Is Zero Waste Just for the Young and Affluent?

©. Zero Waste Market & Amanda Palmer

The conversation surrounding Zero Waste living needs to embrace everyone, including those who live with disabilities and low incomes.

Many online commenters complain about the fact that Zero Waste blogs tend to be run by primarily young, affluent females who have the time and money to run around town, visiting numerous stores in order to source their favorite local, organic ingredients in fancy glass jars and stainless containers, before heading home to DIY everything from bread and yogurt to toothpaste and body wash. (I realize I, too, am guilty of giving this impression.)

For many, Zero Waste has become synonymous with privilege and wealth because there is so little online discussion about how people who do not fit those categories can possibly attain Zero Waste standards. This is hardly fair. Just because someone has very little money or lives with disabilities doesn’t mean they don’t care about the environment, nor have the willpower and desire to implement waste reduction in their personal lives. More bloggers should be asking, "How does Zero Waste benefit people with disabilities and low incomes? Is it even realistic for those with limited physical access and tight budgets?"

Ariana Schwarz addresses this topic in an excellent article called “Is Zero Waste Unfair to People with Low Incomes or Disabilities?” Schwarz believes that Zero Waste is not ableist or discriminatory toward the poor. In fact, it provides great opportunities to improve quality of life.

Take packaging, for example. So often we think of single-used packaging as convenient, and yet less packaging is typically more accessible. Imagine opening plastic blister packs, Tetrapaks, and Tupperware or other food storage containers, with their one-handed ‘peel’ motion; twisting up deodorant tubes and toothpaste lids; and opening rigid plastic packaging (such as the type toothbrushes come in) or Ziplocs while suffering from arthritis or ALS. Compare that to cotton mesh drawstring bags, wide-mouth Mason jars, and flip- or swing-top glass bottles, where access is easier overall.

In terms of cost, Zero Waste can save precious money. Investing in reusables that require an initial investment can save significant amounts of money down the road, i.e. cloth diapers, a menstrual cup, safety razors, etc. Buying in bulk quantities reduces cost and the number of shopping trips. Many bulk stores have low-positioned bins with lids that are easier to open and access from a wheelchair than reaching the tops of supermarket shelves.

Having tight budgets encourages people to grow their own food in abandoned or under-utilized spaces to save packaging and cost. There are many farmers’ markets in the U.S. that accept SNAP cards and food stamps; in Georgia, a special program even doubles SNAP at markets.

Health can improve through implementation of Zero Waste practices. One commenter on Schwarz’s blog wrote:

“Zero waste has been a savior in cost and mental peace of mind. My apartment building is falling apart and the carpet full of allergens, but cleaning with vinegar, baking soda, and soap have gone a long way for my health and wallet (cloth towels instead of paper help too). Our allergies are much improved. We're hoping to get a bidet soon; there's one on Amazon for barely more than a jumbo pack of toilet paper. Same for being mostly vegan – life is much improved and costs are way down.”

Keep in mind that embracing small challenges, such as saying “no” to single-use plastic containers, utensils, and grocery bags, sends a powerful message to whomever has offered it to you, regardless of physical or financial challenges, and it’s important not to underestimate that power.

Zero Waste practices can benefit everyone, but responsibility does lie with those who do not struggle with barriers to accessibility to push this lifestyle more into the mainstream and make it even easier for everyone to participate.

Schwarz writes: “Could you volunteer to collect food that would otherwise go to waste and redistribute them to the needy? Petition local shops for more accessible bulk bins? Or assist handicapped or elderly persons in your community with the grocery shopping?”

What are your experiences with Zero Waste living? Do you live with a disability or on a low income that makes it difficult to implement environmental practices? Please share any thoughts in the comments below.