Long posts

Is zero-waste a privilege?

A couple of weeks ago an account I follow on Instagram asked the question “Is a low or zero-waste lifestyle a lifestyle of privilege?”

There was a lot of discussion about this, both from the person who posed it and in the comments. Generally there was a lot of embarrassment around ‘the p-word’. A few people referred to their childhoods, how they had grown up poor and how their parents had enforced a frugal, low-waste style of living to reduce costs. One person said they live in a rural area with no access to a bulk food shop and can’t afford to buy from the health shop. Another person said that low-waste is about ‘trying’ and you don’t need to be privileged to try. As I read I found myself agreeing, but also disagreeing with a lot of it, but I didn’t know why, until I got to the last post in the feed:

As long as you have enough to eat and a safe/warm place to sleep, you can think about anything else, like a zero-waste lifestyle… we all have to fight so that everybody has this standard otherwise there’s a gap between realities.

Wow… and also YES!

I am incredibly privileged. There’s no point in playing coy, because it influences everything I do and every decision I make. To me, trying to reduce my waste output means buying groceries from farmers markets, investing in reusable cups, straws and water bottles, and making my own toiletries. I recycle,  I compost food scraps and I’ve recently signed up for the Ecobricks programme. It seems so easy, it even saves me money in some places, and it would be so convenient to just stop at this point as say: well, you don’t need privilege to compost. And I think this is where we should put a big red privilege flag.

Through my work I have spent a lot of time in some extremely disadvantaged communities. I’ve met 5-year-olds who walk kilometres to preschool every day, an old man whose brother died on the back of a donkey cart on the way to hospital, people who  wash their clothes on the street next to communal taps, and people who rely on community ablution blocks just to use the toilet. There is a difference between ‘poor’ and ‘poverty’, and it has made me realise how many invisible levels of privilege there are at play in society. Now, I don’t want to enforce the idea of ‘starving children in Africa’ because there are hungry people all over the world, and I’m certainly not here for a guilt trip. But I think it is important to think about privilege, not only in the ways it’s used around income, race and gender. There are other, less evident areas of privilege, too, that influence our lives, especially when we think about education and access to what a zero-waste lifestyle requires. From where you live, to your first language, there are many other factors that can create a kind of privilege that often goes unnoticed.


Have you ever thought how fortunate you are to speak the most commonly used language in the world? Not only that, but the common language of science. We can read signs and infographics that explain how recycling works, and understand news pieces about carbon emissions and climate change. Sure, a lot of stuff gets translated, but you can always rely on UNESCO or the WWF to publish their articles in English. But can you get those translated into Sepedi or Venda, though?


Let’s imagine that every sign, and news article and report could be translated into every language in the world. What does ‘carbon emission’ mean to a person with a Grade 3 level of education? Did I even know the word ‘sustainable’ when I was in Grade 3? How do you tell a 50-year-old who had to leave school when they were 12, that they should be eating vegetarian four days a week to reduce their environmental footprint, especially when that might increase their cost of living?

This is especially relevant in South Africa, where a history of segregation and oppression means that many people had no access to education, and those that did were taught in a language that was not their first, in schools with critically limited resources, and in a context that pushed them away from all learning. And while apartheid has ended, there are still many inequalities in SA, like schools with no water, desks or textbooks. This affects how many people can receive a quality education.

Infrastructure and service provision

Where I live, we have well maintained streets with a regular refuse removal service, and a semi-reliable recycling collection service. If the recycling isn’t collected there is a depot 5 minutes away where we can take it ourselves.

Where I work, there is an intricate spider-web of narrow, hastily constructed and poorly maintained roads that aren’t wide enough for refuse trucks to travel down. The municipality delivers 30 black plastic refuse bags to each formal house on a monthly basis, but houses are often leased out room-by-room, so there can be as many as six separate families living in a house, generating six-times as much waste as regular household would. 30 bags don’t last them a month. Informal houses aren’t supplied with refuse bags at all, and if people can’t even afford an actual house how could we expect them to spend money on refuse bags? Illegal dumping is a problem in the area and there certainly isn’t a recycling depot.  There are individuals who collect cans and bottles for a small fee from non-governmental recycling organisations, but they are sparsely scattered through the community, and that still doesn’t help deal with plastic waste.


This is a broad category, but in this case I mean access and exposure to different options. For example, near my house there is a health shop, a bulk shop, two shops that specialise in grains, seeds and dried fruit, a sustainable fishmonger, two thrift/second-hand shops and a farmers’ market, on top of three large supermarket franchise stores. I also have access to platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram where I am exposed to alternate lifestyles and ways of thinking. For many people, their options are limited, not only in what they physically have access to, but in what they are exposed to.

Another community I worked in this year is situated in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains. They only have access to one town, which is the kind of town where the fanciest building is the petrol station.  There are two supermarkets, the cheap one and the less cheap one, and a number of fast food chain stores. Some people have small veggie gardens or keep some chickens and goats, but many of  their staple foods (bread, rice, samp, dried beans etc) only come in plastic packaging from the supermarket. With no real options, it’s impossible to make environmentally friendly choices.

Privilege isn’t only about money when it comes to changing your lifestyle. There are so many factors at play which enable some people to make decisions that other people can’t make. As that amazing commenter said “we all have to fight so that everybody has this standard”.  Those of us who have privilege, in all its forms, also have an obligation to make the right decisions where ever we can. As much as a low-waste world is exactly what we need right now, it isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s a long process, which really starts with giving everyone an equal baseline from which to build. My work has shown me that people are open to change, but only if it they have a support base that allows for it. So, here’s the take home message: what can we do to help the people around us make the right decisions? Can we buy someone a reusable water bottle for Christmas? Can we ask a local supermarket to start a recycling programme? Maybe we can get involved in initiatives which are helping to educate children about climate change? Rather than being embarrassed about our privilege, or behaving like it’s a dirty word, we could use it help other people who don’t have it. Maybe then it wouldn’t be used as a weapon quite so often.

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