Written by Mailyn Lai
Disclaimer: This piece is not to discourage the zero-waste movement nor its supporters. It is a reminder that we must acknowledge and reflect upon how the societal cultures of overconsumption and of convenience is harmful to our environment and that we have the power to act against it together.
The usage of single-use plastics has significantly increased during the current pandemic. Single-use plastics create a culture of convenience. Businesses are constantly marketing and producing these products when there is no infrastructure set in place to properly manage the resulting waste. The design flaws in this system have created a global waste problem, and the burden is often put on consumers alone to save the planet. Reversing or changing these existing practices will not be a quick and easy process but we cannot have an infinite amount of growth and consumption, with finite resources. There is only one planet and humans are using more resources than the Earth can regenerate.
Corporations and institutions need to be held responsible for the waste they produce and start doing their part in the fight against climate emergency. Ottawa has recently announced their nation-wide plan to ban plastic bags, straws, cutlery, and other single-use items by the end of 2021 – three years after the federal government first promised to tackle this issue. However, this is not inclusive of all plastics.
Governments should not only enact policies that address the issue of single-use plastics, but actively monitor and control them to ensure effective operation. We need more than surface level bans. We need better consumer choices, improved resource management, and smarter packaging to encourage a circular economy. Until we have these set in place, we cannot create lasting positive change.
During the start of quarantine, I thought it would be fun to experiment with going zero waste for a week. I already use re-usable bags, metal straws, reusable masks and reusable water bottles; so why not try a zero-waste week? I had read some success stories about others going zero waste and all had suggested that if they could do it, everyone else could do it too. I believed it, until I realized how difficult it was.
Living free of waste is nearly impossible due to the institutional structures that are preventing people from achieving this lifestyle. It is nearly impossible if you aren’t privileged with the time and access to places with ethical practices. There are not many locally sourced and produced products, and if there are, they are costlier. Most in-store products come in a form of plastic packaging, many of which are not easily recyclable.
I had the three R’s as my ground rules: reduce, reuse, recycle (and compost). As seven days is a short trial period, I chose to experiment with going zero-waste on the week where I had to go out and get necessities. The first thing I noticed was that most grocery stores shifted to refusing personal reusable bags and instead, bagged all your items in their plastic bags due to COVID precautions. Secondly, I realized many products, especially the more affordable ones, were packaged in plastics. This ranges from items like frozen fruit bags and plastic seals around container rims to saran-wrapped produce and the lids of alternative milk cartons. For some products, you don’t really notice the plastic until opened, like the hidden bag of plastic in cereal boxes.
As I tried to minimize non-essential trips outside my home, I turned to food delivery or takeout whenever I did not have the time or energy to cook. Though convenient, a lot of takeout containers are meant to be single-use plastics. They could be reusable for a few uses, though they gradually become less sturdy and eventually must be thrown out.
I soon noticed my motivations shifting. I started to be more conscious of my waste-making decisions, not because I wanted to have a positive outcome, but to avoid the guilt that comes when I need to throw something away. Striving for zero-waste felt hopeless as I looked back at all the items in grocery stores and around my home. The amount of plastic everywhere is abundant.
Avoiding waste is a demanding task and the amount of effort required to maintain this seemed unjust. I realized that one needs to have the time and money to achieve some degree of zero-waste. More time is spent on preparing food and exploring alternative waste-free options (assuming there is availability in the area). Local produce and non-plastic packaged foods are pricey and it becomes costlier to live zero-waste as a family.
Why is it solely my responsibility to avoid things from ending at the landfill? Are my individual actions to strive for zero-waste worth it? Will individual actions alone be enough to reduce landfill volume?
There are rules, regulations, and policies enacted (e.g., extended producer responsibility) but even with these in place, why do Canadians still throw away over 3 million tonnes of plastic waste every year?
I admit I will probably never be completely zero waste, but it doesn’t stop me from striving to produce as little waste as possible. Any effort counts and anyone can participate – it’s just to what degree they are able to do so.
Join me in reducing landfill waste! If you want to make a difference in your community, try contacting your local MLA representative and voice that you want to see a change. Less plastic, less consumption, less harm. Until we stress that this is a real concern, there will be no action.
Try some local shops that encourage a lighter environmental footprint!
Various Thrift Stores