One zero-waste swap doesn’t make you a martyr

Metal straws have become a physical marker of activists who care about the environmental and practice zero-waste. This push for metal straws came after a video of a turtle impaled by a plastic straw became viral. But this straw approach is absurd, ineffective and just the tip of the iceberg that is the neoliberal perversion of the zero-waste movement. 

Global waste is out of control. According to the World Bank’s newest report, “Global waste will increase by 70 percent on current levels by 2050.”

According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, the US exported 157,000 large 20-foot shipping containers of plastic waste to other countries. This is the same amount that is recycled domestically.

According to Frontier Group, 30% of all U.S. “garbage” is packaging. Aside from packaging, the highest amounts of littering and pollution in the ocean include bottle caps, plastic bottles, bags, straws, lids, take-out containers, cups, plates and other single-use “disposable” products. 

The zero-waste movement is a lifestyle aiming to reduce waste by avoiding initial consumption. So, instead of relying on single-use items, practicers bring their own and rethink how to use their existing belongings. But just as any niche becomes exploited by capitalism, a new market of products has erupted. 

This zero-waste movement has given rise to zero-waste products or “zero-waste swaps.” Consumers are now shamed into tossing their old products and replacing them with new, more “eco-friendly” ones. So, instead of reaching for a disposable set of plastic silverware, consumers can buy their own reusable set. And skip the plastic cups at your coffee shop; buy this reusable one instead! 

But these “zero-waste swaps” are just another form of trendy greenwashing, incentivizing concerned, young people to keep consuming. It is a way to shift blame from big corporations onto the consumer, placing a veil over the consumer’s eyes and redirecting their attention to more consumption, especially in a time when people are so desperate for change. 

Because this movement has become so public, it has morphed into a trend, an “activist Olympics” of who cares more, where others will shame you if you’re without your metal straw. But zero waste isn’t supposed to be a collection of brightly colored products ordered from Amazon but a complete overhaul of everything you’ve ever learned about products and consumption.

Anna Marie Shreeves is a graduate student at Georgia State studying informal waste in Atlanta. She has been practicing zero waste for the past five years. At one point, she was able to fit all her trash from 13 months in a 32-ounce Mason jar. 

“Once the light is on in your brain and you understand trash, you really can’t stop thinking about it and observing your behavior,” Shreeves said. “It’s something I will always practice.” 

Take a step back whenever you feel the urge to buy something and ask yourself if you absolutely need it. Most of the time, you don’t. We as consumers are taught to buy more and that our needs are infinite, but you would be surprised how much you already have and how little you actually need. 

Use what you already have. Instead of buying a reusable silverware set, take a fork with you from home. Need a reusable coffee cup? Bring your own Mason jar from home and wrap a napkin around the base so you don’t burn your fingers. But don’t go out and buy Mason jars if you don’t have them. Save that spaghetti sauce jar from your latest midnight pasta binge. 

Economical zero-waste swaps: 

  • Replace your body wash and hand soap with bar soap 
  • Use rags instead of paper towels
  • Replace all of your specialized cleaners with a bottle of vinegar 
  • Use a washcloth instead of a plastic loofah
  • Explore cloth pads and menstrual cups
  • Rely on washable dish sponges
  • Buy loose-leaf tea and loose coffee
  • Use old food jars for storage and drinkware 
  • Avoid buying new and opt for used 
  • Borrow things from friends whenever possible 

Because if I see another metal straw in a plastic cup, I will lose my mind. You already remembered your straw, remember your cup. 

Check out Shreeve’s website,, for more tips and support.