Zero-waste should be an affordable lifestyle

Zero-waste+should+be+an+affordable+lifestyle

Leland Culver, Assistant Managing Editor

In the summer of 2017, I participated in a two-week summer program at The School of the New York Times, a course exploring, among other things, sustainability. One of my assignments was to interview environmental activist Lauren Singer at her recently-opened shop “Package Free” in Brooklyn, and then write an article about the zero-waste lifestyle she promotes. When I wrote that article, I emphasized Ms. Singer’s talking point that it is ultimately cheaper to live without waste.

However, for most people, it is neither cheap nor practical, and that’s a big problem in a world where environmental issues are rapidly growing out of hand. As we students enter the workforce, we need to invest our money and expertise into growing and increasing access to the market for sustainable products and putting the emphasis on the good one does by purchasing these products rather than the prestige one garners.

The fact is, the economy is built on disposables, and that economic and cultural inertia will keep Singer’s zero-waste lifestyle a niche market reserved for those with heavily disposable income unless we put money and time into developing the industry.”

Industries like Ms. Singer’s deal with high production costs and niche markets, relying on the novelty and prestige of their products to turn a profit. On Singer’s online store, you can purchase a stick of fully compostable lip balm for $14, compared to the $2-3 price tag for most other lip balms. It’s impossible to know exactly how expensive it is to produce such lip balm, but it is certainly more expensive than a brand like Burt’s Bees, which has the advantage of mass production and nationwide markets. When I visited Package Free in 2017, I bought a comb and a tub of deodorant, spending approximately $30, mostly for the novelty of it. My purchase was too expensive to justify buying anything regularly from them, even if I lived in Brooklyn and didn’t need everything to be shipped halfway across the country.

The fact is, the economy is built on disposables, and that economic and cultural inertia will keep Singer’s zero-waste lifestyle a niche market reserved for those with heavily disposable income unless we put money and time into developing the industry.

It’s already worked for other environmentally conscious industries. Studies have shown that subsidies on renewable energy, especially solar, have increased adoption and innovation to the point where renewable energy has become a competitive industry. Where they exist, zero-waste products are in a similar position that solar power used to be, where the market is small and the cost of production is high.

If we poured subsidies, research or government contracts into waste-free items and startups, there’s a good chance we would see the same growth in this fledgling industry, and then we would see prices fall to the point where it is definitely worth paying to do something good, and the industry no longer has to survive off of the prestige of being environmentally conscious. Doing good for the environment can become an everyday reality, for everyone.