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Let's Be Honest, Episode 30: The Myth Of The Mason Jar

Let’s be honest is a Food Circle project to open up the conversation about the challenges when being or becoming a member of the SC (Sustainability Club). This series will shine a light on the different approaches to making life more sustainable and the step-backs and difficulties that arise. Being more kind and understanding, instead of critical, will hopefully help to encourage us to try instead of giving up when facing a step-back or failure. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment.

Let’s celebrate the achievements and give room for honesty and struggles!

The Evolution of Zero Waste

In today's world the term “zero waste” has found its home in the ways we think and talk about sustainability and future for this planet. But it wasn't until the 1980s when the zero waste concept as we know it now emerged, based on the idea that Daniel Knapp developed, called Total Recycling [1]. Rather revolutionary for its time, Knapp started a market, Urban Ore, that successfully showcased how multiple types of items that would be discarded can be redirected from landfills to their second life.

Dodging wasteful practices is no new knowledge though, people at all times have shown a tendency to reuse and upcycle old items. But it was really the dawning single-use plastic era that pushed the initiative further. It was also the time when the average household waste had increased significantly [2]. So, as the idea of a zero waste lifestyle took shape, it became clear just how ambitious, altruistic and worthwhile the practice is. And also idealistic. Getting by with little to no household waste sounds like a dream everyone on this planet should strive to achieve, right? But just how feasible is it?

Starting 2010s we saw “zero waste” bloggers, YouTubers, influences popping up - chiming in with their takes and advice on waste management, sustainable living and just what it takes to nail those “5 Rs” down. Naturally, this visualisation of the lifestyle gave zero waste both a more workable meaning and an aesthetic. Earthy colour tones, wooden cleaning supplies, organised “packageless” kitchen pantry, reusable cups and mesh bags paired together with indoor plants in pre-loved pots pulled together a clean and pleasing atmosphere. A staple amid this evolving aesthetic was the mason jar. Besides its absolute multitude of uses, the mason jar became the symbolic assessment of just how little waste it is possible to generate.

A big influence, if not the starter of the mason jar trash challenge was Lauren Singer, an American activist and blogger that was featured in a YouTube video by Goodful [3]. As of right now the video has gathered an astounding 3 million clicks, showing people how Lauren has managed to contain her 5 years of trash in a single glass jar. The contents of her trash jar include a few straws, protective seals, clothing labels, festival bracelets, band-aids, credit card and a present ribbon. The impression of this feature was quite large. Revisiting the video years later, however, we can say that the mason jar goal is an admirable, yet quite an unrealistic one.

Truly Zero?

Among the amazement and inspiration, Lauren Singer and her jar of trash caused skepticism. Standardising that small of an amount of waste as the desirable result of a zero waste lifestyle proposed a few problematics. Let's break that down. Accounts of other low-waste bloggers mention how existing in a linear economy, plus in a time of globalisation, creates inevitable waste, whether your household produces it or not [4]. Even though individual participation may be more circular mindset based, companies and corporations are founded upon a “take-make-dispose” system [5]. Therefore, this economy is built upon the very idea of products turning into waste.

Reducing physical waste is beneficial, but in the focus on physical waste we should not lose sight of “invisible” waste. Consuming meat, using transportation, flying with airplanes, purchasing clothing and electronics produce greenhouse gas emissions, the numbers of which are alarmingly high on a global scale and in dire need of our attention. So, all the waste we generate we cannot contain in a jar, nor even fully grasp sometimes. It goes without saying that we don't always have control over the waste we create. Eating at a restaurant, having a drink, discovering hobbies, having children, having pets, traveling - all these situations may not always grant us to be completely waste-free. Sustainable lifestyle should cater to your circumstances, and no two people are the same: location, accessibility, living conditions all determine just how much “off the grid” our circumstances allow us to go. Waste is already generated before food reaches your plate or before you carry it home from the farmers market. Some material necessities have yet to be designed so that their storage, delivery and application could be package free. Not to mention, delivery itself is not waste-free. Also, there is no guarantee that package-free products are always more environmentally friendly than sustainable goods that come in packaging.

Thinking Bigger

The point of thinking beyond the jar is not to disregard the absolute dedication to the movement, but to instil hope that if your trash weighs more, even way more than those few grams, it does not make you a low-waste failure. Any effort to reduce waste is not to be discredited. Continuous attempts are more important than just a handful of successes. Going zero waste implies that there should be zero trash, and while admirable, the goal is not entirely reachable. Nor should it stop you from still making changes in your habits and everyday decisions.

Sustainability movement has many faces, but all of them are supposed hold the same purpose. Under extensive scrutiny on social media platforms, zero waste movement has demonstrated its strengths and its faults. New terminology has surfaced to redirect the course of personal sustainability goals, like low impact living, for example. Adopting low impact lifestyle implies making carbon footprint reducing decisions both short and long term. Limiting air travel and buying a smaller house are the more long-lasting choices that play just as big of a role in low impact living as avoiding single use plastic and shopping local [6]. Low impact does not set rigid rules for the purpose of avoiding the feeling like you are failing.

Bottom line is, trash is not meant to fit in a jar. The target seems unattainable, and that is because it is. In today's society we must think bigger, and focus on the bigger consequences on our long-lasting actions. Whatever lifestyle, movement, idea or initiative motivates you and drives you forward, it already is a step forward.

Author: Liva Puka

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  1. Who Started The Zero Waste Movement | Zero Waste

  2. Trends in Solid Waste Management | The World Bank

  3. How I Fit 5 Years of My Trash In This Jar

  4. The Trash Jar Myth and Why You Are NOT a Zero Waste Failure | Sustainable Sabs

  5. Is Zero Waste REALLY possible? | Almost Zero Waste

  6. Low Impact Living: A Beginner’s Guide to Sustainability | Low Impact Love