Zero Waste on Sparrowpost


zero waste heading Earlier this year a co-worker from the Bay Area came to stay for a night at our apartment so that we could leave early for a meeting the next day. I always get a little nervous when new people stay at our apartment, because I know that there are elements of our way of living that are eccentric, and I’m sure it makes our place a little uncomfortable for guests. This friend and co-worker is fortunately also a mother, and therefore took the toys and random art supplies everywhere totally in stride. The most flattering observation she had of our eccentricities was what she had to say when she saw our somewhat dysfunctional trash situation. (Our kitchen is small, and we reserve the traditional ‘under sink’ trash location for our YuckChuck compost container. Guests are left guessing unless they are lucky enough to find the tiny trash and recycling hiding out in the broom closet).

The trash and recycling hiding in the broom closet.

The trash and recycling hiding in the broom closet.

When my friend saw our tiny trash, she said “Oh–is your family zero waste?”
“Huh?” said I?
“Oh” she said, “I have a friend who is. I saw your trash can” (and probably also all the random crap in our house that is NOT in the trash can) “and thought you were too.”
And that was that.

But I have to say that this offhanded comment was something of a revelation.

When I think about my hangups with throwing things out, and with disposability in our culture, I have a tendency to think about it with the framing that is given to us by our popular media. For example, I’m willing to admit that my issues with stuff place me somewhere on the hoarding spectrum. I joke (but it’s not really a joke) that I’m doing a 12 step program to address my hoarding issues related to cardboard and boxes of all kinds. (I accept that I am powerless in the face of my passion for cardboard).

But now my house guest had given me a little gift–a positive framing for my issues. Maybe I wasn’t a hoarder–maybe I was just “Zero Waste.” Of course the thing that strikes you when you hear the term “Zero Waste” is that it’s impossible, and therefore bullshit. Being a ‘Zero Waste’ family urban Southern California in the year 2015 is laughable, no matter how fervently you ‘reduce, re-use, recycle.’ In fact, the idea struck me initially as being so full of shit that I didn’t even ‘search up’ the concept at first. Plus, I was worried that it sounded too much like Vision Zero.*

*As a green transportation enthusiast, I am rooting for the ‘Vision Zero’ campaigns that are taking place in New York and now Los Angeles, which aim to reduce all traffic deaths to zero. The ‘Vision Zero’ campaigns already operate on a ‘Modest Proposal’-type logic, calling us out on our cultural acceptance of traffic deaths by proposing the seemingly impossible–zero deaths. Not wanting to deflate the ‘Vision Zero’ campaign by zeroing out every other possible cause, my initial thought was to pretend I hadn’t heard about Zero Waste as a way of supporting Vision Zero.

But… my ego craves redemption. I am consistently annoyed by the popular depiction of people like myself who have a hard time getting rid of stuff. Watch the show “Hoarders” and you will notice that, on a good day, hoarding is depicted as a sickness, but on a bad day (and more typically), it is depicted as a moral failing. I.e.–normal “good” people don’t have a problem with the culture of excess and disposability–what’s wrong with these (often low income) people who just can’t get it together to throw stuff out? The possibility that hoarding is a reasonable, and possibly even an ethical response to our culture of disposability and consumption never enters the conversation.

Eventually I Yahoo-ed Zero Waste (late at night, when Vison Zero wasn’t watching)–and I was surprised, because the movement seems reasonably profound; “Zero Waste is a philosophy that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused. No trash is sent to landfills and incinerators. The process recommended is one similar to the way that resources are reused in nature.” Quite positively, the movement seems to focus strongly on systems changes, and has involvement from industrial producers and recyclers. It also has charismatic individual practitioners–like Bea Johnson and her Zero Waste Home. The more I began to think and read about Zero Waste, the less I worried about the substantial gap between the reality of my situation (lots of waste) and the blustery rhetoric (zero waste). Yes, it’s a yawning gap, but like so many other big ideas (Vision Zero, netzero buildings, zero inbox, permaculture, christianity, and–why not–democracy!) it’s better to try and fail than never to have tried at all.

So I’m happy to introduce Zero Waste as a new thread on Sparrowpost–and hope to contribute a little to our discourse about stuff. Special thanks to Chanell Fletcher for the inspiration.


  1. YAY, I’m so glad you found Zero Waste! I had the same reaction at first–maybe it should be called “Toward Zero Waste” so people don’t immediately dismiss it as ridiculous. I just attended an International Zero Waste Day and am happy to report that there are some very smart people working in this movement. I like their vision of creating community-level systems that value resources AND people more.

    You are living in a city with a Zero Waste goal… :-)

    • I agree, the movement seems surprisingly smart. I got ‘Zero Waste Home’ out of the library expecting the worst (I find these types of green lifestyle books to be consistently disappointing), but I have to say that I’m actually enjoying it. I’m also a fan of ‘Cradle to Cradle” and William McDonough. I saw him speak back in 2002, and it must have made some kind of impression–though it’s taken me a long time to connect the dots between his more industrial focus and individual ‘zero waste’ lifestyles.

      I’m hoping that all of these ‘zero ____’ campaigns benefit from their inflammatory titles. I think it’s meant to startle us into alertness–though as I said I get concerned that multiple campaigns using the same approach might detract from one another. Hopefully there is room for all of them all of them in our cultural consciousness right now.

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