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DIGBOSTON: MASS RESIDENTS STRUGGLE TO OPT OUT OF THE DISPOSABLE ECONOMY

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When Sabrina Auclair, a zero-waste advocate, and entrepreneur based in Beverly, made the decision to go plastic-free in 2018, it felt like an impossible task. There was some national momentum around zero waste as a trend—think mason jars and viral social media influencers—but locally, there were very few resources for someone wishing to accumulate less trash. Plastic packaging was everywhere—on groceries, health supplies, cleaning products, and food.

Like Bernier, the more Auclair struggled to avoid trash, the more isolated she became.

“I felt alone,” she recounted in an email. “I thought that there was so little being done in the state or that efforts were not communicated and there wasn’t a ‘hub’ for all things zero-waste, so I decided to step in.”

If the resources to help people like her didn’t exist, Auclair decided to build them herself. Sensing the need for a more communal, information-oriented platform, last March she created a Facebook group called “Zero Waste Massachusetts.” Later that summer, Auclair launched an online marketplace called Unpacked Living, selling zero-waste tools and products to help people like her who were just starting out.

The Facebook group has filled an important void in the Commonwealth. It is a vibrant forum for residents tuning in to their trash and seeking ways to reduce it. In less than a year, it has surged to more than 3,000 members.

Conversations on the group are often led by women, many of them mothers concerned about the effects that all this trash, especially plastic, will one day have on their children. Topics tend to revolve around questions of conscious consumerism. How can the average citizen use their purchasing power for good? One frequently asked a question, for example, is how to host a low-waste children’s birthday party—an event that relies heavily on disposable products. (One mother’s tip: borrow reusable flatware from a local restaurant.)

Recently, holiday consumption was another big topic of discussion.

“My mom just stopped over with so much stuff,” wrote one commenter on Christmas Day. “She just blindly buys and it’s killing me. She bought my son so many big new plastic toys. … So much wrapping paper and plastic. She knows I’m on this journey but she doesn’t understand it at all.”

The Facebook group has also become a site of civic engagement—a place where locals can go for advice, insight, and updates on waste-related successes and failures in public services. One woman from Woburn wrote about how, due to a strange state loophole, her entire apartment complex had no option but to send their recycling to landfill.

“I called around to as many recycling centers as I could find within a half-hour radius but they all said they were for town residents only,” she wrote, pleading for advice. “It breaks my heart to throw it out but I’ve done my best and can’t find a place to bring it.” (Turns out, that’s a huge problem in the entire state, one which Auclair says she also experienced at her apartment in Beverly. It was one of the main factors that motivated her to go zero waste in the first place.)

Zero waste means different things to different people, however, and while some view it as an aspirational term, others are more literal. New York-based zero-waste entrepreneur Lauren Singer, author of the popular blog Trash Is for Tossers, boasts that she can fit four years of trash into a single mason jar. These extreme examples can have the unintended consequence of marginalizing those who fail to live up to such feats.

Auclair says she has zero tolerance for the more competitive aspects of the movement and views it as counterproductive to the long-term goals, which require collective action. The secret to the Facebook group’s success, she explains, is that it has been, from day one, a judgment-free zone. Wherever you are in your “journey,” as long as you’re trying, you are welcome.

Changing one’s habits in an economy designed to favor disposable is challenging. As a result, the zero-waste movement is fairly self-selecting. The people most dedicated to opposing the wasteful, disposable economy (myself included) are often those with disposable resources—the income or, more crucially, the time to do something about it.

This selectivity can make zero waste feel like a trendy fad, something exclusive to those with financial or social capital. Marie Kondo, for example, has built an empire on the coattails of our trash. Churning out garbage bags full of crap is now a spiritual process. Yet rather than linking the war against clutter with the bigger problem of a society that over-consumes on a mass scale, Kondo’s website recently launched an online shop, where followers can re-clutter their newly decluttered homes for a hefty price (a drip kettle runs $130; a tea scoop sells for $52.)

Bernier staunchly opposes the marketization of the zero-waste movement.

“I feel like zero waste is morphing into another consumer trend, when the whole point is to question consumerism,” she wrote to me in an email, recoiling at the perceptions of class and privilege that such trends conjure. “I live in a low-income household,” she explained, “and in my practice, zero waste is great for saving money. I don’t want some perceived bougie-ness to turn people like me away.”

While living with less does imply changes to one’s lifestyle, for people like Bernier and many in the Facebook group, it’s also a radically subversive economic statement—a rebellion against a convenience-at-all-costs economy and a call to rebuild our ability and know-how to provide for ourselves in basic ways. Bernier, for example, is also a member of Extinction Rebellion (XR), a group of grassroots climate change protesters, and her column encourages the link between zero waste and broader forms of social-political protest. (Last June, she was arrested along with 10 other XR activists for demonstrating outside of a meeting of fossil fuel executives in downtown Boston.)

Living with fewer materials and less waste should, in theory, save consumers money and resources. It should also save municipalities money in the sharply rising costs of recycling and trash disposal. But waste-free options are expensive in personal time and inconvenience, especially when compared to the unparalleled convenience of the disposable economy. It’s why, despite recent efforts to reduce waste in the region, facilities like the one Bernier visited in Charleston are still drowning in an avalanche of materials.

After meeting for coffee, I rewatched the videos from her visit, which she had shared to social media to raise awareness of this issue. The garbage was like a living organism, mounds of trash consisting of indiscriminate particles constantly in motion, zigging and zagging across conveyor belts, cascading down in landslides. No end in sight.


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