Since I started this blog, people have started approaching me, out of the blue, to apologize for ways they’re not green. It’s like all of a sudden I’m some priest of eco-living, and they want to make their confession.
These interactions make me uncomfortable. First, because I am definitely no eco-priest. I am not currently achieving a zero-waste lifestyle; I’m barely starting out on that journey.
Second, I don’t expect anyone to apologize for anything! My ability to even attempt to go zero-waste depends on my privilege. I don’t look down on people who aren’t focusing on this particular cause. I am blessed with deeply passionate friends who give their all to a variety of causes like educational equity, repro justice, racial justice, and LGBT rights. And the most important work may be the work to transform ourselves–to be more compassionate, empathetic and better at communicating. In this way, just trying to be a great mother or a kinder person is a powerful form of activism. All these struggles are important, and all are interconnected. (That’s a blog post for another day!) Individual actions can help raise awareness for these causes, but what we really need is powerful socialist legislation to counterbalance the kyriarchal forces ruining life on planet earth for everyone but rich white men. All that’s to say I don’t in any way expect my friends to go zero-waste.
Anyhow, when people apologize to me for their eco-transgressions, they often cite time or money as their reasons. These are super valid reasons! The sustainable choice almost always takes more time. Although low-impact living definitely saves money in the long run, getting started can take up-front cash. And there are other costs to attempting a low-impact lifestyle–social and psychological costs. Everyone has a limited psychic capacity, and dedicating yourself to low impact living means clearing out a lot of head space to deal with this “green burden.” Here are five hidden costs to going green:
Habit-breaking is exhausting
I have quit some tough habits in my life. I quit a pack-a-day smoking habit. I quit my two (three) glasses of wine-a-day habit when I got pregnant. I once even quit an extremely dangerous Sims 3 habit that threatened my college career. But all of those addictions paled in comparison to quitting disposability.
We are all afflicted by a national addiction to throwing things away. As a result, going zero-waste means breaking not just one habit, but a thousand little habits that make up our disposable lifestyle. For each one of these thousand, you have to recognize you’re doing something unsustainable, figure out another way to accomplish the task, and then you have to remember to keep doing it the new way. All this takes up a big chunk of your daily brainpower.
For example, we went to brunch on Saturday and I forgot to tell our server “no straws” before she threw a handful on our table. I forgot to bring cloth wipes to clean up the baby after she ate, so I had to use disposable napkins. And in the bathroom I grabbed a paper towel to dry my hands without even thinking about it.
If I were to beat myself up about what happened, I don’t think I’d last very long in this struggle. Instead of feeling like a failure, I’m trying to reflect on these setbacks and see it as a challenge–a puzzle. How do I do “going to brunch” more sustainably? I went home and realized that I need to relearn a habit that was common for hundreds of years–always carrying a bit of cloth. Handkerchiefs–that’s what people used to use as an all-purpose cleaning/drying tool, back before we expected fluffy, bleached, old-growth wood pulp to be available to us at all times for our wiping needs.
I went home and sewed up these lovely cloth napkins from some fabric samples I had been gifted. It took a few hours, but I find sewing extremely calming and meditative. Now if I can just remember to bring them with me whenever I leave the house….
Strangers will scorn you
Any time you break a social norm, there are going to be certain people who instantly hate you for it. They’re gonna think, “Oh what, you’re too good for this norm? You think you’re better than me?” They might roll their eyes at you, make fun of you, or even get aggressive. The more dearly-held and problematic that social norm is, the more vitriol you can expect. Disposable social norms are not nearly as ferociously protected as, say, gender norms–people who defy those norms encounter real danger for doing so. If you’re just trying to get a coffee in a reusable cup, the most you can expect is some side-eye. Even just constant side-eye, though, takes a not-negligible psychic toll.
Picture me, at the zoo, waiting in line for some Dippin’ Dots (I know, not Vegan, but we’re taking baby steps here). I have actually remembered to bring my zero-waste kit, and want to see if I can get served in my lil reusable tin, which looks exactly the size of a Dippin’ Dots plastic, non-recyclable cup. The dad behind me in line is wearing a charming t-shirt with an AR-15 inside a Texas flag saying Come and Take It. The exhausted, sweaty teenager working the stand looks totally baffled when I offer up my little tin and spork. He tells me he’s not allowed to serve in outside containers, although it kind of seems like he’s making that up. When I ask why not, he is visibly disgusted and annoyed with me, and says it’s company policy. As I turn to flee, the whole gun-loving family behind me is sneering like I’m something they’d like to hunt.
Later on I did try again at an Icee stand (Icees are Vegan! Doing better!) and the girl thought my reusable cup was pretty cool. She said I could get an Icee but to, “Keep it on the downlow,” because they weren’t supposed to let people use outside containers either. Kind of ironic that a place dedicated to environmental conservation, the Houston Zoo, has such anti-sustainable vendor policies.
My point is, if you’re committed to going zero-waste, you’re gonna get some nasty looks from strangers, and you’re definitely going to annoy some people in the service industry. It does take a toll–humans are social animals. We don’t like being disliked! It helps to focus on the positive responses instead. Multiple people at the grocery store have asked about where I got my produce bags. I’ve gotten nothing but positive comments and messages about this blog so far. Friends have told me about disposable ditches they’re making. My mom even promises she’ll skip the wrapping paper next time she brings my daughter a present! I let these positive interactions bolster my resolve whenever someone rolls their eyes at me.
The occasional scorn of strangers is one thing. Far more difficult for me to face is the possibility that this lifestyle could inadvertently damage relationships with people I love. For example–that thing about the wrapping paper? My mom was pretty upset when I first asked her not to wrap presents for my daughter anymore. For the holidays, she had sent a big box of wonderful gifts, each one lovingly chosen, each one individually wrapped in paper. The wrapping paper she alone sent us created a cubic yard of waste that was just sort of shocking. When I called to thank her, I made sure to gush over the presents first before slipping in a request about ditching the wrapping paper.
She was hurt. Here she’d clearly put so much time and effort into these gifts and I had something critical to say about it. She lives thousands of miles away from us and gifts are her way of showing love. She also felt I was depriving my daughter of the joy of ripping open packages. I said that’s a joy she can live without–I’d much rather she have the joy of living in a world that isn’t dying. I could hear her eyeroll through the phone line.
Thrice since I started ditching disposable, I’ve been invited to a social event where food was served on disposable plates. What to do in that situation? If I pull out my zero-waste kit, is that going to be taken as an implied “FU” to everyone at the party? How can I stay true to my commitment to myself without appearing to shame the host for their use of disposables? I’m worried about hurting their feelings and killing the vibe. I’m worried people will start avoiding me because they think I’m judging them.
These fears are maybe the main reason I started this blog. I thought, if I can take the time to really bare my heart and show where all this is coming from, then people will understand I’m not in it for the smug credits. So far it seems to be helping–my mom read the blog and out of the blue let me know that Ramona’s presents would all be in used gift bags from now on.
Let’s say I did whip out my reusable spork and plate at a friend’s potluck. I’m worried I might not get invited to the next one. I have a few vegan friends, and I’m ashamed to admit that I have often in the past hesitated to invite them out to eat. Either I don’t feel like vegan food, or I want to go to a restaurant that I’m not sure has any vegan options. Even if we can go to a restaurant that caters to their diet and mine, just eating in front of a vegan is daunting. You worry they’re looking deeply into your chicken fried steak and seeing slaughter and mayhem.
In this way, trying to be green can cost you opportunities. People don’t want to deal with your lifestyle or perceived judgment. The opportunities lost might not just be social. A friend of mine recently shared she’s stopped buying any newly manufactured clothes. That’s an amazing step, and it’s also one I’m not sure I can take. I’m job hunting right now, and the wardrobe of “professionalism” is severe, unnatural, synthetic fabrics that must be dry-cleaned. How can I win a job interview in hand-me-down threads?
Once the job is won, I worry getting labeled “the crunchy girl” at work could hold me back. Do we have to invite her to the meeting, or do we want to order Chick Fil-A in those cute little paper boxes with the plastic utensils inside and consume them away from her self-important spork? The most highly prized quality in our workforce is being a “team player.” Going zero-waste marks you out as determinedly individualistic. You are not playing on team shameless consumption. You feel shame about your consumption, and that’s not fun to be around. Not only are you a drag, the media has painted environmentally conscious types as unserious, flaky woo-woos, like Phoebe on Friends or Frankie on Grace and Frankie. Who would ever hire Phoebe or Franke to a leadership position?
Awareness Makes You Suffer
To go zero-waste (which again, let me reiterate, I have not come anywhere close to doing) requires an enormous quantity of mental work–unlearning countless behaviors, endlessly researching products and corporations, and re-inventing the wheel of modern life. It requires shouldering the emotional strain of frequently awkward or downright hostile interactions with strangers. And you’ll risk alienating friends and coworkers, possibly costing you meaningful experiences and career opportunities.
But I think by far the most painful part of going low-impact/zero-waste is the awareness.
Going zero-waste means step-by-step, day-by-day becoming more and more aware of the impact you have on the planet. Of the impact all humans are having on the planet. You must sit in the truth of mass extinction, that every single ecosystem on the planet is in decline. You must sit in the truth of climate change and all its ravages. You must sit in the truth of how this one little plastic straw your server threw down without your asking is part of a global sickness that threatens to consume all life on earth and leave behind nothing but heaps of slowly photodegrading plastic and Elon Musks’s sportscar twirling through outer space.
This awareness hurts.
You ache for the sea turtles with bellies full of plastic, for the chickens stacked in the shit and the darkness, for the orangutans being burned out of their forests for palm oil.
You ache for your child. Or the children you hoped to have. Or the child you once were. For all the children who will suffer the consequences of our reckless consumption–scarcity, war, hunger,and the trauma of living through a time of such diminishing. We wish we could promise them a lush and thriving world. We pattern their cribs with lions and giraffes and bears, knowing full well they’ll probably live to see the extinction of such creatures in their lifetimes.
This awareness makes you despair over the breadth of the problem, the scope of the waste, the dizzying odds of ever being able to change enough in time to make a difference.
When we feel that suffering, it’s so tempting to retreat into apathy. Wipe our hands and say, “What can I do? Nothing’s going to change,” and go get Whataburger.
The only alternative I’ve found to either apathy or deep depression is learning how to take care of your suffering the Buddhist way.
When suffering comes up, we have to be present for it. We shouldn’t run away from it or cover it up with consumption, distraction, or diversion. We should simply recognize it and embrace it, like a mother lovingly embracing a crying baby in her arms. –Thich Nhat Hanh
So that’s what I’m practicing. When I read something about how climate effects are going to be much worse than predicted, my heart jumps in my throat, panic for my daughter’s future sets in. I focus on my breath. Breathing in, I say hello to my suffering. Breathing out, I give my suffering a big old hug.
I calm down. I realize this kind of suffering is a precious and beautiful thing. It means that humans have the capacity to care deeply for people they’ve never met and animals they’ve never seen. My empathy spans the globe; it knows no bounds of race, nationality, or even species. Heck I even care deeply about undiscovered species that no one knows exist. What a miracle! And every human is hard wired with such magical powers of caring for others. Like Thich says, though it hurts like hell, we must not run from this suffering. Because if instead we can embrace it, surely it will lead us to a kinder, more beautiful world.