As I waited for my large iced coffee, an essential luxury for “long” days of class, I made my way to the extras table so that I could grab a little green straw before stopping short, remembering at once that I had a stash of environmentally friendly, rainbow stainless steel straws in my backpack. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to display to my peers that I was making a conscious decision to save the planet, if I could do it, why weren’t they? The irony of this situation, however, did not escape me - I was willing to give myself a pat on the back for replacing the straw while still using a plastic cup and lid that, while “recyclable”, were still designed as single-use.
Even more, I had a healthy collection of various drinks in aluminum cans in my fridge that were, like my coffee cup, single-use products. As a college student, I consume reams of paper on my own each academic year, but rarely save articles and papers in their physical forms. When I buy groceries I justify using plastic bags because I “reuse” them when I’m cleaning the litter box. As I made a mental list of all of the things I had thrown away over the past few days, I felt a sudden sense of guilt overtake me; sure, I had some fancy reusable straw, but there were still plenty of other things I was consuming that ultimately ended up in a bigger plastic bag destined for a landfill. Even so, considering the future of my recyclables would probably end up being the same as non-recyclables, the result of recent Chinese cut backs on the purchase of international recyclables, it felt like nothing that I did would really matter. I was, after all, a consumer in an economy that had prioritized convenience and immediacy far more than it did the concerns of “future” consumers.
Therein, it seems to me, lies the root of the problem. Although there has been a rise in lifestyle influencers promoting “no waste” lifestyles, those in which the individual consumer creates little to no tangible waste in their acquisition and use of goods, the economy hasn’t seen a large enough shift in demand to make this kind of lifestyle accessible, affordable, or even generally feasible for most consumers; for starters, a bulk grocer that allows customers to bring their own food containers is generally a prerequisite for participation in no-waste consumerism. While that certainly isn’t the only issue individuals face in pursuing a lifestyle with little, or no waste, it’s enough to bring the larger problem into focus; there isn’t enough infrastructural support for everyone in America to make these kinds of lifestyle changes. Here, in rural Kentucky, having two grocery stores seems like you’re living in a metropole, and the local market likely isn’t large enough to support the introduction of more competition into the market.
So, what does this mean for the Earth? Are we all doomed to live or die by the will of corporations to adopt more sustainable practices starting from the top so that the goods and services that we purchase will in turn, be more sustainable? While yes, or even maybe, would be the easy answers, it’s times like these in which it’s important that each consumer remember the power of each dollar put into the economy. As individual players participating in the economic system (aka, as people with cash who are looking for things to spend it on), we vote for what we like and don’t like, what we want and don’t, with our purchases.