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Opinion: Zero waste-ish

We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.
Re-using glass jars is a great way to cut back on the use of plastic.

I am a jar hoarder.

I have a weird inability to throw old jars into the recycling bin. Instead, I tuck them in the drawer, for future use. (And every now and then my partner stealthily culls them, and I start over, undeterred.) There is some part of me that believes we are going to run out of jars, one day, globally, as a civilization, and my foresight will mean I will have plenty of storage devices that smell faintly of decades-old peanut butter or salsa.

It may be because the biggest environmental battle that informed my childhood was over Fraser Island, a sand island off the coast of Queensland that was being mined for sand, to make glass, presumably for jars, and windows, and screens, and concrete. Just last month, University of Queensland scientists at the School of Civil Engineering announced research is underway to develop a process for making cement with recycled glass, because sand runs out.

Explained Dr. Mehdi Serati from UQ’s School of Civil Engineering, the amount of sand in the world is finite, so ingenuity is needed to solve the problem of a looming shortage. “If we don’t do something about sand depletion at a global scale, our grandchildren are not going to see sandy beaches,” Dr Serati said. “Over the past 20 years the cost of sand has increased by six times, and it’s the second most consumed natural product globally, after fresh water.”

As an Australian by birth, sandy beaches are sacrosanct. Life in Australia doesn’t make sense if there are no sandy beaches. It’s just unimaginable. And so, I merrily hoard jars.

But hoarding alone won’t save the beaches.

So I have turned to the Zero Waste Chef, a Canadian-born blogger turned San Francisco Bay Area editor for Mother Earth Living, who took her protest against plastic pollution not to the streets but to the kitchen. Not only does Anne Marie Bonneau endorse my jar hoarding (she’s been living plastic-free since 2011—what else are you going to put your bulk pantry supplies in?), she encourages people to try making your own sourdough, ricotta or bubbly drinks, as a way of reducing packaged and processed food, and plastic waste. She calls fermentation “an act of defiance against our broken food system” and a way to get “more in tune with the natural world that might lead us to better preserve and protect” it.

She argues that the word “disposable” is a marketing stroke of evil genius, coined to convince us that we are “able” to “dispose” of single-use plastic—as if when it’s out of our sight, it has magically disappeared, which we all know is the most dastardly kind of magical thinking. Out of sight might be out of mind, but it’s not out of play.

She’s 100-per-cent granola (recipe included), so I can understand if you experience a reflexive desire to keep that kind of earnest puritanical kitchen priestess at arm’s length from your household, lest she glimpse the frozen pizza in your freezer and all your other anti-Earth-Mother sins committed in the name of just getting through the day and keeping the ravenous hordes fed… But wait! The math invites us to reconsider this binary of perfection or bust.

As she says, in her new book, based on the blog, Zero Waste Chef, “Zero waste isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. You can live a little bit zero waste. And if 10,000 people reduced their waste by 10 per cent that would reduce 10 times more waste than if 100 people got their waste down to zero.” The math makes my brain shut down, so I just cut and paste it directly, but “the point is, every little bit counts, especially when it’s amplified by a lot of us having a go.”

Or, a calculation that I can understand: “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” This exact sentence is how she won me over. (Also, the jar-hoarding endorsement. And the recipe for ginger beer which is my current addiction.) But the rallying call to imperfection! Because, I don’t really need any more aspirational benchmarks that I’m incapable of meeting, because I’m flawed, flailing, and trapped in a system that means every aspirational thing I want to do, to help improve the world, or life for other people, essentially means swimming upstream.

So bring your flawed and flailing selves to the Zero Waste Kitchen Party. Bring your big hearts, your hope for your kids, your affection for a grandma or aunty or someone you imagine had a little Earth Mother wisdom in her fingertips. Bring your fetish for collecting jars. Bring your love for kitchen experiments and weird science. Bring your friends. Don’t bring righteousness or judgment and let’s leave the despair at the door, or in the hammock out back taking a well-needed rest.

As we pick away slowly at deconstructing and remaking systems that actually flow with life, I’m just gonna do the best I can, have a drink of home-brewed ginger beer, and keep staking out countertop space for mason jars full of oxymels, ginger bugs, kombucha, as my little Save the Beaches homage. Come join in the fun.