Hi, Floral Manifesto readers!
This is long-time reader, first-time poster, Jessica Bebenek. I’m a poet & essayist, visual artist, and intersectional feminist activist currently operating out of the graduate program in Creative Writing & English at Concordia University, Montreal. In addition, and maybe most importantly, I’ve been living a waste-free lifestyle for the past year and have been vegan for the last five years. Now, before you ask: No, I don’t sleep on a mat in an empty room. Yes, I still have a social life. No, I’m not a kook. Yes, I love trash.
Living ‘waste-free’ simply means that you do your best to reduce your consumption through actions like buying second-hand, buying food in bulk with reusable containers, recycling and composting, etc. with the ultimate goal of not sending any waste to a landfill. Transitioning into living waste-free has been a journey for me and, like everyone else, I am always learning. I’ll be coming to you monthly with practical tips on how to reduce your consumption & waste production, interviews with fascinating waste-free artists & activists, DIY recipes & projects, and waste-free fashion & décor ideas. I’m looking forward to making connections and learning with & from you all!
I started living waste-free when I moved from Toronto to Montreal last September, after becoming increasingly distressed about our society’s wastefulness, our idealization of convenience and disposability. That summer I went on a reading tour and was mortified by the amount of easily-avoidable garbage that five people in a car were able to produce over the course of ten days. Even worse was seeing the number of American cities without city-wide recycling programs, their public garbage bins overflowing with recyclable papers and plastics. I realized that I couldn’t be a complacent participant in the face of environmental crises any longer. I did some research and found whole online communities of people living zero-waste lifestyles that helped me to make the transition. It takes a little planning and dedication, but I’ve been living waste-free for over a year now and this decision to live in line with my morals is one of the most rewarding choices I’ve ever made.
Before I get into the practical tips, let’s take a step back: What is waste? In the context of living a waste-free lifestyle, waste is any item which we deem as no longer having value which is then discarded with the intention of being sent to a landfill. And we don’t want that. The carelessness with which we as a society (especially North American society) consume and thoughtlessly dispose of objects is what leads us to ecological crises like the Great Pacific garbage patch, a massive patch of ocean densely polluted with microplastics, chemical sludge, and other refuse, or the Fresh Kills (yes, actually) landfill, which at one point was simultaneously the largest landfill, as well as the largest human-made structure, in the world.
My favourite definition of ‘waste’, which I think is the most useful for broadening our understanding of how we interact with all objects in our world, comes from Brian Thill in his book Waste: “Though we try to imagine otherwise, waste is every object, plus time. Whatever else an object is, it’s also waste—or was, or will be. All that is needed is time or a change of sentiment or circumstance.”
Look around you—see the device you’re reading from, the items surrounding it, the surface you’re sitting on, even the walls of the structure that encloses you. These things didn’t just appear the first time you encountered them. Every single thing in your life has its own life which has preceded you and which will continue beyond you. When we take the time to understand the lifecycle of these objects, the effect which their production, disposal, and degradation has on our environment and on the people of our global community, we take the first and most essential step in seeing our world with empathy and living ethically.
Taking steps towards living a more ethical lifestyle, such as becoming waste-free or vegan, can sometimes be viewed from the outside as ‘radical’ or too difficult to attempt. But in my experience, it’s simply a matter of altering perspective, a shift away from cognitive dissonance, as Naomi Klein describes it in This Changes Everything, which regularly keeps us from making the connection between the facts we know about our world (climate change, for example) and the effects of our actions as consumers.
Rather than being informed by the logic of capitalism, which progresses singularly towards increasingly higher financial profit, I try to always act through the logic of empathy, which progresses outwards through the desire to connect with other people and our environment—a living web, rather than a singular line. As I work through my understanding of intersectional feminism, I’m questioning how our society values/devalues certain bodies and narratives over others, and extending this to include the ‘body’ of our planet and other non-human bodies. How can we rewrite the narratives around what is ‘garbage’, what is of value and what is not? How can we work towards ending exploitation?
Reflecting on Thill’s definition above, I’d like to ask us all to question what we understand ‘waste’ to be—is that a pile of trash on the curb or a desk which can easily be repaired and used again? An apple core or matter that can be composted and used to fertilize new plants? By questioning the dominant values of newness and disposability in our capitalist society, we open up so many new avenues for understanding, interacting with, and improving the world around us.
Now I know what you’re thinking, “Jess, that sounds great, wow, I’m a changed person, you’re so smart and eloquent,” (You’re too kind) “but how do I actually start living waste free?” Well, I’ll share with you the single most effective way I’ve found to reduce waste, which also just so happens to be the easiest on your wallet. Stop buying crap.
It’s not as hard as it sounds, I promise. Living waste-free is, as you may have suspected, a bit of an exaggeration. Even when we have the best intentions, almost everything we consume creates some form of waste at an industry level—through production of items, packaging and shipping, carbon emissions, usage of water and energy, and of course, disposal. But remember: if you don’t bring an object into your life in the first place, then you don’t have to find a way to dispose of it when you inevitably find that it has lost its value to you. When an item runs-out or breaks, question whether or not you really need it in your life, and if you do, whether you can replace it with something second-hand or more ethically produced. While it’s essential to alter policies at an industry level, the first step in motivating these changes is to be aware of the power of our everyday decisions. You can do a lot towards reducing your ecological impact by being conscious of how you do (or don’t!) spend your money.
The 5 R’s
A great starter guide is to use the 5 R’s as coined by Bea Johnson at Zero Waste Home + a bonus R from yours truly. By following these steps in order, you can reduce the amount of waste you produce by reducing the amount of items you bring into your home:
1) Refuse what you do not need
- We are constantly being given flyers, pens, non-recyclable plastic straws in our drinks, and all kinds of little trinkets that have no lasting use in our lives. Even if something is free—if you don’t need it, don’t bring it into your life. You’ll only have to dispose of it later.
2) Reduce what you do need
- Decluttering your home and living a more minimalist lifestyle has so many environmental & psychological benefits. When you’re hanging onto something you don’t really need, you’re keeping it from being useful to someone else. Give to your friends or donate to a charity shop.
- Enjoy waste-free activities in place of ‘retail therapy’—your wallet will thank you. (Watch for an upcoming post this winter on waste-free ‘self care’ ideas!)
- When you go grocery shopping, stick to the perimeter of the store where the fresh food is, bring a shopping list, and don’t buy more than you can eat.
3) Reuse what you consume
- Replace consumables with reusables—swap plastic water bottles for a glass bottle or canteen, plastic wrap for tupperware or glass jars, paper towels for cloth napkins, tissues for handkerchiefs, etc. You won’t miss paper towels, but you will enjoy the savings.
- When grocery shopping, use tote bags in place of plastic bags, ‘delicates’ or other thin cloth bags for fruit & vegetables in place of plastic, jars or cloth bags for bulk items, and glass jars for wet items like olives, cheese, or deli meats.
- When buying clothing or home wares, frequent second-hand stores to find unique items that don’t come at the ecological cost (or the price tag) of ‘fast fashion’ consumerism.
- (Bonus!) Repair broken items or give them to someone who can instead of throwing them away. You’ll save them from the landfill and save yourself money in the process.
4) Rot (compost) the rest.
- Turn your food scraps into nutritious plant food by composting. Many large cities are implementing door-to-door composting programs and many community gardens or organizations offer smaller programs which will exchange your food waste for mulched compost. Find out which system works best for you and find out all of the materials that can be composted—you’ll be surprised!
5) Recycle or donate what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse.
- Notice that recycling is one of our last options. While recycling is preferable to landfills, the process uses manpower, energy, and releases harmful CO2 emissions, with many plastic goods being shipped across the world and back in order for companies to benefit from cheaper rates in other countries. Have you done all you can to find value in the item before deciding to toss it?
- Pay attention to your city’s recycling guidelines—many plastics cannot be recycled.
- If you must buy something packaged instead of bulk of second-hand, choose cardboard, metal, or glass packaging, which can often be reused.
Now that was a lot of info to throw at you all at once, so thanks for sticking with me. Remember, living waste-free isn’t about restriction and being perfect. It’s about being aware of the world we live in, living mindfully, starting conversations with people, and being aware of the huge impact our existence has on the world. Every single thing we do in our lives ‘makes a difference’ ecologically—we just need to decide whether or not we want that change to be positive or negative.
I know that sometimes when we stand up for something we believe in, we can feel like we’re standing alone. We can feel lonely and our efforts seem insignificant. But I promise you that you are not alone. We are standing together. And when we make ourselves known, our actions have an immeasurable social impact beyond the amount of waste that we reduce. In the wake of the American election and acts of police brutality against Indigenous people, I see and hear so many of us feeling discouraged. But in the words of Toni Morrison, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” I believe in the power of all of the inspiring artists, thinkers, and activists that I’ve met and who I have yet to meet. I am excited to be here, standing with you.
I struggled while trying to write this post, thinking I had to encapsulate everything I know, every facet of my worldview. How could I convince you to listen to me if I wasn’t perfectly articulate, if I didn’t have it all figured out? I’d forgotten one of my fundamental beliefs about teaching and learning—that education is always a conversation. Yes, I want to share my knowledge with you, but I want to hear what you have to say, too. My beliefs and I are a work in progress. I have a lot of experience and I’m excited to share it with you, but I’m even more excited to keep learning. So please comment below and share widely on social media. Let’s keep this conversation and this movement growing!
Check out this flyer I put together with more helpful tips on starting your zero waste journey. Feel free to print it and share widely online. See you back here in December with a post on how to make your own all-natural, waste-free skin & body products as Christmas presents!
Tags: feminism, recycle, trash, waste, waste-free
Jessica Bebenek is a poet & non-fiction writer, visual artist, and intersectional feminist activist currently based in Montreal. She is pursuing her MA in Creative Writing & English at Concordia University where she teaches and works as a coordinator at the Centre for Expanded Poetics. You can find info on her publications and performances on her website. She takes selfies and disturbs shit on Instagram as @notyrmuse.
This post was written by Jessica Bebenek