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The zero-waste movement is about sending as little to the landfill as possible, but the labor costs can feel high.
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The complicated gender politics of going zero waste

The zero-waste movement is about cutting down on packaging, but is it creating more pressure on women?

Look at #zerowaste and #zerowasteliving on Instagram and you’ll see mason jars filled with chocolate smoothies and rows of rose-gold straws. You’ll see perfectly organized refrigerators with piles of fresh produce and brown glass spray bottles with homemade lavender-steeped cleaning products. You’ll see perfect kitchens with white subway tiles and bamboo countertops, lined with rows of more mason jars filled with legumes.

But “zero waste” isn’t just an influencer meme, it’s a movement whose practitioners share the serious goal of sending as little to landfill as possible. They studiously avoid the plastic packaging, disposable coffee cups, and paper towels that many of us never give a thought to before stuffing in the trash. They are experts in refusing, reusing, and recycling.

This movement has exploded in recent years as images of plastic-choked rivers and plastic-choked dead whales circulate on social media and American cities are burning the recyclables that China will no longer take. Google searches for “zero waste” have doubled since January of 2017 and there are almost 2.5 million posts on Instagram tagged #zerowaste. Zero-waste grocery stores have expanded from their EU foothold to Brooklyn, South Africa, and even Hong Kong and Malaysia.

Zero waste helps us reexamine our relationship with stuff in a way that can seem progressive and anti-consumerist. But the way this movement is promoted and practiced seems to drag us right back into traditional gender roles.

The world of zero waste is fronted by female influencers who DIY their beauty products, keep immaculate white-walled households, and grocery shop with pretty white net bags. Lauren Singer of Trash Is for Tossers, the young face of the movement, focuses on the kitchen, bathroom, and wardrobe, and Shia Su of Wasteland Rebel has tips for washing your hair and making almond milk.

“People would consider my blog girly,” says Florine Hofmann, a sustainability blogger from Germany whose zero-waste articles talk about silicone menstrual cups and grocery shopping. “I can’t imagine my ex-boyfriend googling something about how to make the perfect candle.”

Why is it that the everyday work of reducing our plastic use and keeping our oceans and rivers plastic-free seems to fall into women’s domain?

Why is zero waste so feminized?

Zero-waste wives

“I was the one doing the grocery shopping and cleaning the house. It was up to me to bring zero waste in the household.”

Bea Johnson started down the path to zero waste after her husband quit his job to start a sustainability consulting company. Today, she is arguably the person who popularized living with the goal of creating minimal refuse here in the US and globally. In her 2013 book Zero-Waste Home, she dispenses advice on plastic-free grocery shopping, laundry, and raising kids. While she and her partner shared the same goal of saving the environment, the day-to-day work of zero-waste living fell to her.

The trope of enthusiastic zero-waste gal and her long-suffering male partner is something you’ll hear often from zero-waste influencers, once you know to ask.

“It was my decision to try living a zero-waste lifestyle. I tried to tag him along, but I soon realized it wasn’t going to happen,” says Hofmann, who at the time was living in a small apartment with her boyfriend in Aarhus, Denmark. “I definitely felt like I had to shop for the both of us in order to keep our home zero waste.”

Researchers have been studying the existence of the “second shift,” when women come home after a full-time job to do the majority of cleaning and childcare, for almost 30 years. The question of whether pursuing a zero-waste lifestyle simplifies women’s lives or constitutes yet another (green) shift hangs heavy over the zero-waste movement.

Any zero-waste evangelizer will tell you that you don’t need to upend your life and live in an off-the-grid cabin like an archetypal environmentalist. You just engage in “habit change,” rejiggering almost everything you do every day — brushing your teeth, cooking meals, getting coffee — to make it waste-free. Ostensibly, you could buy as much stuff as you need to live your best life — beauty products, fashion, food — as long as you can get it without packaging (like the dreaded plastic polybag). In theory, anyone could do it, though that is a controversial statement when you take into account the privilege of having access to bulk bins and the time needed to go to several stores instead of your local Walmart.

It’s sort of like a game. How normal can you be while saving the environment? If you can fit all your year’s waste into a jar, then you’ve become the zero-waste zen master.

It’s essentially another layer to “having it all”: a career, a family, a perfectly Instagrammable life, and now you’re saving the planet, too. In practice, this can be a lot of undervalued, unpaid work, more added to the “mental load” that women carry, which — as illustrated in this comic by the French artist Emma — is the list-making and calendering that women do to administer the household.

Keep in mind that the plastic packaging required for frozen food and sliced bread is arguably one of the things that allowed women to enter the workforce in the first place. In Colin Beavan’s 2009 book No Impact Man, he waxed on about the fact that because he was forced to bake bread every few days, in order to avoid packaged and preserved foods, he ended up spending more time with his kid. (His wife was an editor with an office job.)

“The reason why people started buying things premade is because they were working longer hours,” Susan Dobscha, a professor of marketing at Bentley University who studies gender and sustainability, says. When I tell her about zero waste and describe the Instagram images of perfect pantries of glass and beans, she compares it to “the 1950s housewife’s ideal of perfection. Back then the pantry was perfect when they put all these fancy brands in like Nabisco crackers. But now the narrative has shifted to make having the perfect house more labor intensive.”

But Johnson disagrees. “There are a lot of bloggers and social media accounts that create the ideas that you have to make a bunch of things from scratch, and it’s scaring the crap out of working moms,” she says. “I fight hard against that.” For example, she doesn’t DIY her cleaning or beauty products — she just uses white vinegar to clean her home and baking soda to brush her teeth. She says living zero waste has freed her up to write her book and go on speaking tours. (And that her husband now does the grocery shopping and half the laundry.) But the truth is, being a zero-waste mother is her full-time job.

Up until last year when her blog’s income and book deal allowed her to quit, Kathryn Kellogg, the popular blogger behind Going Zero Waste and author of the new book 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste, had a full-time marketing job (though no kids). So she is pragmatic about the time cost of zero-waste hacks. “I don’t think that it’s sustainable for anyone to be making something every day or every week. I think that is insane,” Kellogg says. “I have to be able to make it in under 30 minutes and it has to have at least a six-month shelf life. If it can be made in less than a minute, I’m okay with that. I don’t want to be in my kitchen for 40 hours a week.”

No matter what the truth is — it simplifies the household chores or complicates them — men do on average 50 percent less unpaid household work than women, not to mention a tiny fraction of the beauty rituals women do just to be taken seriously at work. So the steps to go zero waste simply fall into women’s laps.

Then there is the Mom Bag aspect. In order to participate in society without using disposables, a typical zero waster will carry reusable utensils, a reusable straw, a mason jar, a cloth handkerchief, and a metal tiffin for premade snacks or leftovers. Women are used to having a purse full of stuff with them — what’s a few more accessories if it’s for the planet? But asking a “phone-keys-wallet” guy to carry all of that?

“That’s where he drew the line,” Hofmann says of her ex.

Sugar, spice, and everything waste

Perhaps women are drawn to inventorying their home’s trash output and relentlessly trying to get it down to zero because we tend to suffer much more from perfectionism than men do.

The environmental advocate Bill McKibben has very publicly written off the idea that we need to be perfect in order to be an environmentalist. But women are so afraid of being called out for hypocrisy and failure, we feel like we can’t call ourselves an environmentalist unless we’ve brought our daily lives 100 percent in line with our values.

“There has always been this undercurrent of people trying to point out the hypocrisy of others who are trying to do right by the environment,” Dobscha says. “In my own research, I found some of my respondents felt they couldn’t do enough no matter how hard they tried and sometimes got very demoralized about it.”

She compares the extremes of zero-waste efforts to the way women pursue perfect bodies, households, and relationships. “This is just another manifestation of the bar being higher for women in order to avoid public criticism, much like women running for office. Now it’s couched within this appropriated narrative of we’re doing good for the planet.”

There are a few men in the movement, who practice zero waste as business consultants or chefs. One prominent zero-waste dude is Rob Greenfield who, on his YouTube channel and blog, details “extreme adventures” like biking across the US, dumpster diving to highlight grocery waste, and building a 50-square-foot tiny house in Orlando while generating only 30 pounds of construction waste. Despite the manly bent of his challenges, his audience on Facebook is about 70 percent women. “I’m generalizing, but you would expect that anybody who is in this field is going to have more women than men [following them],” he says.

Research confirms this. A 2018 study of Brits found that women are more likely to recycle regularly, conserve water, and compost. Marketers have found that women are more easily swayed by eco messaging, perhaps because men view green products and behaviors as inherently more feminine.

Zero waste comes with added emotional labor, too. Adherents spend their days politely refusing straws from confused waiters, declining gifts from family members, and gently explaining their lifestyle in a nonjudgmental way to strangers. The popular YouTuber Shelbizleee describes in a video a time her mother didn’t want to walk her recyclables to the recycling center because it took too much time. Her advice? Just do it for them. “You can say, well, how about I volunteer to be the one who takes the time. I’m not asking you to do it — I’ll be the one to take responsibility.”

A commenter agreed. “Last [weekend] during lunch my husband asked me to hand him a paper towel for his greasy hands. I gave him a fabric napkin that I had made from an old T-shirt. He told me it was too wasteful to use fabric instead of paper, but I told him that I have to do the laundry anyway and one napkin doesn’t make a difference. Well, he was too lazy to get up and get a paper towel, so he took the fabric napkin. Well, baby steps.”

Rob Greenfield doesn’t feel the same need to cushion his requests. “I am completely fine with this idea of hurting other people’s feelings because I’m not going to do it the societal way,” he says. “Most of our societal norms are around consuming things mindlessly. We’re outsourcing the burden and making other people around the world pay for it. What I’ve decided is, I’m not basing my actions on just the people around me. That means that some people have their feelings hurt.”

He also has a goal of dying with no one depending on him — a partner or kids. Last year, he and his girlfriend broke up after four years. “Because my life is so mission-driven, it does make it harder to have a partner,” he says. “I’m pretty transparent that a relationship is not the most important thing to me.”

Small steps add up ... to everything being worse?

One thing women are told we’re good at is shopping. There’s an oft-cited figure that women control 80 percent of household spending — giving them the so-called “power of the purse” to influence business decisions. (Though that number is probably made up.) So, women “vote with our dollars” by buying this shampoo bar in paper packaging instead of that shampoo in a plastic bottle.

This strategy has yielded some wins. Trader Joe’s recently announced it would be decreasing its plastic use in-store, and a consortium of brands — including Nestle, Pepsi, and Unilever — should be launching their zero-waste delivery service pilot project soon.

But those are just bottle caps in an ocean. Since 2010, the fossil fuel industry has poured $180 billion into new plastics manufacturing facilities, and experts say global plastic production will jump by 40 percent as a result, irrespective of whether we bring mason jars with us to the grocery store. According to a 2017 analysis, the global oil and gas industry has fewer women in leadership positions than in other industries. Given that only 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, that’s a low bar ... and indicative of how little influence women have over the tons of plastic flowing into the ocean.

“Those of us that study this figured out 15 years ago that consumer recycling will not solve the global problem,” Dobscha says. “We’ve been trying desperately to move the conversation away from what happens at the point of purchase and end-of-use of products to pushing corporations to approach waste from the production side.”

Perhaps this explains why women focus on their family’s waste — locked out of the rooms where the most impactful decisions are being made but terrified for their children’s future, they obsess over the plastic output that is within their domain.

“I think that is one of the big appeals to zero-waste or eco-friendly lifestyles. It’s something you can personally control,” Kellogg says. She did join her city’s local beautification council a few years back but found herself stymied by the local business community when she tried to get a styrofoam ban on the docket.

After all of her fiery rhetoric, Dobscha told me she’s been practicing the plastic-free lifestyle for more than a decade. “I’m the queen of this in my personal life. I use glass jars. I don’t buy ziplock bags,” she says.

As a single working mother, she packed her children’s lunches in glass containers. I asked her why, if she’s so against small steps, she put all this effort in. She talks about the women she met while working on her dissertation on gender and sustainability 25 years ago. They were pioneering zero-waste living, but it didn’t have the same … let’s call it branding.

“One woman didn’t use feminine hygiene products, because it’s wasteful,” Dobscha says. “One woman cut open her tube of toothpaste and scraped out every bit of toothpaste. One woman, her roll of aluminum foil lasted her 10 years because she copiously washed every piece and reused it until it fell apart. My mind was blown.” To her, these women were rebels.

For Kellogg, her original impetus was actually pretty self-centered: She had a breast cancer scare and wanted to get plastic out of her life. “You cannot approach it from a ‘do it for the planet!’ point of view,” she says. “Most people don’t care about the planet. You know what they do care about? Hmm, themselves. This improved my health, my creativity; it has saved me a bunch of money.” Because of her personal zero-waste challenge, she finally weaned herself off of her habit of housing a dozen Pop-Tarts a week. Can’t argue with that.

As for Hofmann, the zero-waste blogger struggling to get her boyfriend on board? They split up for reasons unrelated to living zero waste and she moved to London for a new job. Now that she’s left her domestic routine and is going out more, she’s cutting herself some slack. She simply got annoyed with watching her new coworkers waltz out to grab lunch when she was spending so much time cooking, and wanted to participate in the after-work networking. “In social situations, shit happens,” she says. “I cook way less now that I’m on my own. In the interest of transparency, I do buy a lot of takeout food and try to put it in paper bags.”

But in other ways, she’s finding zero-waste living easier because she’s not taking care of someone else’s waste anymore. “I don’t have to think or consider anyone else,” she says. “So I can live my lifestyle the way I want to.”

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