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Why a zero-waste society is incompatible with capitalism.

Why a zero-waste society is incompatible with capitalism.

Author Bio: T. Lalita has completed her Masters in Political Science and takes keen interest in reading and writing on social justice and environmental justice.

Zero-waste as a movement is heavily individual-centric. The entire modus operandi relies on getting individuals to adopt alternatives of commonly available plastic packaged products. It absolves the corporations which manufacture these products of their responsibility. The movement is focused on holding individuals accountable for the waste they create. Asking them to take it upon themselves to change and create a better world. The practitioners of this movement believe that the blame solely lies on the people for not adopting a sustainable way of life.

When we say that we all are responsible for our waste because we are all part of this system, we forget that this system isn’t built on equal footing. It is built on the backs of bahujans who work in factories, live in insecure housing, face discrimination, poverty and poor health. 

All of us have unequal stakes in this system. So, the CEO of a plastic packaging unit has more responsibility than a worker working in the same factory who cleans the floors. Because we have unequal stakes, we have unequal responsibility. Blaming “ourselves” equally is dishonesty because we are all not equal in the first place. Those who have more power have more responsibility and should be held responsible by us for their actions.

“It’s so easy, I’ve been doing it for so long”, is a statement commonly thrown around by many practitioners. As someone who lives and travels all over Mumbai for work, I can tell you how difficult it is to cope up with work stress, household chores, other organizational work and try living zero-waste. I’ve still done it because I have a supportive mother who has time to help me make things at home. Sometimes, it’s tiring to even get up and soak Reetha (soap berries/soap nuts) for a hair wash because there is zero energy left at the end of the day. But, my mother helps me out. Does everyone have this help at home? Unsupportive parents, living with disabilities, mental health issues and general lack of money and time, itself goes to show that living a zero-waste lifestyle comes with significant privilege. If you have the privilege, good for you. Remember that the onus is on us to build an equal world where everyone enjoys the privilege of a zero-waste lifestyle. “People are just lazy”, is ableist capitalist language. Of course, people are apathetic; the ‘not-in-my-backyard attitude exists because the caste system tells us that it is someone else’s job to do this work. That someone is from a marginalized caste. 

What people assume here is that our struggles are the same, our lives are the same and our solutions are the same. Instagram isn’t the real world. Just because we see English speaking upper-caste and upper-class people here living a zero waste lifestyle, doesn’t mean that the entire world lives the same way. Geography, gender, caste and class matters when it comes to living a zero-waste lifestyle. Without addressing these concerns, we cannot dream of a better world.

Another problem I see is the glorification of waste picking. This is a problem that afflicts zero waste practitioners who fall prey to capitalist propaganda praising waste pickers and safai karmacharis working in the waste sector. 

A big corporation put out an ad about manual scavengers. Please let us not forget that manual scavenging is inhumane, dehumanizing, dangerous and not to mention illegal. Forget glorification, it needs to be ended by us. Don’t corporations have money to provide machinery to clean sewers instead? So much for technological advancement. Similarly, for waste pickers.

What does it say about urban cities with so much modernization, that side by side people pick through roadside dumps and dumping grounds to recover plastic and other recyclable waste to sell it? Why should we glorify the work they are doing? They are not green warriors. They are not waste champions. They are forced to do it because they have no option. The goal of our society should be to ensure no one becomes a waste picker. 

Capitalism will never come up with solutions to end these evils because capitalism benefits from it. Coca Cola and Bisleri to name a few, will never stop producing bottles. They will instead pump in money to “better” waste picker lives, fund waste management, fund slum rehabilitation projects because it is in their greater interest to let pollution and waste picking to continue. They’d rather provide gloves and boots to waste pickers working in dumping grounds than ensure dumping grounds, spaces of disease, exploitation, assault, fires, accidents do not exist. 

As zero waste practitioners, we really need to get over our self-flagellation and join the larger environmental movement and social justice movement to further our ideas as part of the larger fight against all forms of exploitation.