SOURCE: Markus Spiske via Unsplash

As a business owner in the Zero Waste community, I am surrounded by people that look like me. White, female, and probably toting a canvas bag with empty mason jars in it. I have never felt out of place.

I was introduced to this community on Instagram when I first graduated from college. Overwhelmed by the reality of post-grad, I spent my time panic researching whenever I wasn’t applying for jobs. I developed what has been labeled as “eco-anxiety” - feeling like the planet is going to soon become inhabitable because of climate change, plastic pollution, and greenhouse gasses.

It is a privilege to even feel eco-anxiety because I didn’t actually have much else to worry about. I became obsessive over finding a solution to our climate crisis as a solution to end my stress and landed on a personal resolution to cut plastic from my consumption.

When I joined this large group of white women online, I was inspired to see videos of a girl in New York filling merely a mason jar with a year’s worth of trash. I read blogs that told me to immediately return the plastic basket whenever I bought strawberries at the farmers market, because the baskets would not be accepted back once I took them home.

I learned every detail of every plastic-free alternative, from the different sizes of menstrual cups to what conditioner bar would actually work on my hair.

The details I didn’t seek out?

That minority and low-income communities will be affected most by climate change. That the clean air I get to breathe at my local farmers market is systematically denied to communities of color. That stating, “Not in My Back Yard” means “Put It In Someone Else’s.”

Being a white environmentalist means prioritizing one’s own access to county regulated composting while neighborhoods of color struggle to fight against corporate waste management facilities.

It means getting upset that the bulk bin sections are closed during COVID-19, something that I personally whined about on Instagram multiple times. While I had some lengthy discussions with my fellow white bulk bin lovers, those living in food deserts were excluded from the conversation. I did not seek out information on how they were surviving in the pandemic. A study in 2009 found that low-income Black communities in Detroit still lived on average 1.1 miles further from a grocery store than the poorest white communities.

Being a white environmentalist means prioritizing one’s own access to county regulated composting while neighborhoods of color struggle to fight against corporate waste management facilities.

Writing this article, it was pointed out to me that I used the phrase “lack of access” to describe how Black people often struggle to receive basic human rights such as clean water, fresh food, and healthy air quality. In reality, Black people are consistently denied these rights. To describe a denial of rights as simply a “lack of access” is not only passive, but racist. To be a white environmentalist is to be passive to the denial of these rights and claim they are simply a “lack of” - this not only lets us as environmentalists off the hook, but it lets those who put the system in place off the hook as well.

Flint, Michigan is the easiest example of environmental racism for ‘woke’ white people to bring up as it was a clear failure of government and deliberate poisoning of drinking water (anything that is not immediately fixed is deliberate). However, we don’t discuss how fracking disproportionally occurs nearest communities of color. We don’t ask the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America why on their website, they blame minority children for not being able to control their asthma with regular care rather than dive into why more minority children have asthma in the first place.

This essay isn’t meant to point out all that I didn’t know. My point is that I didn’t think I needed to know, because I was safe living under my white privilege. My fight for the planet was focused on creating a better world for my children in 20 years, not for the children east of the freeway.

I thought plastic pollution was the starting and ending point of saving the environment. That if we tackled plastic, we’d tackle oil, and it’d be a domino effect that would lead to some type of environmental utopia. My skin color had always protected me from the truth, allowed me to turn away from the activism of environmental justice. I was not putting in the real work.

I am calling myself out today to encourage my fellow white Zero Waste environmentalists to call themselves and others around them out as well. Our community is built on the principle of creating a better planet for all, yet our actions are self-serving and actively racist. We preach about fast fashion and then print our business logos on canvas bags.

I love being part of a community of people dedicated to reducing their waste, buying locally and repurposing items to fit their needs. But I can’t be part of a community that prioritizes an Instagram aesthetic over the health and future of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color). We must be anti-racist activists first.

Continue to refuse plastic but know that there are communities that do not have the choice to refuse. It is not a coincidence that most zero waste stores are in white neighborhoods. Communities of color have been stripped of their right to advocate for their neighborhood against corporate polluters (if they even received the right in the first place) - the fight against plastic just does not compare to the struggle to breathe. What is more impactful - cutting out one person’s lifetime usage of plastic straws, or securing clean air for an entire city?

To my fellow white Zero Waste-ers, if your environmentalism is not intersectional, you’re not an environmentalist.

We have always preached that every small action adds up, but what about the big actions that need to be taken for big problems? Who is taking the big actions?

If you didn’t know the answer, it’s the Black community. The Black community has been forced to constantly advocate for their lives, while we have stood by and argued about whether or not it’s eco-friendly to use silicone products. To my fellow white Zero Waste-ers, if your environmentalism is not intersectional, you’re not an environmentalist.

If you’re looking for a place to start, there are plenty of anti-racist resources that are readily available. I recommend starting with the following resources: Brown Girl Green, Teanna Empowers’s “Sustainability and Zero Waste Videos are Elitest” video on YouTube, and Rachel Ricketts’s Spiritual Activism 101, but there are hundreds of other resources by people of color that can offer you an education as well.

If we can commit ourselves to the work of switching to Toilet Unpaper and finding the best supermarket bulk bin, we can commit ourselves to the work of active anti-racism.




Megan Hertz Jansen started her refill station and zero waste shop ECO Logical in Orange County, California after graduating from Chapman University. She freelances in video editing outside of her plastic free business and hopes to one day combine her contrasting jobs into one.

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