Why is Zero-Waste a Perceived Morality of Cleanliness?

I used to seek a “zero-waste” life.

I was assiduous about never buying packaged foods. I recycled extensively. I bought ethical products from waste-free stores. Yet now, I have begun questioning the pursuit of zero-waste living, particularly as a goal in itself.

While zero-waste culture has already been criticized for how it intersects with privilege, there are further and underexplored ways it can be problematic. These include: how zero-waste culture intersects with productivity culture and moral purity, and the often-assumed moral value of cleanliness.

On productivity culture: If an action is zero-waste but high-labor, is it really zero-waste?

Relaxing, taking life slowly, or living in the moment are not wasteful actions or pursuits. However, when considering zero-waste or minimalist lifestyles – especially as portrayed by ‘slow living’ influencers, such as Isabel Paige, it is important to ask who can afford such lifestyles: not just monetarily but also in terms of safety nets, physical health, and ability, and support systems. It also merits asking why poverty for one person – making one’s own soap, for example – is aspirational and monetizable for another.

Yet I would argue there is a further problem with the pursuit of zero-waste living that hasn’t been discussed. Namely, it places an onus on the individual to become more self-reliant, sometimes to the point of encouraging further atomization of already individualistic societies.

Being partially dependent on other people is part of what enables individuals to have more time to live their lives. If many people have the time to innovate, nurture, socialize, go for long walks, get involved in local movements, study and learn, or develop new skills, (the list goes on); it is probably because they hold a specific kind of position that enables them to do so. They can buy the things they need, which other people’s labor has produced. Skill specialization and supply chains enable people to buy necessities: in this mercantile system, one does not need to be one’s own butcher, baker, and candlestick maker.

What concerns me about zero-waste living as a goal, is it can overlook the invaluable convenience of this resource called time.

This oversight brings to mind a social movement called Effective Altruism.

This movement’s philosophy pushes individuals to ask themselves a key question: Are you achieving as much good as you could be? While the movement is imperfect, this question alone can help people construct a meaningful, impactful life.

In action, considering the philosophy of Effective Altruism might involve reconsidering how one could help the environment. Instead of picking up litter for an hour every day, this social movement finds more significant value in investing that hour into a high-paying job vs. one’s earnings employing ten people to pick up litter.

While the latter can seem more productive, it can overlook the meaning and value inherent to individual pursuit and to engaging with one’s community and local issues on a personal level.

Nevertheless, it highlights a complication inherent to zero-waste ambitions. Namely: if an action is zero-waste but high-labor and time-consuming, is it really zero-waste?

This question also intersects with the problem of how societies value different people’s time. Environmentalism and zero-waste living have become coded as women’s concerns – studies have identified a consistent ‘eco gender gap‘ suggesting women are likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviors and to perceive doing so as their responsibility. Yet environmentalism is everyone’s concern. A risk of the individualization of responsibility often seen in the female-dominated zero-waste space is that it encourages women to take outsize responsibility for behaving sustainably, and to monitor themselves and their households in a way that limits their time and ability to focus on other things – like inventing new technologies, protesting, or simply enjoying their free time.

One could argue pursuing zero-waste goals is overall net-positive. People involved usually live out this politic and catalyze change by living as an example. Their choices optically signal their ethics and can help push for more sustainable forms of production and distribution. Also, there is something admirable about people who have deliberately acquired self-sufficient skills, like creating even small household items, such as cosmetics or handmade clothes, which is common in zero-waste culture.

On the flipside, these individuals should also consider whether, by reducing their environmental footprint, they could eschew opportunities to create far more meaningful changes in sustainability than they would purely by monitoring themselves.

Consequently, I no longer believe that zero-waste should automatically be perceived as aspirational. The processes and supply chains enabling swift creation and distribution of products are problematic when exploitative (and many are exploitative). Yet they also free up time for humans to invent things, help one another, and engage in society. Attempting to inspire change through zero-waste living, especially if doing so without engaging with other people, is not necessarily the most effective way of positively impacting the environment. Consequently, promoting a beautiful sort of solitude and self-reliance as aspirational and – in particular – as supposedly a way of being less wasteful no longer sits well with me. Leaving aside the possibility that an individual can do it all: if an individual attains zero-waste goals to the detriment of engaging with the world, is this not, to some extent, a waste?


Purity and the problem of cleanliness being perceived as a goal in itself

Zero-waste culture’s aspirational and aesthetic elements form another point to question it. What does it mean when order and cleanliness become goals in themselves – and not least, too, as an aesthetic?

Little-discussed yet problematic associations exist between zero-waste culture, cleanliness, and purity. Zero-waste living promotes cleanliness and ‘natural’ products to the extent that cleanliness is seen as a virtue and a goal. Zero-waste lifestyles and mindsets promote cleanliness spiritually, physically, and aesthetically. Yet cleanliness itself being a goal is problematic, for beyond basic hygiene, why should cleanliness be seen as good; pure; more moral, superior, or virtuous?

Moreover, why are we pushing for this sterile, atomized reality in the first place? What is the appeal of it?

Having a tidy house can be nice, but hyper-focusing on individual behavior, environment, and self-reliance, is sometimes as much about attempting to create a sense of control in a chaotic world, as it is about sustainability.

Granted, wanting to feel in control or secure regarding one’s own life is an understandable desire. However, a risk emerges when this manifests as a pursuit of cleanliness, minimalism, and a certain environmental ‘purity.’ Namely: in seeking to create a sense of personal control in a chaotic world – a world that is dirty, crowded, and complex – does one not also risk distancing oneself from messy global challenges and reinforcing moralistic binaries of favorable/problem, clean/dirty, spacious/crowded, pure/impure?

My question is: does the desire for space and control over one’s environment intersect with and unwittingly reinforce broader social values based on prejudice? Take housing, for example. Living separate from others, ideally rurally and self-sufficiently, is sometimes idealized in zero-waste culture. Yet demonizing crowds and cities, and promoting rural and purportedly ‘simpler’ ways of living, can be to attribute a sense of enlightenment or moral superiority somewhat arbitrarily to rural spaces: living rurally is not somehow inherently more virtuous or clean than living in cities or closer to other people.

Interestingly, being apart from others and having more space has become seen as aspirational for many. I find myself wondering whether this removal of oneself from other people – especially if interwoven with sometimes moralistic lifestyle values related to sustainability – can reinforce a sense of hierarchy in the minds of individuals, creating a false separation between who is clean and pure and (supposedly) uncluttered in mind, body, and soul, and who is not.

In conclusion, the demonization of clutter and complication and emphasis on the individual, space, and peace is ultimately personal and political. I can see the appeal of zero-waste culture. Nevertheless, it is important to broadly interrogate the desire for space, control, and cleanliness. Is zero-waste a way of engaging with and protecting the world, or is it a means of virtuously disconnecting from it and other less fortunate people? And does pursuing zero-waste on a personal level, especially as a lifestyle, ultimately come with an opportunity cost that embodies a certain wastefulness if one’s goals are truly to advocate for more sustainable ways of living – not just for one person, but for everyone?

As with most desires and mentalities, there are no all-encompassing answers. However, it is worth giving the space to ask the questions.

Rosalind Moran

Rosalind Moran

Rosalind Moran is a writer of short fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and plays. Her nonfiction and essays have been published in the Guardian, the Telegraph, and Electric Literature, among others.


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