby group.

The first people to embrace the zero waste lifestyle were reacting to our consumerist, wasteful culture. They were schismo’ing (a new verb we just invented) against the ridiculous wastefulness of consumerist society.

Is Zero Waste The Beginning of a Cultural Correction to Consumerism?

The history of the zero waste movement goes back a long time, at least 40 years. But with the advent of social media, the zero waste movement gained a highly effective way to get the message out.

Now there is a cottage industry of zero waste influencers taking pictures of little jars filled with a year’s worth of trash. People have created countless blogs, videos, and how-to guides to transform your household into a zero waste haven.

Despite our somewhat dismissive tone, we are big supporters of those who can pull off that kind of transformation. Our point is simply that it can become a distraction if taken too far. Or worse, if people focused on Instagram posts about their mason jars of trash lose sight of more pressing environmental challenges (i.e., global warming). 

It is hard, from the vantage point of today, to truly appreciate the influence that zero waste movement has had on society. But I’m fairly certain that people certainly recycle and compost more than in 1980. There is a strong argument that the influence of zero waste warriors has contributed to that shift. Though the plastics industry has also pushed recycling for malicious reasons.

We hope the example provided by ardent followers of the zero waste movement will, in time, push society to a more moderate, and less wasteful, version of consumerism. And who knows, maybe there will be a grand awakening and the whole idea of consumerism will become passe, and society will jam it into a little mason jar and toss it in the proverbial dustbin of history.