Privilege, Ableism, and Religion in the “Zero Waste” Movement

I first tried writing a post about this, but there was so much I felt like I needed to say, so these topics evolved into me creating a video simply talking instead.

The roles that privilege and ableism play in “zero waste” lifestyles isn’t talked about enough. I also wanted to share how I was first challenged and continue to be challenged with the zero waste movement, touching on the role religion plays in that.

Here are my main points:

  • “Zero waste” is really just low waste because achieving zero waste is completely unattainable in this time.
  • I am privileged because I live in an area where bulk stores and resources are available to me and I am supported by others. This lifestyle is a choice for me. Many people don’t have bulk stores, resources, support, or even a choice.
  • Now, when you look for resources on living zero waste, it’s often young, white, affluent women. But zero waste living isn’t new. People in other parts of the world live this way and live off of the land out of necessity. And, what is being brought to the table now was already there by black and brown people. Only because white people have affixed themselves to this lifestyle is it now receiving focus.
  • Many don’t have the means materially or physically to live this way. As an able bodied person, I can take advantage of going from store to store, carrying containers around, opening jars, etc. Many aren’t able to live this way.
  • Many rely on food stamps and food banks as a source of food. Pursuing a zero waste lifestyle is out of reach for them.
  • We with privilege are called not just to recognize our privilege and talk about it, but above all, we are to break down walls and dismantle systems, corporations, and mindsets that oppress others from having this lifestyle be a choice and who want to limit their environmental impact. We with privilege are responsible to make this lifestyle attainable for everyone.
  • America is obsessed with instant gratification. Others in the world have no choice but to be intentional and thoughtful with what they buy and consume.
  • Why does this lifestyle in America seem to necessitate privilege when it is the default lifestyle for many in “developing” countries?  Capitalism and colonialism are really terrible, folks.
  • We are all called, no matter who you are, to treat the environment well, to care for it and to protect it. That will look very different for other people, and that’s okay. One step at a time. Zero waste is only one way to lessen your impact on the environment. It’s not the end-all-be-all lifestyle for those who want to protect the earth.
  • We can’t rely on the government to protect people and the environment from corporations. Not using plastic is an incredibly impactful way to boycott Big Oil, an industry fueled by racism, corruption, and greed.
  • Environmental issues affect people in an individual, concrete, daily way, not just the land. Just google “living in landfills” and “rising sea water erasing pacific islands.” We as white people in America won’t hear about this unless we deliberately seek out that information, because it doesn’t affect us personally. So learn about how climate change is immediately affecting black and brown people outside of America, because they’re often the ones who get it first and get it worst.
  • I am Catholic, and our Catholic social teaching has seven themes, one of them being “care for creation.” Pope Francis talks about our “throw away culture” not just in regards to trash, but people as well. My faith is a big reason why I am passionate about this and why I am called to action. My faith calls me to live simply and just with what I need. To not live in this way would be contradictory to the religion I claim for myself.
  • My actions affect other people, whether I realize it or not.
  • Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on care for our common home, is a total game changer, and I strongly encourage all folks to read it.
  • This movement must be inclusive and those with privilege are to make that happen, which means making this lifestyle achievable and accessible to all.
  • We are all called to care for the environment and the individuals within it. If you are taking any steps to limit your environmental impact, whether big or small, be proud of yourself and celebrate it!

What are your thoughts on this? Let me know below in the comments!

9 Replies to “Privilege, Ableism, and Religion in the “Zero Waste” Movement”

  1. I want to watch it but am low on data, so no more videos for me. 😖
    Could you pretty please sum up the major talking points for me so i can get an idea?

    I’m not religious, I’ve seen a fair number of self-proclaimed religious folks in the movement, it’s not something they put so front and foremost. I really want to hear your take. I even did a video AGES ago on my YouTube about issues with privilege in the zero waste movement as well.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks! You hit on pretty much all the points I did. My main point was that it’s mostly middle to upper class white women involved in the movement and it’s problematic for that to be the only face.
        ZeroWasteGuy And Cassie V are two amazing people who aren’t typical. While white, zero waste guy is a male, not typical of a zero waste blogger/activist by any means. Cassie V is straight up one of my favorite channels. She has great energy and is a lovely black lady involved in human rights and environmentalism(which is also part of human rights). I haven’t checked her channel super recently but if she’s putting out more videos again, I for sure need to shout her out on my blog to get her in front of more eyes. Who knows, even if another white middle class woman sees it on, say, my channel, and shows one of their non-white friends, then that will help bring more diversification. As people like her are popularized, maybe it’d help remove some of the stigma involved with being eco.

        I didn’t touch on this in my video but it seems like most zero wasters who are posting about it are left leaning. I work with a bunch of hardcore republicans and it’s forced me to consider how to approach environmentalism from a perspective of someone who doesn’t beleive we are causing climate change. Instead of talking about climate change I frame it as a very patriotic form of resource conservation. We don’t need to import so many materials(from, say, China) if we recycle what we have. We also can create American jobs if we all recycle- it’ll be diverting so much waste from landfill we could have more American based recycling plants, making it a more local thing.
        I know recycling is a small first step, but for people who are ADAMANT that the world will endlessly support us, it might be all we can get them to do until we start trying to thinking other ways to tie environmentalism to how they think.


  2. Thank you for posting this! It is such an important thing to talk about. I’m disabled and severely impoverished, and in the zero waste movement. I’ve felt the effects of these attitudes a lot.

    I also feel inspired to talk about how much more environmentalist the majority of impoverished folks have already been living without these cues from others with money. A lot of zero waste culture in current pop culture seems to centre around investing in things up front that many can’t do. And there are still ways that those of us in poverty have been reworking how we relate to objects and things that are thrown away as well. The things plastic bags are good for, what to do with old t-shirts, what to do with other people’s old t-shirts. For menstruation, during homelessness, a lot of what I did was just wear several layers of underwear or use a sock as a pad. A friend of mine used to go dumpster diving weekly and then drop off rounds of still-good groceries to friends who couldn’t manage to do it themselves.

    And it goes above and beyond that as well. A lot of different recycling plants will pay you for what you collect. Some organic food groceries offer you discounts if you bring in your old milk jugs for recycling. My family forwarded most of our things to consignment shops growing up and it did not even occur to me until adulthood that there were seriously people who threw out textiles. They can become rags, if nothing else, or be cut out into something else. Holes in clothes can be darned and stains can be dyed. So many people are living off that which everyone else throws away. The fact that I don’t have reusable straws becomes a moot point when proportionately to wealthier folks, I’ve been going above and beyond my entire life, just to make sure nothing is wasted.

    I could say a lot more about ableism and how many times I’ve heard people directly telling disabled folks that needing things like plastic straws to live just means that our existence is “just another part of what needs to be sacrificed to save the environment.” It doesn’t matter how much I explain that wax worms can rapidly digest soft plastics. People are often and widely very cavalier when it comes to mentioning they think disabled folks should die and/or never have children. How they feel zero waste is a good idea, except, they treat living beings as waste and easily throw us away like it means nothing. There is value in disabled people that can never be measured under the oppressive systems that be right here and now.

    Liked by 1 person

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