I was alone on the side of the road, adjusting my up-cycled kitty litter bucket panniers as I watched a huge 4 wheeler zoom past me transporting exotic fruits, chips and soda. “Mango in the winter in Oregon?” I asked myself questioning our culture of illusion. I scan the ground to make sure nothing fell off my pack, my eyes linger on the nestle candy wrapper, smashed plastic water bottle and solo coffee cup lid sitting in the ditch to my right. My body is sore, my clothes are wet and I have to constantly remind myself why I am doing this…. to celebrate human powered transportation, to spread zero waste positivity, to feel empowered as a solo female traveler.….fuck, I just want an entire cultural and political revolution. All set I strap on my helmet and I am off, continuing on my journey of biking over a thousand miles from San Luis Obispo, CA to Portland, OR on my crocheted ‘74 Schwinn le tour.
Most of us feel overwhelmed by the current system and sometimes confused with what actions to take in our daily lives to make an impact. So many of us bring reusable bags to the store, buy organic and still nothing seems to change. Living an “eco lifestyle” is wonderful but is not the same as taking political action. Take it from me a zero waste blogger who is realizing my dream of fitting my entire years trash into a mason jar and being a judgmental eco martyr every time I see someone carrying a single use plastic water bottle is not going to bring the revolution we’ve been waiting for.
When I started learning about eco destruction around the world I became infuriated at our current system. Seeing pictures of dead baby birds with their stomachs overflowing with plastic motivated me to want to change our throwaway culture and get involved with environmental activism. I started volunteering for the Surfrider Foundation organizing beach cleanups in California. I learned a lot about plastic pollution in our Oceans, I toured landfills for fun and I crocheted bikinis out of up-cycled plastic bags. Having trash on my mind all the time made it so every time I walked into a store I’d experience a mini panic attack seeing all the single-use plastic packaging and disposable products. This pervasive material has seeped into every corner of our lives yet it is invisible to most people. For a while I felt like I was drowning in a sea of plastic trash… slowly being consumed by the overwhelming burden of everything plastic in our world. I would try to take a leisurely walk on the beach or around my neighborhood and all I would see is trash littered everywhere! I couldn’t get away from it. On the verge of hyperventilation I would try to stay positive and snap a cute picture for my Instagram. #singleuseisoceanabuse I love sharing inspiring photos and believe that we all need positive engagement and (kin)nection (K-I-N because we are all kin) in our lives so we don’t feel so alone because we shouldn’t have to bare the weight of all the world’s problems on our shoulders.
In 2014 I started living a zero waste lifestyle by shopping in bulk with glass jars and cotton bags and refusing anything wrapped in plastic. I used to think I was cheating when I would indulge in a grape kombucha with a single use plastic cap and seal. I would feel guilty when I bought tortillas packaged in a plastic bag.
All this shame is exactly what the waste creators want us to feel. It’s just like that 1970’s “crying Indian” commercial with the tag line “People start pollution, people can stop it.” It was created from the very corporations that were and still are creating single-use products. The ad was a scheme to get people to blame themselves rather than see the root solution of source reduction from the factories themselves.
People naturally dislike holding manufactured guilt and tend to shift the blame to poor and minority groups. Most not able to see that living an “eco lifestyle” is a privilege that comes along with being able to afford it. Zero waste can be an expensive lifestyle because most bulk sections are found in pricey health food stores which are usually found in larger towns and cities in middle class neighborhoods. Packaged food is generally cheaper because plastic is a subsidized petrochemical product and is readily available at any store across the nation. That’s when I realized I cannot be an environmental activist without also standing up for social justice.
The zero waste lifestyle helped me develop new skills like making my own toothpaste, helped me build relationships with skilled community members and align my actions with my values so I can live in a place of greater integrity but it is not an end all solution. GreenPeace CEO and Story of Stuff founder, Annie Leonard, says actions like buying organic or bringing our own bag to the store fall into the category of responsible adult hygiene and household maintenance. Individual lifestyle changes miss the structural drivers of our current system focusing on consumer power rather than recognizing the power we hold when we become engaged citizens. The only way we are going to make the corporations and oil companies take responsibility for producing toxic materials is if we work together. That means releasing judgement, breaking down social barriers and working with people who are different from ourselves.
The core of today’s issues are structural but we live in a constipated society where we are afraid to let go, afraid to acknowledge that we messed up, afraid to release the past. We need to learn to let go with gratitude for all the lessons the past has gifted us and grow into a new society that doesn’t take for granted a material that can mold into any shape and last for thousands of years. In our culture of isolation the very thing we need to make us happy is also what we need to transform the system, community engagement. People are going to join if it’s fun and easy to get involved. Gathering together in public spaces, engaging with our neighbors, sharing meals, working together on shared goals, using our talents and skills towards community betterment, celebrating life, sharing abundance… all of these things are steps towards a real revolution.
I am now living in Portland, OR and volunteering with the City Repair Project, a non-profit all about community empowerment, public place making and decolonizing the very infrastructure we live in. We get dirty, we plant food, we paint the streets, we talk about social dynamics and most importantly we have fun together.
What I realized on my bike tour is that people are generally good and they want to help. Individual lifestyles can’t change the system but when we come together and shift our collective concern to collective action we can take down structural barriers and make way for transformational change.
“The key to organizing an alternative society is to organize people around what they can do and more importantly, what they want to do.” – Abbie Hoffman