Why Zero Waste Matters

Last night at my company holiday party, I sat down to dinner to find a plastic fork at my place. It was a fancy event, so I hadn't expected that - and didn't have my usual bamboo utensil on hand. Some would say it's not a big deal. To me, it was.

I've spent the last year and a half working toward zero waste, winnowing my trash and recycling output down as much as possible. A month's worth of trash can now fit in the palm of my hand; a month's recycling can fit in the crook of my elbow. I skip produce that comes in plastic packaging - blueberries, my beloved favorite fruit, are now a special treat in July & August, the only time I can get them locally, without the single-use plastic carton. I'll travel a little farther by foot or train to a grocery store where I can buy flour, spices, tea, olive oil in bulk, decanted into my own containers so that I don't leave with anything that needs to be thrown away. While out and about, I tuck my food waste - orange peels, apple cores - into a jar so that I can bring it home and compost it.

Which is why the plastic fork wasn't just a fork. Over the past few years, objects that formerly seemed normal - ubiquitous plastic food packaging, single-use serving pieces, even plastic pens - have come to seem weird to me. The fork was made of petroleum pumped from the ground, shipped across the world, manufactured into the shape of a fork, and shipped back across the world to land in Chicago, Illinois. Only to be discarded at the end of a 30-minute meal, to sit in a landfill for the next thousand+ years. That's pretty weird. Each year, Americans throw away 40 billion plastic knives, spoons, and forks, all because that seems more convenient than washing a reusable utensil. Because we have systems in place that mask the social and environmental costs: we can just throw them "away." Really, "away" doesn't exist.

This week, with the Paris climate talks happening, I've been thinking more about why zero waste is so important. We've all been waiting for the governments of the world to decide what they're going to do about global warming. To act on climate. And they must. I've followed the news eagerly, because it matters. Because this international agreement might be the best hope we've got.

And, yet, while we wait, we can't wait. There isn't time. This matters. And we make choices every day that matter. I want to create a world in which the demand for oil to produce and ship single-use products and plastics has vanished. In which more people look down at a plastic fork and think "What? Why?" before pulling a reusable utensil from their bags. In his book Garbology, Ed Humes writes that "10 percent of the world oil supply is used to make and transport disposable plastics." 10 percent of the world's oil. A fork doesn't seem significant on it's own, until you realize those are the types of things making up that 10 percent.

Zero waste isn't just about keeping things out of landfills, though that's an important aspect. It's also about reducing demand for these unnecessary things that are so transient we just throw them away after using them once, twice, or three times. I respect the world I live on, the people in it, the resources used to make my things, the people who made them, the people who live next to the rising oceans, the animals who share the world. That's why my choices matter.

So, the fork. I looked down, picked it up, ate my pasta with it, vowed to remember to bring my own next time. And then I tucked the dirty fork in my purse, to wash it and put it back in the silverware drawer at the office so that all of that plastic might be used again, at least once, before it hits the landfill for good.