It’s Not Just Trash, Or Who Is Being Exploited?

A large dark dark green plastic dumpster slightly right of center in front of a large white/gray concrete wall. A sliver of gray sidewalk is visible along the bottom of the photo. Miscellaneous pieces of trash are stacked out the top of the dumpster, including cardboard, white plastic bags, and something yellow.

[Image description: A large dark dark green plastic dumpster slightly right of center in front of a large white/gray concrete wall. A sliver of gray sidewalk is visible along the bottom of the photo. Miscellaneous pieces of trash are stacked out the top of the dumpster, including cardboard, white plastic bags, and something yellow.]

A post recently came up on a Facebook parent’s group I’m part of. A mom was asking about making the switch to cloth diapers and what were some of the things she should be thinking about in making that decision. I’ve talked about cloth diapering before, but this particular thread really threw into relief for me how my thinking has changed around environmentalism and green living because of my relationship to social justice and abolition. 

I talked a little about water use in my original comment, but in a follow up comment I talked more about how when our first kid was born, California was in the middle of a pretty severe drought. Locally we had been asked to conserve water by flushing the toilets less (if it’s yellow let it mellow…), watering lawns once a week (we had removed our lawn the year before), and showering every other day and cutting them down to 10 minutes or less in duration. I had posted that, to me, it seemed more harmful to be adding three or more loads of laundry a week than using disposables. Another mom hopped on and basically said she didn’t think that was true and that she believed it was more harmful to make trash than waste water. Fair enough, I don’t have hard data to back my own idea up (and neither does she, she just felt strongly enough about trash that she wanted to contradict me). But I think more to the point, when looking to be low impact you absolutely must look beyond the end product or the end of the linear economy cycle. Meaning, it’s not just about trash. 

So, what exactly does that mean? Well in this particular case it meant looking at water use, water availability, and how the use of extra water might have an impact overall and locally. In the case of other areas you may be looking to reduce your impact like in the kitchen or transportation, that means looking at resources used by your low impact swap or solution. Will it cost more in fossil fuel use to create or ship your item? Is an item more resource-effective being produced in bulk by someone who knows what they’re doing? It might make sense for you to make your own apple cider vinegar, but not for you to make your own shampoo if it means shipping small quantities of ingredients to you in extra packaging.   

You need to pay attention to the local impact too. In some places water is not as much of an issue. Or maybe certain products are coming from closer to you than others so their footprint is less for you than for someone else- I’m thinking foods here specifically. Look at the waste up stream from you; look at the impact of production. Don’t forget that resources also mean people and the citing of production. Are people being paid fair wages? Are factories exploiting the locales they are in? Is the production of goods harming the environment where they are being produced? What do they do with their waste- is it dumped in impoverished areas where it sickens local people and wildlife, poisons their water and land? I often ask myself who and what is being exploited by this product and am I okay with that exploitation. Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Sometimes we have to be. And to be clear there is no one right answer. 

Low impact living has to be about getting away from a linear economy and linear cycles. Don’t let the current system structure your thinking. Reducing trash is very important, but it’s only a part of this whole picture. We don’t live in a perfect system, so there is no way to avoid exploitation and waste and impact. Not yet, anyway. 

I would also encourage you to read my piece about cloth diapers and social issues. 

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