Zero Waste Myths: Are sustainable lifestyles only for middle class people?

Modern kitchen shelves with various food ingredients on white background

So someone said to me recently that zero waste living seemed to be middle class and expensive, and could I write a post about affordable ways to go zero waste for people on low incomes.

This request interested me for two reasons: firstly, because reducing waste is essentially about thrift, so if zero waste living appears to be a costly exercise ‘accessible’ only to people with more money, it suggests that something has gone astray somewhere.

Second, because although research confirms that, indeed, eco consumers are almost always from higher income groups, they still tend have higher ecological footprints than less eco conscious people from lower income groups. This is because your environmental burden tends to increase according to your income. Essentially, efforts to reduce impact will only go so far if you’re consuming much more in the first place.

Research finds, for example, that eco conscious types may be good at signing up to green energy suppliers, but tend to go and spoil it somewhat with a preference for long-distance travel. Meanwhile more traditional types may show lower levels of environmental awareness, but due to more frugal living end up having less environmental impact. Larger homes consume more energy, for example, and we also know that high income households are more likely to waste food than lower income households.

Interestingly, the research found that a few of the eco consumers it studied did manage to significantly reduce their ecological footprint. In fact, the study concluded that it is actually possible to reduce your impact by half, depending on how you consume. So what could be going wrong?

  • Researchers speculate that it could be because people try to be green by focusing on, say, separating waste for recycling, but may not be willing to drive less or reduce meat consumption, which would do more to reduce impact.
  • It could also be down to some kind of mental accounting, that says ‘I don’t drive, therefore I can fly more.’
  • Research also shows that green consumers make choices based on personal perceptions, rather than a scientific assessment of what counts as sustainable consumption. So, for example, someone may switch to paper bags because they are perceived as being more sustainable than plastic ones, despite that fact that these have higher carbon footprints.
  • Researchers also speculate that eco-conscious consumers may be buying products that falsely market themselves as greener.

Globally, the number of people living middle class lifestyles is increasing rapidly (think of China and India) and all of them are wanting more meat, more stuff, bigger houses, more cars and more flights. So, essentially, to ask, ‘Are sustainable lifestyles only for middle class people?’ is to be asking the wrong question. The real question that needs to be answered is: ‘is it possible for middle class people to lead more sustainable lifestyles?’

1. Focus on the lifestyle changes that reduce impact the most 

I’ve already written about the lifestyle changes that make the most difference: eat less meat, waste less food, buy less stuff, drive less, fly less, and decarbonise your home energy supply. None of these involve spending more – the opposite, in fact. Planetary destruction is expensive: eating lots of meat, frequent flying, buying, furnishing, and heating large homes……….hardly cheap. Treading more lightly on the earth goes hand in hand with saving money.  It seems to me that, if any current social trends are going to save the planet, it will be the shifts towards veganism and more simple, frugal living that do it, rather than the jetset-around-the-world-with-a-reusable-bottle lifestyles.

2. Be smart about what you actually need

Zero waste gift packs, matching jar sets, specialised kit for saving leftovers …….the ‘shop your way to a less consumerist lifestyle’ approach takes away from your ability to rely on your own resourcefulness.

The question to ask yourself is: how can I meet this need without buying something new? Consider repurposing and reusing things you already have around the place, collect things your friends and family no longer need, or see what you can find in charity shops – they are always full of reusable cups, containers and jars, among other things. I replaced paper tissues with t-shirts cut up into squares (£1 per t-shirt in a charity shop) and I save gift wrap and gift boxes to reuse, but you’ll have your own ideas.

There’s also the Journey to Zero Waste UK sell/swap/gift facebook group and many other resources, some of which are listed here and here. You can buy second hand online from Ebay, Etsy, Oxfam Online, Facebook buy and sell, as well as various buy and sell apps, which are too numerous to list here.

Its not always possible to get everything you need without buying new, but regardless of how you get them, investing in a smaller number of durable, multifunctional things will not only reduce your environmental impact but should save money and space. Investing in reusables will save money on single-use disposables, and toiletries such as solid bar soap and shampoo can work out cheaper in the long run as they last so much longer than the stuff in plastic bottles.

3. Drop the ‘anything is better than plastic’ myth

Trying to source everything plastic-free adds extra pressure as it can be more difficult and expensive to find things made from alternative materials, and it is not even clear that simply switching from one material to another is better for the environment. This myth contributes to the idea that living sustainably is a complex business involving lots of time, effort and research, while the preoccupation with getting every small detail right is a distraction from the central issue, which is that we are consuming too much, and that in most parts of the world the environment is not high enough on the political agenda.

4. Shop yellow labels

Buying food destined for landfill is a great money saver. Supermarkets often sell essentials like bread and veg super cheap and posh foods on a discount if they are reaching their sell by date. You may even be able to get food for free on apps like Olio, food sharing groups on Facebook, or community fridges.

It’s true that surplus and yellow label goods often come wrapped in disheartening volumes of packaging, but the environmental impact of the food inside it is always far greater than what it’s wrapped in. Rescuing a loaf of bread that’s about to be thrown out will have more environmental benefit than buying artisan bread in your own cloth bag. You can also keep an eye out for wonky veg boxes local to you, as these save fruit and veg from being wasted and are sold more cheaply.

For inspiration, check out the Instagram feeds of food waste heroes Reduction Raider and Free Tasting, or read my interview with Josephine Liang, who lives entirely on food saved from being thrown away.

5. Buy just as much food as you need

Buying food at bulk shops can potentially save money and avoid waste – you can buy just what you need, and don’t have the cost of packaging included in the price. However, the prices of food in bulk shops can vary – some foods can be cheaper than supermarkets, some more expensive. It depends on the type of food and the shop. If bulk food shopping doesn’t work for you, then buying things ‘loose’ in simple packets and boxes will save money and avoid waste compared to buying things in individual sachets.

If you have a good local greengrocers, these can often work out cheaper than supermarkets, and if you take your own produce bags and buy just what you need, you can save money and waste compared to buying supermarket-style multipacks of fruit and veg.

6. Lastly…….

Bother your politicians. Anyone can email or visit their MP/local council for free – that’s the beauty of democracy. We need waste management systems that are fit for purpose, policies that make polluters pay, and an end to taxpayer subsidies for polluting industries. You’ll probably have other concerns to add to this list. We have far more power to make change happen by putting pressure on politicians to act, than we do by ensuring we only buy jam jars with plastic-free lids.

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4 thoughts on “Zero Waste Myths: Are sustainable lifestyles only for middle class people?

  1. Pingback: February round-up – A refuge for daffodils

  2. It makes me think again of your article couple of weeks ago about the single use plastic and since then it is a battle in my head to try to think of what is best as going anti-plastic is not the solution either.

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