Zero Waste and Environmental Racism

Zero Waste and Environmental Racism

A while back, I saw a post on Instagram written by a white woman saying that the zero waste movement upholds environmental racism. The caption really rubbed me the wrong way, but so many people in the comments agreed with her that I thought I just wasn’t understanding her. Today I want to look closely at the claims and ideas presented, and whether or not they stand up to fact.

Pinterest graphic reading "Debunking the myth that zero waste promotes environmental racism"

Background

In the IG post published in July during the peak of racial justice protests in the U.S., the author claims that a zero waste lifestyle is not worth pursuing because it contributes to environmental racism. Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color (Greenaction). She goes on to list the reasons she believes this to be true, including that zero waste is a privilege and it exacerbates socioeconomic inequality. IMO, I think she was just trying to capitalize on the racial justice movement and seem woke by calling out the growing zero waste movement. I don’t think her positions are well thought out and I think she’s just trying to make herself/her followers feel good about not trying harder to care for the planet.

Here’s her caption (cleaned up a bit for grammar/clarity):

“The zero waste movement upholds and profits from environmental racism.

1) Environmental racism refers to the fact that structures, policies, and institutions often negatively impact BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) communities over white communities, for example toxic waste disposal. This happens domestically (landfill placements) and internationally (where we ship our waste to).

2) Environmental racism very much exists on interpersonal and internal levels too!

3) The privilege that comes with CHOOSING this [zero waste] lifestyle over HAVING TO live a certain way is a very important distinction. Even that zero waste can be a hobby or an add-on shows the inequality that exists between ‘haves and have-nots.’

4) It is hurtful and inappropriate to disrespect where zero waste truly exists – exactly where resources are limited (because of looting, capitalism, white supremacy, etc.) – AND how the co-opting and selling of zero waste ideas deepens stereotypes, prejudice, and racism from what is seen as “presentable” zero waste and what is not.

5) Most zero waste panels are filled with white people. The images of zero waste living tend towards Eurocentric and middle- and upper-class ideals. This again deepens the idea of who truly lives zero waste and who doesn’t.

6) AND even if you personally are championing zero-waste living, that is mostly dependent on waste-based labour by others.

What’s the point of you championing zero waste when others are excluded from it?”

Analysis

Now that we’ve seen what OP had to say, I’ll respond with my thoughts. Her first point is just a definition of environmental racism and I think it’s fairly accurate, so I’ll start with point 2.

(2) Environmental racism exists on an interpersonal and internal level.

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what this means. My best guess is that she means individuals can add to environmental racism through their personal choices. From what I’ve learned though, environmental racism is primarily enacted on a systems/community level. 

Here’s a little more from the Greenaction article cited earlier: “Environmental racism refers to the institutional rules, regulations, policies or government and/or corporate decisions that deliberately target certain communities for locally undesirable land uses and lax enforcement of zoning and environmental laws, resulting in communities being disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous waste based upon race. Environmental racism is caused by […] intentional neglect […] and a lack of institutional power and low land values of people of color.”

As this illustrates, environmental racism tends not to be the result of a single individual’s actions. I wholly accept that I might’ve made a straw-man argument here, so I won’t dwell on this point any more.

(3) Being able to choose a zero waste lifestyle is a privilege.

I certainly accept that some people can choose to be “zero waste” while others have to live more frugally. However, just because this inequality exists, does not mean that those who can choose to try to lessen their environmental impact should not. In fact, the very existence of the inequality and means that we have even more reason to try to make a difference. 

To use OP’s example of landfills being located near BIPOC communities, if those who can reduce the amount that they’re sending to the landfill then less pollution flows toward the neighboring community. In this case, it is the duty of the “haves” and the privileged to actively reduce the impact they have on their less fortunate neighbors.

(4) Zero waste lifestyles are disrespectful to those with limited resources.

As before, this is my best take on what OP is trying to say. I do understand the idea that people with limited resources, especially Black and brown communities, have had to be resourceful and reuse by necessity. I also understand that it can be annoying and even hurtful to now see privileged white people be praised for their thrifted outfits and reused tupperware, when poorer families have been ridiculed for doing the exact same thing. Even though there is pain and disrespect in the flaunting and praise, I don’t think this is a reason why an individual concerned about the environmental should not quietly try to follow a zero waste lifestyle.

OP also notes that “the co-opting and selling of zero waste ideas deepens stereotypes, prejudice, and racism.” I can see what she means here with companies advertising products as zero waste solutions that some cultures have always used or that are not actually needed to live zero waste. However, I think it’s important to separate individuals trying to live zero waste from companies that co-opt and sell these “zero waste products.” The existence of exploitative companies should not stop individuals from trying to reduce their waste.

(5) Zero waste speakers/panelists/influencers are primarily white.

Again, my rebuttal to this point boils down to “this is true but also not a reason to not be zero waste.” The fact that every U.S. president has been a man doesn’t mean that women should not try to be president. It also doesn’t mean that men have to stop trying to be president (well, except one man in particular 😉). The same goes for zero waste. Even though many “zero waste influencers” are white does not mean that BIPOC shouldn’t try to become zero waste influencers or that white people also shouldn’t try to be zero waste. Although, perhaps like the presidency, it would be nice if the in-power group ceded some space to those who are traditionally under-represented.

(6) Even if you’re personally living a zero waste lifestyle, it depends on the labor/waste of others.

Yet again, I think I understand what OP is trying to say, but it just isn’t a convincing argument for why an individual should not try to be zero waste. The issue here is that the only alternative to zero waste is WASTE, which is exactly what we don’t want! The alternative to a bamboo toothbrush that perhaps generated some waste in its production is a plastic toothbrush that also generated waste in its production and will be left on the planet as pollution for millenia. OP tries to say that zero waste lifestyles are racist and implies that non-zero waste lifestyles are not racist, which is simply not true. The option is actually “racism and environmental degradation” versus “less racism and environmental degradation,” and we should choose the latter.

What’s the point of you championing zero waste when others are excluded from it?

The point is to make it more inclusive! The more individuals buy zero waste products, the more the market will respond with lower prices, wider availability, and options that suit everyone’s needs. Think about shampoo: a decade ago there was only liquid shampoo in plastic bottles. Then a few companies started making shampoo bars and those trying to live more sustainably latched onto them even though they were only available in select markets at higher price points. Now, so many brands have shampoo bars, they’re accessible (Walmart sells them!), there are different ones for every hair type, there’s also liquid shampoo in reusable packaging. If environmentalists had said from the beginning that no one could buy sustainable shampoo until everyone could, we likely wouldn’t have gotten here.

To conclude, the fact that inequalities exist and that zero waste living can be a privilege do not mean that those who can be zero waste should not out of respect for BIPOC communities. In fact, whenever you have the ability to choose the better, more sustainable item, you have a responsibility to do so BECAUSE of environment racism and inequality. When presented with two options within our budgets, one that produces less pollution than the other, we all ought to buy the one that produces less pollution because the pollution is more likely to end up harming BIPOC communities.

Let me know what you think!

Do you think zero waste living contributes to environmental racism or lessens its impact? Do you think I interpreted her message wrong? Drop a comment below or on Instagram @naturallynaturalblog

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