What is the connection between zero waste and environmental justice?

By Moji Igun

As we work towards a more sustainable world, we are forced to rethink not only what we consider disposable, but who we consider disposable.

Environmental justice, as defined by Front and Centered, is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.

This includes using an intersectional lens to address disproportionate environmental and health impacts by prioritizing highly impacted populations, equitably distributing resources and benefits, and eliminating harm.”

Zero waste offers robust solutions to many environmental injustices. The idea that zero waste is a goal meant for individuals to accomplish alone is actually a common misconception. The goal of this movement is not to fit all of our trash into a sixteen ounce mason jar. Real zero waste solutions require businesses of all sizes to lead with innovation, policy change at all levels of government, and the inclusion of community input at every point in the process. It requires systemic change. Pursuing a waste-free world encourages us to take a deeper look at our relationship to the world around us. We are forced to rethink not only what we consider disposable, but who we consider disposable. Once we do this, we are able to see that zero waste offers environmental, social, and economic solutions that counter injustice which currently prevents our society from being sustainable long-term. When we break down the word sustainable, it can be simply defined as the ability for circumstances to be sustained. To be maintained, nurtured, and prolonged. We cannot sustain a society that allows numerous environmental injustices to persist. To achieve the goal of a waste-free world, we need to pursue the circular economy. Here’s a quick three-minute video to explain what that is. The goal of the circular economy is to create systems and structures that allow us to reduce waste by keeping materials circulating in the economy for as long as possible. Not only does the circular economy help us build systems that shift us away from an economy that relies on the constant extraction of resources from the earth, but it is built upon the transition to renewable energy. When we reduce the amount of overall stuff we consume, we can reduce the amount of energy resources we use to make and distribute that stuff. We know fossil fuels are the leading cause of climate change. This means reducing our overall consumption as a society creates a direct connection between the zero waste movement and the largest contributing factor to the climate crisis. As an example of how our overconsumption of fossil fuels contribute to environmental injustice, significant air and water pollution on Earth have increased due to the way we generate energy. Coal production results in the dumping of excess materials into our waterways and the emission of dangerous chemicals like mercury and sulfur dioxide into the air. These environmental impacts persist in affected communities for decades. We can look to case studies like the the ongoing Flint Water Crisis where clean water became a luxury after a series of unfortunate decisions made by city and state government officials. Without treatment, the water from the Flint River was highly contaminated with toxic chemicals leached from the city’s car manufacturing industry. Residents were forced to drink, cook with, and bathe in water contaminated with toxic levels of lead and other heavy metals. They were being poisoned by their water supply with more than 100 times the legal level of lead. We cannot thrive as a society when we all do not have access to our most basic needs. At the bare minimum, we all deserve clean air, clean water, nutritious food, and safe shelter. The basis of our society relies on us having financial resources that allow us to get what we need. In the case of the Flint Water Crisis, a lack of financial resources made it nearly impossible for people to obtain alternate sources of water. Community members were left with no other option but to sacrifice their health. This is why economic justice must also be a key consideration when creating zero waste and climate solutions. Economic justice is a set of moral and ethical principles for building economic institutions, where the ultimate goal is to create an opportunity for each person to establish a sufficient material foundation upon which to have a dignified, productive, and creative life. As demonstrated in the Biden Administration’s plan for a national infrastructure upgrade, the shift towards systems that center environmental injustice also has the opportunity to create jobs. We will need contributions of all shapes and sizes as we dismantle old systems that no longer serve us and build new ones. It is incorrect to conclude that the zero waste movement only addresses one part of the sustainability puzzle. When viewed from an intersectional lens, it grasps at the root of many of our society’s issues by creating a culture shift away from overconsumption. We have enough resources on this planet for us all to thrive, but our system of utilizing these resources is inefficient and unjust. When we create systems that not only reduce waste but equitably distribute resources, we create a more sustainable world that includes solutions for all of us.


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