Advocates Say 'Zero Waste' Is Easier Said Than Done

Oct 14, 2019

We're exploring zero waste during Morning Edition and All Things Considered on WNIJ this week. Claire Buchanan and Sarah Jesmer have been reporting on this topic and Jesmer says zero waste is about addressing the idea of what the word "waste" means.

"Zero waste is the idea that you want to be better stewards of what you have, by turning waste into a commodity by reducing it or recycling it," Jesmer said.

Is "Zero Waste" Possible?

Seems like a very lofty goal? It is, according to reporting by Claire Buchanan.

"At this point, absolutely eliminating waste doesn't seem like it's quite possible," Buchanan said. "There are a lot of barriers that people face. Maybe you recycle as much as you can. But it might be out of your control whether your municipality will accept glass recycling, for example."

Jesmer says cities and towns also have varying levels of infrastructure for waste -- and there can be systemic inequalities.

"A lot of the conversations about reducing waste have an idea of a homeowner in mind -- of a person with a car in mind," Jesmer noted. "I think zero waste conversations need to be more inclusive to represent a whole community."

Buchanan says the people she talked with are interested in reducing their waste, but admit that it's not easy.

"Two major themes that have stood out to me is that it can be expensive, and it can be inconvenient," Buchanan said. "Farmers' markets aren't open all the time. So you might have to shop at a big grocery store where you're going to end up buying things with a little more packaging."

Reducing Waste Requires The Means To Do So

Jesmer says consumers should keep a few things in mind as they listen to these reports.

"We're focusing heavily on the ideas of reduce, reuse, recycle," Jesmer said. "And people fall back on recycling a lot like that's part of the conversation. But the idea that I would like listeners to keep in mind is that just because something goes into a recycling bin doesn't mean it's going to be recycled. It passes through a lot of different hands between the time that it's produced to the time that it's made into another material. And just because something goes into this path of being recycled doesn't mean it's going to end up at the path of made into a new thing."

Source: Landfill Capacity Report

Is it up to the consumer or corporations to reduce waste? Buchanan says it's complicated.

"That was actually the frustration of a lot of people who I talked with," Buchanan said. "They think corporations and governments need to take a little more accountability in this. [However] consumers have some level of influence over the products that are being manufactured."

She says that includes shopping habits which encourage manufacturers to be more eco-friendly. But she says that goes back to assuming a certain level of income that assumes that people have the ability to really exercise their "dollar votes."

"In reality, a low income person has to shop where their budget will allow them," Buchanan said.

Common Misconceptions

There are also misconceptions about reducing waste. Buchanan says a common mistake people make is when they see a triangle shaped symbol with arrows that comes on plastic products.

"That symbol doesn't necessarily mean that it's recyclable," Buchanan said. "That symbol is just the manufacturer's way of telling you what kind of resin it's made of what kind of plastic resin."

Jesmer says there are also misconceptions about recycling streams themselves.

"One thing that markets all across America are dealing with right now is that international buyers aren't taking recycling anymore," Jesmer said.  "So the biggest misconception that I ran into is that there's recycling being piled up in places, even if people make these right choices, they're not actually going to get to any kind of buyers." 

Waste And Social Vulnerability

Jesmer, who reports on issues related to social justice, sees a direct correlation with her beat:

"The way plastic is made and the way waste can influence the environment -- that's directly related to how the climate is changing." Jesmer continued, "And I think one thing that I kept in mind throughout this whole series is that people who cannot adjust to climate change and extreme weather will be affected most by conversations with zero waste. Its the idea of social vulnerability."

For example, she says scientists are linking extreme weather events to how the environment is reacting to  greenhouse gases and fossil fuels.

"And so how those changes directly relate to the people who cannot adjust to those types of things," Jesmer said. "So in that way, climate and social justice intersect because people cannot adjust to extreme weather when they don't have the means to do that."

Join our conversation on zero waste on WNIJ throughout the week.