For a long time, my level of understanding about how to be an environmentally conscious consumer could be summed up by an episode of the Tina Fey sitcom 30 Rock. In 2007’s “Greenzo,” David Schwimmer stars as an obnoxious C-list actor, hired to play a “nonjudgmental business-friendly” eco-mascot on a TV network’s week of green-themed programming. It’s a great parody of the way that corporations started trying to green-wash their operations in the mid-aughts, and a cameo from Al Gore does enable 30 Rock to deliver a sincere message about the need for action on emissions. Mostly, though, viewing the episode left me with a vague notion of why recycling is important and the knowledge that the former vice president has half-decent comic timing.
The same year that this episode first aired, dozens of local authorities in the U.K. abandoned weekly waste collection in favor of an alternating-week schedule, as part of an effort to promote recycling and force people to be more aware of what they threw away. The move was controversial in some quarters, but it didn’t take long for recycling to become a widely accepted part of life. I did a lot of house-sitting around that time, and I really noticed how quickly it became as normal for a departing host to walk me through the area’s waste-separation policies as it was for the homeowner to show me where the pet food was kept.
I was only recently jolted out of my cozy belief in the efficacy of this kind of centralized, processed recycling, when I saw news coverage last year of China’s policy change on plastic waste. Rubbish began to pile up in U.K. recycling plants because China implemented a ban on the import of many lower-grade plastics and of all mixed paper. Previously, waste from around the world had been shipped to China for processing, creating a lucrative market that allowed countries like the U.K. to enjoy the appearance of environmental progress while outsourcing the dirty, often polluting consequences of the sorting and recycling process. Once China decided to focus on domestic environmental practices, this system began to collapse, meaning that the price of recycling in the West rose drastically.
Groups like the U.K. Recycling Association urged people to respond to this news by trying harder to reduce their use of nonbiodegradable materials like plastic, rather than just mindlessly consuming them on the presumption that they can be recycled. I was really struck by how easily and ignorantly I’d been tossing things in the recycling bin, assuming that I was doing the virtuous thing, and so I decided to (finally) become better informed on the issue.
My research into strategies for reducing rather than recycling was quickly sidetracked when I discovered the existence of viral YouTube videos about the “zero waste movement.” Rather than doing what I had originally intended and improving my own habits, I found myself watching openmouthed as white, attractive young vloggers cheerfully displayed the single glass Mason jar in which they were able to store all the waste that they had generated over the past several years.
As an ideology, zero waste has existed for decades, and it really boils down to the idea that we should avoid any nonreusable or non-compostable products in order to have as little impact on the environment as possible. It’s a laudable goal that can apply as well to individuals as it does to corporations or governments. But as the YouTube algorithm showed me more and more results on the subject, I started to realize that, in the most popular videos, the specific lifestyle of the so-called “zero waster” was being presented as something aspirational, rather than as the general goal of living without generating trash.
I saw YouTubers with millions of followers recommending ways that their viewers could live like them by buying specific products like bamboo cutlery or fancy insulated water bottles. Some of the strategies that these creators show as part of their zero waste lives are useful–such as tips for shopping in bulk at stores that allow you to bring your own containers for food–but I saw almost no recognition of the privilege that makes this kind of existence possible.
Leading a life that allows you to always cook completely from scratch and never come into contact with any plastic is extremely time-consuming and expensive. This might work if you make videos about your life for a living, and are thus compensated by YouTube ads or affiliate links for all the time you spend meal prepping or sourcing individual items. For most people, though, that’s just not realistic. As I researched, I would very occasionally find an article or video by someone offering more achievable advice, such as “If you have to buy a plastic water bottle, keep reusing it until it breaks, so that you don’t just throw it away after a single use.” But this kind of realism–the acceptance that most of us aren’t perfect and don’t exist in a perfectly filtered Instagram-worthy world–wasn’t what was getting all the views. Even with the best of intentions, a lot of the zero waste practitioners I was able to find online seemed to have managed to make the movement seem like an all-or-nothing option, as if it weren’t worth bothering with minor, incremental changes.
Inevitably, too, an awful lot of what I found was just a thinly-veiled attempt to sell me things. I had to check myself to keep from falling into these traps: Yes, I do want to be more conscious of my plastic usage, but do I really need to spend hundreds of pounds on fancy branded reusable containers? Of course not. Washed-out jam jars and the motley collection of old ice cream tubs already sitting in the cupboard will do just as well.
If you needed a reminder of just how enmeshed late-stage capitalism is with these kinds of concerns, it’s this: we are trying to sell each other more in order to use less. That’s definitely an idea that we need to get rid of, for good.
How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Nature & Climate section, which looks at how human activity is changing the planet–for better or worse. Click the logo to read more.