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Metal straws, mason jars, bamboo forks: do you have to buy more stuff to go zero waste?

The irony of zero-waste products.

Wooden cutlery, mason jars, and reusable cups are just a few of the zero-waste products on the market.
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Nikki Smith, an IT worker from Columbus, Ohio, was excited to find the r/ZeroWaste subreddit. Always a bit of an environmentalist, in recent years she became more serious about doing everything she could to reduce her carbon footprint. She dove head first into the online community, eagerly adopting tips like making reusable cotton rounds out of old or ill-fitting clothes.

Beyond those gems, though, a certain kind of post has irked her.

“I kept seeing post after post after post of people sharing photos and info on ‘look at these zero-waste things I just bought!’” Smith says over email. “It just boiled me long enough that I had to speak up.”

So, after a few weeks of seeing more posts like this than usual — maybe due to more new folks recently joining the subreddit — she made a post urging people to stop buying zero-waste things, arguing that these purchases are part of the problem.

“A lot of these items were ordered online with unrecyclable packaging, and then [there’s] fuel emissions from shipping,” she says. “And a lot of these items I kept thinking probably could have been found second-hand somewhere. Water bottles especially! They’re everywhere.”

She’s not the only one on the subreddit with that sentiment. On posts where users show hauls of glass jars from big-box stores like Walmart, commenters chime in to suggest that next time they should check their local thrift stores first. One Redditor shared that they sewed their own drawstring bag for travel utensils and received particular praise. “See, this is nice,” the top comment reads. “You didn’t miss the whole point and buy fancy new bamboo cutlery when you already had metal stuff at home that would work perfectly well.”

The market for earth-friendly products is ever-growing. In 2018, the reusable water bottle market was valued at more than $8 billion, up 3 percent from 2017, and it’s expected to reach $10.4 billion by 2025. The global eco fiber market, like bamboo fabric and organic cotton harvested without the use of pesticides or other chemicals, is anticipated to reach $93 billion by 2025. The green packaging market — think reusable food containers, along with packaging made of recycled materials or materials that break down naturally — will reportedly grow to $215 billion by 2021.

Companies are now marketing to the green consumer, and though there are clear environmental benefits to this, some zero wasters are concerned that this push to buy green products ignores those other two Rs of the environmentalist mantra: reduce and reuse.

Convenience consumerism and zero waste

Reusable alternatives — from tote bags that replace plastic shopping bags to travel mugs, glass straws, and washable makeup pads instead of single-use cotton rounds — are a step in the right direction, as disposables and single-use plastics pose a major threat to the environment. According to 2017 data obtained by the Guardian, humans are buying a million plastic water bottles a minute. Recycling is not the be-all, end-all answer to our environmental woes; 91 percent of all plastic in the world is not recycled.

Anne-Marie Bonneau, who started her blog Zero-Waste Chef in 2014, rarely recycles, she says, because she doesn’t buy things that need to be or that come in packaging that needs to be. To her, recycling should be a last resort.

The first line of defense? Buying less, even of things deemed environmentally friendly. Bonneau is concerned about how “zero waste” could become another consumer lifestyle. She has bought some tools, like a safety razor, but she won’t hawk products on her blog.

A quick internet search brings up a plethora of “eco-friendly products.” Some companies are small and hyper-focused, like Brush With Bamboo, which makes bamboo toothbrushes, or Bee’s Wrap, which sells beeswax wraps as an alternative to plastic wrap. More than 20 results come up on Kickstarter when you search “reusable straw,” most pitched as the “final” product to solve the plastic straw problem. Big businesses are getting in on it too, like when Reebok made a plant-based shoe, or Lush’s package-free products, or simply how almost every grocery store offers their own branded tote bags and every cafe their own reusable cups.

“I get emails every day from companies saying, ‘Hey, we want to partner with you and sell our reusable straw’ or upcycled shoes or whatever,” she says. “I think that’s just how we’ve been trained. We’re such a consumer society, we think, ‘Oh I have this problem, what can I buy to solve it?’ Instead of just being resourceful and looking around.”

Boneau understands that buying things seems like the quickest route to kicking your current wasteful habits. It’s tempting to try to change your lifestyle overnight with a complete zero-waste starter kit, but that’s not the only answer.

“If you want cutlery to go, take a fork out of your drawer,” she says. “It’s a mindset, too. It’s not just going out and buying all the stuff, because you really change how you live. You’re more mindful and more conscientious. You think about your choices.”

This is something Genevieve Livingston, founder of the Seattle zero-waste store Eco Collective, has had to contend with, too.

“Something that we really talk a lot about is conscious consumerism, because as a store in the zero-waste space we’re never encouraging over-consumption,” she says. Even if that means losing a sale; Livingston has suggested second-hand stores to customers looking for common things like jars, or that they could make reusable bags themselves out of old sheets or t-shirts.

“A lot of the education happens in-store. We also have events [and classes], but something we tell people when they’re first starting out is don’t confuse plastic-free with zero waste,” she says. “Like if you have all plastic hangers, you shouldn’t go out and buy all wood ones. But if you need a few more ... then make the responsible choice.”

Where do you get that education about reducing and reusing?

That in-store education is helpful, but for those not near a zero-waste community, tips can be harder to come by. What’s easy is encountering marketing for “green” products, mostly because that’s how our economy works.

“There’s no money in advertising or promoting the reuse of things that you already own,” says Jacquie Ottman, chair of the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board, who has extensive experience in green marketing. “There’s money to be made in selling you a shiny new bento box or S’well bottle. This is America.”

Ottman also runs wehatetowaste.com, a platform for personal stories on how people reduce waste, and hosts workshops that emphasize reducing and reusing. Those ventures aren’t the most lucrative, though, so she can’t always devote as much time to them as she wants.

The events and classes Livingston provides through Eco Collective also often cost money to attend, which may limit who can access that hands-on education.

Zero waste may seem popular on Instagram (more than 2.6 million posts are hashtagged with the term) or in certain cities with zero-waste stores, but it’s still not mainstream enough, experts say. More popularity would help inform people about all the different paths to producing less trash.

“Zero waste should be an ethic that is promoted by government, by businesses to employees, in schools, in homes,” Ottman says. “It’s the legislation and the individual behavior, it’s product design, it’s all of the above.”

If buying an eco-friendly product helps you keep the habit, go ahead, experts say

Ottman’s site shares a variety of approaches to zero waste, from those who carry around old plastic Tupperware in their purses to those who bought new collapsible containers to fit in smaller bags. One isn’t better than the other, she says, as long as it gets you in the habit.

“These things make it convenient and possible,” she says. “They’re empowering. They make it fun. They get people engaged in a new lifestyle and a new way of thinking about this stuff.”

Brenda Platt, director of the Composting for Community Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, says there’s “absolutely no question” that there needs to be more emphasis on reducing and reusing.

But when it comes to specific zero-waste products, she doesn’t see any benefit in criticizing those who choose to buy them.

“Just keep your eye on the prize here,” she says. “We’re trying to get rid of single-use styrofoam and plastic and fossil-fuel-based and toxic stuff, so buying your jar, like okay, that’s not a problem really.”

Like everyone in the zero-waste space, Platt has purchased some tools: a new reusable water bottle that she was sure wouldn’t leak, a titanium spork that’s lighter to carry around. She’s made things herself too, fashioning beeswax wraps out of thrift-store fabric and local farmers market wax during an office party.

“But you know, not everybody’s going to go have a party and make their own beeswax wrappers,” she acknowledges. “But try to support local first, your local independent store, your Main Street, your thrift store, before you go online and shop.”

Lauren Singer, founder of Package-Free Shop in Brooklyn, has the same ethos. To her, there’s a high-medium-low with every environmental step. Don’t want to buy her store’s stainless steel containers? Use something else you bought second-hand, or use aluminum foil that you can recycle.

“Of course reusing is always awesome,” she says, “But that’s not always a reality for the way that people want to live their lives.”

It takes time, ability, and interest to craft your own eco-friendly items, and starting a zero-waste journey can be intimidating. What worked for Singer was to take it one step at a time.

“The cadence that I like is, okay, I just finished my toothpaste up ... I have a few options: I can either make my own or I can buy a sustainable alternative. Okay, I made that choice, cool, I go about my life. Wait, I just used up all of my counter cleaner, all right, I can either go buy an alternative or I can learn how to make my own,” she says. (Her blog includes recipes for anyone to use.) “The cadence that you exercise through your typical consumption habits, I think, is a very sustainable pace for when to buy new things.”

If you’d rather buy a bunch of stuff at once to get it over with, replacing your sponge and your plastic containers and buying a set of produce bags instead of making your own, that’s fine too, she adds, as long as it helps you stick to your zero-waste goal of sending fewer things to landfill.

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