Should you buy a reusable coffee cup and a set of bamboo drinking straws? Maybe it would be better to donate some money to charity and sign a petition? Marta Dymek examines different ways of helping the world – starting with your own kitchen.
It seems to me that ‘zero waste’ is one of the most popular terms nowadays. It is a constant refrain in the newspapers and on the television; there are websites, shops, collectives, and a plethora of zero waste-related hashtags. Most importantly, there are a lot of disputes on the topic. Not Oxford-style debates, mind, more like late-night pub chats: “Have you seen what she wrote? What a pile of…”
I wish that there could be a substantial exchange of thoughts and ideas on the matter, especially since zero-waste ideology has divided its followers into two separate groups. The first one insists that a lot can be done through the individual observance of a more ecological lifestyle. The other team criticizes such an approach, condemning individual efforts as a narcissistic act of identity-building.
Before I invite you to meet both factions, I will try to explain what the zero-waste approach is all about. The shortest definition describes it as a lifestyle committed to reducing the amount of waste production. More in-depth interpretations sometimes supply additional information: zero waste is a philosophy of living that encourages people to recycle. Others say it is a school of thought that deals with waste management issues. These efforts aim to – broadly speaking – help us take better care of the environment, avoid exploiting natural resources for the production of new goods, and to stop ruining various ecosystems with indecomposable waste. What do both factions have to say about it all?
The first team proposes that we start making changes in our daily lives, implementing the baby-steps method in order to introduce zero-waste practices to everyday habits. I like it. It is, after all, a fair proposition. The supporters of this method remind us that every choice we make matters, which is why we should make these choices consciously. But what choices, exactly? Mostly those applying to our consumption habits (that is, our shopping decisions). Instead of buying your coffee in a plastic cup, invest in a thermal mug. Try ditching the styrofoam takeaway container and replacing it with your own lunch box. Don’t throw your fruit and vegetables into plastic bags – go for stylish cotton carriers. Confectionery packagings with plastic windows are difficult to recycle correctly, so try opting for sweets that are wrapped in paper. Don’t buy individually-wrapped teabags, choose a metal strainer and loose-leaf tea instead. Aaargh! Buy, buy, buy, buy! Dear God, so many things to buy! Is this really the only way to change the world?
The people on this team take a moment to scratch their heads pensively. Finally, they admit that there are other things to do. We should also recycle and reuse the waste produced in our homes. Use toilet paper rolls as cable organizers, make organic peeling paste out of coffee dredges, cook potato-peel crisps, ferment apple cores into vinegar, and turn old pasta boxes into jewellery storage cases. Sure, they are pretty neat ideas. I see a lot of them sprouting on the pages of books and magazines. And soon, I see potato-peel crisps with truffle oil, carrot-tip pralines with acai berries, or tuna and leftover veggie dumplings. It no longer seems like a good idea. Do we really need expensive truffle oil or ingredients that are unsustainably sourced and stored, such as acai berries or tuna fish? How do we avoid wasting food while accounting for industrial fishing, which is the primary cause of ocean pollution? What if we don’t have enough time to bake our own potato-peel crisps, because we have a job to go to and a family to look after? Nobody is offering any viable solutions, I feel disheartened and start to wonder whether this whole zero-waste idea holds any water at all. Perhaps it’s just a new elitist marketing gimmick, invented to make its users feel better about themselves? Maybe it’s just another case of our wallets being the only way of expressing our views and values…
Discouraged, I look towards the other team. They welcome me with arms wide open. “We told you so,” they say. These people have been long insisting that voting with our money is just one of many options (and not a very effective one at that). They point out that such a strategy doesn’t unite society, but divides it. Instead of engaging its broad social movements and efforts, it makes us believe that you can fix the world on your own, from the comfort of your living room. This false conviction, they insist, makes us forget that we are, in fact, part of a larger whole. Furthermore, the second team point out that some people get so carried away with the fun part of the zero-waste trend, that they become compulsive shoppers all over again. People end up buying several thermal mugs in various colours, numerous sets of bamboo straws, and dozens of cool new lunch boxes.
Maybe they are right. I too, sometimes, feel that we tend to confuse our concern for the environment with a love for our own image. I like the strategy of regenerative design, created to seek systemic solutions to the problem of waste production. It’s not just about encouraging individuals to reduce, reuse, recycle. Instead, lawmakers should solve the problem structurally. Even if thousands of people choose to quit using plastic cups, stores can easily make up for it by putting the product on offer. Just watch. In one day, tens of thousands of people will buy half-priced cups, and the day after New Year all those cups will transform into a monstrous dune of garbage.
This team is very critical of their opponents. The idea they like to ridicule the most? Zero-waste cooking. Upon hearing this, I feel my cheeks turn red, and I want to disappear into thin air. After all, I spend a lot of my time sharing recipes for radish leaf pesto or vegetable peel stock. This team is very keen to express their distaste of such practices. It’s just a distraction, they say, just a self-congratulatory act of appeasing one’s conscience. Five people in your town have made kohlrabi-leaf crisps? So what! Meanwhile, supermarkets throw away tonnes of food. If I wanted to be particularly vicious, I’d add that in order to buy organic kale, city dwellers are willing to drive for several miles – by car, no less.
Okay, this team seems to be really committed to the cause. These guys are demanding and well-prepared. I put on a new jersey, applaud their case, and solemnly promise that from now on, I shall combine both approaches. I shall strive to be both a conscious consumer and socially-involved citizen. This means buying less, with a more conscious approach. Avoiding wasting food. And on top of that, I will follow politics, support various protests and demonstrations, follow several NGOs… Ouch! I’ve been kicked in the shin, and the ball just hit me in the face! I repeat: maybe our buying choices actually do matter? Perhaps our individual efforts are also necessary for us to feel like we really do have an impact? After all, in order to feel true responsibility, we needs to realize our own agency. Ouch! Someone tripped me, threw potato peels at me, took my jersey, and put me on the bench! Could it be that this team cares more about being right than doing the right thing?
From my new spot on the bench, I take a good long look at both teams running around the field. I can see how much everyone cares. I can see how much effort they’re all putting in. I have no doubt that they’re all doing their best. The first team just scored a three-point throw with a cotton shopping bag, while the other team just dunked a petition signature and a Facebook share. Someone is sprinting to a café with a thermal mug in hand, while another person is jumping hurdles on their way to a protest. One player just scored eight times in a row for rejecting plastic straws. Another won three rounds mocking the straw-evangelists. There’s only one thing still confusing me. Why do these two teams play against each other, instead of joining forces? After all, we are all striving towards the same goal. Perhaps our reasoning isn’t as different as it may seem. But how do I say this without being booed off the field? Any ideas?
Zero waste soup
Ingredients for six portions
1 parsley root
1 tsp sweet paprika
1 tsp hot paprika
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp dried mint leaves (peppermint tea leaves will do just fine)
A pinch of cinnamon
A pinch of chilli pepper
400g red lentils
1 tbsp tomato puree
1.5 litres of water or vegetable stock
Fresh parsley, mint or coriander leaves
1 tbsp lemon juice or apple cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Open the fridge and see what vegetables are rattling around. Take them out and see if there’s enough to feed everyone at home.
2. Make a shopping list. If necessary, write down more vegetables, tomato puree and red lentils.
3. Take your reusable shopping bag and walk to the nearest shop.
4. After you get back, start making your soup. Peel the vegetables and dice finely. But don’t throw away the peel quite yet! Put it to the side to make peel crisps or vegetable stock.
5. Heat the olive oil in a large pot, add the diced vegetables and your favourite spices. Fry the vegetables until the spices become fragrant and the vegetables soften.
6. Add the lentils, tomato puree, salt, pepper and water. Cover the pot with a lid and cook for 20 minutes.
7. In the meantime, check the websites of your favourite NGOs and see what they’ve been up to. Take the money you saved on skipping expensive ingredients and send them to your chosen organization. If you didn’t manage to save any money, use this time to sign a few petitions. Read the climate change report published by the Ministry of the Environment. See which local and national politicians are actively involved and follow them on social media. This way, come the elections, we know which candidates are most committed to the causes we care about.
8. If you found any fresh herbs in the fridge, chop them and add to the boiling soup. Add lemon juice or apple cider vinegar to taste. Serve with or without bread. Leftover soup can be stored in the freezer – it will taste just as good later.
Translated by Aga Zano