Thoughts on zero waste living

bulk food in jarsLast year my city embraced the zero waste movement. I missed the press conference but there was no way I could miss Vaudreuil-Dorion’s position on zero waste. A 2018 city calendar for citizens proudly states Vaudreuil-Dorion is the first of 23 cities in our county of Vaudreuil-Soulanges to partner with the Circuit Zéro Déchet. The city is giving out stickers for businesses to place in their windows if they let customers bring their own clean reusable containers for bulk purchases.

Intrigued, I checked the Circuit Zéro Déchet website to see how many Vaudreuil-Dorion businesses are taking part in the initiative. There are only four among god knows how many businesses. So not a lot in a land of big box stores and shopping. We were already shopping at two of the four businesses. I’ve spent years refilling bottles and trying to reduce my environmental footprint. We’ve refilled dish and hand soap bottles at the environmental store ever since I first discovered it and we sometimes shop at our local health food store.

The only pharmacy on the list is our local pick-up point for Lufa Farms. We visited the other business on the list, Cananut, for the first time last Friday and wow, they are an amazing bulk food store, selling beans and lentils, all sorts of nuts, rice, sugar, bread yeast, raisins, coffee and tea, dried fruits and spices and more. But they appear to be struggling. The folks who shop at the Costco nearby don’t appear interested in heading to a much smaller store for bulk foods, which is strange to me because Bulk Barn, located in a mall in another part of the city, is always packed. I hadn’t realized Cananut’s West Island store was one of the businesses affected when spring flooding devastated areas around Montreal last year. Their Vaudreuil-Dorion store has only been here a year and if things don’t improve, it will soon close and merge with their recently reopened West Island store.

I find Hudson, a town in Vaudreuil-Soulanges known for its fair trade stores and environmental sensibilities, is clearly far ahead of my city but for some reason neither the town nor its businesses are participating in the Circuit Zéro Déchet. If they are, they’re not listed in the directory. I don’t see my city’s culture as being terribly environmental, in spite of its pride in joining Circuit Zéro Déchet. We had to drive to a local recreation centre to get the city calendar because the city failed to deliver it in our area and when we phoned them about it, they told us we’d have to pick one up. We still don’t have organic waste pickup in Vaudreuil-Soulanges, in spite of a Quebec government plan to have it in place by 2019. And I find that often when I shop in Vaudreuil-Dorion, I sometimes have to educate retail staff about reusable bags. I’ve had disposable plastic bags handed to me even when I had a reusable bag in hand. I’ve had to give plastic bags back to store staff and I sometimes end up with an extra bag I never asked for.

I love that Cindy Trottier, a young woman from Valleyfield, created the Circuit Zéro Déchet directory. It’s a great way to show people where they can go to purchase goods and practise a zero waste lifestyle. It promotes local small businesses and gets people thinking about their shopping habits. But while I adore this initiative, I have a few problems with the zero waste movement in general.

In our home we’re noticing it’s pretty hard to be zero waste all the time, if zero waste means you’re barely producing any landfill-bound solid waste at all. And that’s because companies are creating packaging that we cannot reuse or even recycle. For instance, we have three cats who eat a lot and needs relatively fresh dry food because they’re picky eaters. It doesn’t take long for the pet food bags to pile up. The bags are not recyclable in our municipal recycling program and the only place I could find that will take them is TerraCycle, a company that recycles all sorts of hard-to-recycle waste. To use TerraCycle, you have to pay for the Zero Waste box they send you. The smallest box for pet food bags costs $88.23.

The other problem I have with the zero waste trend is that it doesn’t address class privilege. It’s a movement that especially appeals to the affluent and educated, since they can afford to participate in it and it preaches to the converted, people who are already avoiding plastic and reducing their waste. It doesn’t address cost issues for bargain hunters or lower income people or access for people who don’t live near bulk food stores and/or find bulk food more expensive than what they usually buy and who aren’t surrounded by people with similar values.

We usually buy our coffee at Costco where a bag of their Kirkland fair trade, Starbucks-roasted coffee beans costs about $13 or $14 for 907 g and lasts quite a while in our house. If we buy coffee in bulk, we often pay about double that price since, for instance, our local health food store sells bulk coffee for $31.90 per kilogram. But there’s a drawback to refilling their brown paper coffee bags. While we’re not stuck with a coffee bag we can’t recycle or easily reuse as we are when we shop at Costco, when we buy expensive coffee, our budget gets messed up. We sometimes buy loose leaf tea at Papillon Bulk Foods in Pointe Claire but the tea doesn’t always taste good because tea can go stale over time. When we buy tea leaves elsewhere, even from supposedly “eco” vendors, they either come in tins or plastic packaging and refilling these can be complicated. We refill shampoo bottles but the other members of my household don’t like the shampoo. They also hate environmental laundry detergents. As a compromise, we’re using a commercial cold water detergent but because we can’t refill those bottles, we end up recycling them. We use far more glass jars than we’d like. It bothers me there’s no guarantee they’re being recycled but we put them in the city’s recycling bin anyway.

YouTube contributor Shelbizleee (Shelby)’s recent video on  captures how I feel about the zero waste movement. Zero waste was originally all about redesigning industrial and commercial products, “a philosophy that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused” and never head to landfill or get incinerated. Putting all responsibility on the individual consumer doesn’t solve anything and isn’t fair because it’s extraordinarily difficult to obtain many things we use in day-to-day life without packaging. Nor is it fair to hold people to a perfectionist standard because it’s hard to live a zero waste lifestyle in our society. Making people feel bad doesn’t fix anything. The focus on producing no solid waste whatsoever takes away from other environmental issues more deserving of our attention, such as climate change, the plight of honeybees and wasting water, Shelby says. When it comes to solid waste, what needs to happen is regulation to stop businesses from creating waste that cannot easily be reused or disposed of sustainably. Corporations need to step up and change their ways. Instead of idealizing bloggers who keep years of landfill trash in one Mason jar to show just how little garbage they’re accumulating, Shelby suggests instead a low impact movement proposed by Imogen Lucas of YouTube channel, Sustainably Vegan. Lucas’s message? Do your best with what you have available to you. Everything you do to help the environment should count and be seen as positive.

For now, I’ll follow advice from a book my mom gave me long ago, Sparrows Don’t Throw Candy Wrappers by Margaret Gabel, published in 1971. The book urges readers to send waste back to the companies that produced it. While I’ll probably mail our Kicking Horse coffee bags to an Etsy maker who turns such bags into wallets. I’ve decided to mail the Costco coffee bags right back to the source. I still don’t know what to do about our growing pile of pet food bags. They’re made of beautiful gold-coloured plastic. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them.


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