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It’s Getting Hot in Here: Zero Waste is the Future

Graphic+by+Yolanda+Chow
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It’s Getting Hot in Here: Zero Waste is the Future

Graphic by Yolanda Chow

Graphic by Yolanda Chow

Graphic by Yolanda Chow

Graphic by Yolanda Chow

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Here’s a tentative conclusion: zero waste is the only future. Might as well put that out there.

The idea — the dream, perhaps — of waste-free living has been circling around in my head for the last month or two. When I toss an empty (and thoroughly washed) hummus container on the growing pile of recyclables that sits in a box in the corner of my kitchen, I am compelled to question the sustainability of what we tend to think of as, well, sustainable.

For context, what I am also thinking of when I think of yet another hummus container or one of those cardboard tubes of oats, is that I know much of the recyclables in this country are not, in fact, being recycled. More specifically, I know that China, where we exported quite a bit of our unprocessed recycling in the past, has stopped accepting ours due to how contaminated it tends to be. Even more specifically, I know what I learned by reading an article from “The Guardian” titled “Moment of reckoning: US cities burn recyclables after China bans imports,” which is not just that recyclables are being burned due to inadequate processing infrastructure, but also that those living in proximity to the incineration facilities, which were not designed to burn these types of plastics, are suffering the effects of air pollution.

All of that being said, I am not writing this to inspire guilt in others, nor to exonerate myself of my own. While I do think there is a moral urgency and weight to our waste, the imperative I am seeing here is one of imagination, which does not negate moral urgency, since all imagination is necessarily moral imagination.

What I am trying to say is this: we tend to respond in guilt when stories and data like those above are revealed to us, assuming we believe them enough to be affected, but guilt can simply keep us rooted in the bad patterns of the past. Guilt is neither productive nor progressive, really, however necessary it might be for recognizing wrongs.

Imagination, I think, can be a legitimately progressive corrective to the guilt-trap, specifically where it relates to environmental ethics and practice. Instead of killing the spirit, imagination allows one to recognize how their daily actions — amassing a pile of recyclables in my kitchen, for example — are tied up in much larger stories, like those of children in the towns near incineration plants developing asthma at higher-than-normal rates. More than that, though, imagination allows one to go beyond this recognition, asking, “How might I do things differently?”

In the face of the radically open questions imagination allows us to ask, however, it is so, so easy to say, “What I do doesn’t really matter anyway,” or something like that. But, it seems to me that the functional belief that one’s daily actions are morally irrelevant is indicative of despair rather than progress, apathy rather than hope.

I am neither a scientist nor a philosopher, lacking the rigor of both. For those asking how a life reformed in response to this imperative of imagination might be tied to tangible results, I’ve got nothing.

What I do have, though, is a hunch that this type of thinking might keep me awake and engaged, with myself and the myriad people with whom I live in connection. In other words, it might grant me a bit of hope in lieu of despair.

I’ll let the rest of you figure that out for yourselves.

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