Growing movements touting concrete, personal, and effective ways to fight climate change have garnered lots of attention recently as people seek ways to make a difference in an issue that seems so and difficult to change. The list of fads claiming to save the Earth is long, including reusable bags, metal straws, and zero waste, among countless others. Nearly everyone has seen that picture of a young woman holding up a little glass mason jar containing what she claims to be her entire trash production for two entire years. These movements are gaining incredible traction, especially through social media. It’s nearly impossible to escape being shamed into some sort of sustainable action, as marketing teams push often expensive, eco-friendly alternatives to seemingly harmless items.
People like Lauren Singer, the girl with the mason jar of trash, have built careers out of the industry. In 2012, she built an online business and, in 2017, opened a brick-and-mortar store dedicated to selling goods without packaging. Even entire families, like Bea Johnson’s family of four, have dedicated their lives to producing no waste, somehow making a living off of their claim to a sustainable lifestyle and the brightly lit Instagram pictures that come with it.
But for all the zero-waste starter kits being sold on Etsy, every single one of those “activists” is selling you a lie. Simply put, it doesn’t matter how much trash we produce. Landfills are the third largest human-based contributor of methane to the atmosphere, trailing behind fossil fuel production and livestock farming, at 16% in 2006. Although it’s not an insignificant figure, with the amount of effort it takes to reduce the waste we produce, it may be the least of our worries. And divided among the 7.7 billion people on the planet, it suddenly seems arbitrary. Still, the idea of reducing waste to save the planet is alluring. The average American produces 4.4 pounds of trash every day, nearly double the global average of 2.6 pounds a day.
It’s an alarming statistic, and suggests the problem of climate change can be solved easily by individual actions. But the statistic doesn’t quite cover the source of all that trash. Hospitals, schools, and other institutions produce literal tons of trash each day. And much of the personal trash we produce is from packaging, an inevitability with the convenience and safety with which we can buy goods and food in the United States today. For manufacturers, it’s difficult to stay in the black while switching to more sustainable packaging, but unless they make systematic changes, personal changes on behalf of consumers mean next to nothing.
Although many online influencers speak about how much money they’ve saved by going zero-waste, the gross reality is that most people can’t afford to drop $10 on a metal straw when a pack of 200 plastic straws can be bought for the same price and restaurants, the largest consumer of straws, provide them for free. Maybe plastic does take 500 years to decompose, but the extra cost, just to avoid sending a couple of grams of plastic to the landfill, often just isn’t worth it for most people. With the growing presence of zero-waste proponents online and around us, it can seem like we’re complicit in the rapid decline of the Earth, but sustainability as a moral choice is gate-kept by wealth. The convenience we can get from disposable goods or packaging is crucial for many because they save both time and money. And that’s not to mention the food safety standards we can meet with plastic, the cost-efficiency of which no other material has managed to replicate.
The production of one reusable bag takes the same amount of energy as 28 traditional plastic bags, and buying a metal straw contributes to the 2.8 billion pounds of toxic waste produced from mining metal. That figure doesn’t even account for the emissions produced by international shipping, as most of these products are manufactured overseas.The replacement of plastic straws by paper or reusable ones isn’t always a good thing for consumers. Recently, several people with disabilities have come out against plastic straw bans, as they need them in order to drink because of both their disposability and flexibility.
Of course, these movements have organized the public consciousness toward saving the planet. Many people reducing their waste by a little is worth much more than a couple of people reducing their waste by lot, and by spreading their messages online, influencers and activists can help move toward this goal. But even if all Americans began reducing their waste, it would still barely make a dent in the snowballing climate crisis. Undeniably, the planet is in danger and people feel the impending cost. There’s even been a new term coined to describe the panic and helplessness people feel towards the environment: eco-anxiety. It’s difficult to avoid feeling helpless, especially when well intentioned actions don’t have significant effects. Only 9% of plastic headed for recycling centers is actually recycled. Scientists have warned that if consumer behaviors don’t change, it will be too late by 2030.
The climate crisis is certainly frightening, but studies have shown that if we plant a trillion trees, we could still see the future we always hoped for. There is a presidential election next year, and many candidates have centered their campaigns around reversing climate change, a welcome change from the current administration’s modus operandi. Going vegetarian for just one month could keep 134 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the air. There are many ways that we can help make our voices heard, especially as people begin to rally behind high profile activists like Greta Thunberg. There’s hope, but it’s going to take more than just #savetheturtles.