by Meghann Cranford
A world without waste is one that is hard to imagine in today’s society where your social status is measured heavily by the stuff that you possess. Sarak Surak attempts to describe a wasteless future in her article “To the Perfection of Waste: Utopian Visions and Reimagining Managing” . Such an image requires creative visioning and we tried to create such a vision for the second time at the Shepard Symposium on Social Justice.
Similar to last year, we set-up a central waste station that included two bins for recycling, two bins for compost, and one bin for landfill. We ask attendees to scrape their plates into the compost bins to increase participation and education towards our zero waste efforts. By requiring everybody to bring their waste to us, we are able to track the amount and types of waste entering the symposium. This year we tried to reduce the total amount of waste produced by encouraging people to only take what they would eat. We also worked with the Soup Kitchen, thanks to an amazing coalition member Katie Jacobs, to donate any of the leftover food that did not hit the serving line. What we learned was that the majority of food waste is not individual food consumption. The amount of actual plate waste was minuscule. The problem is with the food that has hit the serving line, but cannot be donated due to food health and safety policies. Even with our extra efforts, the systemic barriers made our waste reduction goals unattainable.
Overall, we produced 550 lbs of waste, but had a 98% diversion rate. By definition, we achieved zero waste, but to us that isn’t good enough. The reason we do these things is because often times the most marginalized groups face disproportionate burdens due to wasted resources. Incinerators especially are more prevalent in underprivileged and minority communities than in wealthier, white neighborhoods . During his keynote address, Dr. Bullard stated that through his research, he has discovered that minority communities in the South are burdened with 83% of the waste, but only make-up 23% of the population. This clear example of injustice proves that our current linear systems of handling waste generates numerous environmental, economic, and social consequences.
The way we manage waste today stems from how we perceive buying, owning, and discarding things everyday. Prior to World War II, Americans were a lot more frugal in their consumption habits. After the war, the industrialized society that we built to accommodate war efforts was sustained by manufacturing mass amounts of single-use disposable products . This sparked a society that valued easily accessible options and consumerism became the norm. This slippery slope was steepened by the introduction of planned obsolescence into the market place. The goal became not just to get people to buy more stuff, but to buy more stuff more often by designing the products to malfunction within a relatively short time span . Today, it can be cheaper, more convenient, and sometimes the only option to buy new rather than to repair a product that is broken. From a natural resource standpoint, sustaining this type of extraction and production is impossible on a planet of finite resources. Such contradictions reveal the failures of capitalism in its current form. The problem is heightened when we realize that the places to put all of this stuff is shrinking. Hence the aim for zero waste.
Another problem with achieving zero waste is this push for individual behavior change. One quote I have been obsessed with this semester is as follows: "By contrast, the individualization of responsibility, because it characterizes environmental problems as the consequence of destructive consumer choice, asks that individuals imagine themselves as consumers first and citizens second". Convincing individuals to take responsibility for the failures of systemic processes just fuels the capitalistic, consumerism culture that we have built in the United States. In order to fully reach ‘zero waste’ we need to address these constraints. One way this can happen is by requiring extended producer responsibility which places the burden of handling and disposing of waste back onto the producers of those materials. Additionally, communities should create policies that control the types of products that enter their city limits and ones that breakdown barriers to reuse in places like grocery stores and restaurants. Finally, to fully achieve zero waste, the option of disposing other materials should exist within Centers for Hard-to-Recycle Materials (CHaRM) centers.
Luckily, we have seen that change is possible, especially on a community level. Setting up zero waste practices is doable. One of my favorite quotes from Shepard this year was “ radical resilience is resistance”. We have the chance to recover from the mistakes we have made with our waste, but the time to do it is now.
 Surak, Sarah, “To the Perfection of Waste: Utopian Visions and Reimagining Managing,” Administrative Theory and Praxis, pages 5-18, February 03, 2016, accessed March 09, 2017 fromhttp://www.tandfonline.com.libproxy.uwyo.edu/doi/full/10.1080/10841806.2015.1124718?scroll=top&needAccess=true.
 Massey, Rachael, “Environmental Justice: Income, Race, and Health,” Global Development and Environment Institute Tufts University, 2004, accessed on March 9, 2017 from http://www.ase.tufts.edu/gdae/education_materials/modules/Environmental_Justice.pdf.
 Liboiron, Max, “Modern Waste is an Economic Strategy,” Discard Studies, July, 09, 2014, accessed on March 9, 2017 from https://discardstudies.com/2014/07/09/modern-waste-is-an-economic-strategy/.
 Maniates, Michael, “Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?” Global Environmental Politics 1:3, August 2001, accessed on March 9, 2017.