Going for Green in Lyons
By Kathleen Thurmes
While the connections between Zero Waste and social justice issues may not be immediately apparent, it’s important to recognize that every step in the “stuff” life-cycle creates and reinforces a system of winners and losers. Not only do our economic system and modern lifestyles create massive amounts of waste, but they also produce grave social inequalities. From the process of extracting and harvesting raw materials, to the energy (mostly fossil fuels) used to make and transport products, to the landfills and incinerators where waste ends up, we can find workers exploited, communities polluted, and ecosystems damaged.
Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. A Zero Waste world is essential to addressing global inequalities and protecting our planet. But first, let’s explore the problem.
Let’s start at the beginning: the harvesting of raw materials. There is a finite amount of resources on Earth. As resources are depleted, local and global conflicts are sparked over what is left. Resources often fall into the hands of those most willing to brutally obtain and defend them, and are used to finance and prolong violent conflicts and oppressive political regimes. Workers, sometimes children, in mining and agricultural industries across the world are often treated in deplorable ways. Wealthy entities exploit the resources of poorer entities. The loss of natural human, animal, and plant habitat from both the direct act of harvesting and the pollution that comes with it has dire effects on indigenous ways of life across the globe and in our own backyard.
In the process of manufacturing, human health and welfare is often shunted aside in pursuit of profits. Refineries and manufacturing operations are almost always situated in “undesirable” locations: places where poor people and people of color live. They pollute the environment of the people around them while often paying their workers wages that are too low to live on in order to ensure that products are as cheap as possible. All too often, the working conditions in these factories are so atrocious that we see situations like iPhone manufacturing factories installing safety nets around their buildings to catch the workers who try to jump out of the windows.
All of the processes used to extract new materials and shape them into the stuff of our lives use energy. Lots of it. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a full 42 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions result from the way we produce, transport, consume, and discard stuff in the United States. The communities and nations most negatively affected by climate change are the ones who contribute the least to the problem. For example, the average Maldivian produces 2.7 tons of carbon emissions per year and the average U.S. resident produces 16.4 tons per year. Yet, if climate change continues, it is the Maldives, not the United States, which will be swept beneath the ocean.
Finally, discarded materials have to go somewhere at the end of their lifespan. When society chooses to “throw away” materials, rather than recycling or composting, the action creates adverse effects that are disproportionately distributed to communities of color and economically disadvantaged people. Incinerators and landfills are overwhelmingly situated in areas with high racial minority and low-income populations. Incinerators spew heavy metals and other toxins into the air around them and landfills leach toxic chemicals into groundwater supplies and release poisonous gases into the air, causing localized pockets of increased rates of respiratory disease and cancer.
Zero Waste operates on different levels: the everyday things that we do as individuals, such as sorting out our recycling and bringing our own bags to the grocery store, and the larger network of interconnectedness and intersectionality that ties production and consumption fundamentally to systems of global power and oppression. The negative consequences of a materialistic, throw-away lifestyle are far-reaching and disproportionately affect the poor and less powerful.
Putting Zero Waste into action by redesigning systems of production and consumption; reducing excess consumption; reusing, repairing and sharing stuff; recycling; and composting can help remedy inequalities and environmental destruction. Indeed, Zero Waste is absolutely essential to building a more sustainable, just, and equitable world.