Zero Waste, Zero Space: Why an Environmentalist Movement May Have Sexist Implications

It’s 2016. I’m a high school sophomore, lazing around and aimlessly scrolling through YouTube in my bedroom, waiting for something to pique my interest. A Ted Talk pops up in my recommended list and I immediately click on the intriguing title: “Why I Live a Zero Waste Life.” I watch in admiration as Lauren Singer, an NYU grad with incredibly shiny hair, explains to me how she has been able to fit all of her trash from the past three years in a single mason jar. She smiles and talks about how easy it is to live a  zero waste lifestyle, how much she loves making her own products, and how good she feels about her decision to align her actions with her values.

I was enamored with the idea of producing so little waste that I could essentially move through the world with no physical impact. Reflecting now, though, I wonder if this fascination was rooted in more than just my desire to help the planet. 

In her 2013 hit “***Flawless,” Beyoncé samples a Ted Talk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “We Should All Be Feminists.” The very first line of this sample is one that stuck with me and that I want to dig into for the purpose of this conversation: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller.” This statement, though deceptively simple, represents an incredibly powerful and pervasive symptom of patriarchy. Women are taught, practically from birth, how important it is to be small. We are supposed to be skinny, petite, quiet, and docile. The results of these expectations show up in marketing (vanity sizing, anyone?), body language, (think: men vs women on public transit), classroom and office dynamics, (hello, mansplaining), and many other areas of daily life. This is all to say that the ideal of smallness transcends the physical body and finds its way into all kinds of behaviors.

If women are plagued by this sexist construct that teaches them to avoid taking up space at all costs, it seems noteworthy that most of the champions for a movement which essentially encourages taking up as little space and as few resources as possible are women.

Does it really matter why this movement is attractive or what sexist concepts it may be reinforcing if it is a net positive for the environment? I would argue that it does. It’s not that zero waste is bad — I think it’s wonderful and I admire people who are able to practice it. What I want to avoid is for people, especially women, to take on unnecessary labor and guilt in order to achieve this absolutist lifestyle model. It is far more important that a lot of people do a little bit to help than it is for a few people to completely shift their lifestyles to meet a restrictive and challenging goal. 

At the end of the day, it is important to remember that just 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of the planet’s total greenhouse gas emissions and that only 3% of total waste produced in the United States comes from household garbage. Ultimately, the only way to save our dying planet is to hold these commercial behemoths accountable. So, if you take nothing else away from this article, consider voting with this in mind. Personally, I’ll still bring my reusable bags to the grocery store and generally mitigate my waste production, but I’m not going to let internalized misogyny make me feel guilty for eating a granola bar with a plastic wrapper.