I received an unexpected shock yesterday while watching Instagram Stories. Someone I follow who is loudly and proudly vegan posted a story about how they were planning to throw their Beyond Burger packaging in the garbage until a housemate encouraged them to recycle it. So they walked outside and recycled, taking the extra step put less waste in the landfill.
But I was shocked, scandalized and slightly outraged. What’s the point of being vegan if you don’t recycle? I was a strict vegan for 2 years and my main reason was environmental. One of the documentaries I watched that encouraged me to make these dietary changes told me I couldn’t call myself an environmentalist if I ate animal products because they use so many resources and create so much pollution.
Coincidentally, my passion project at this time was reporting water violations (continuous leaks, sprinkling the sidewalks, and watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. April 1-October 31) to the City of Dallas. It was very time consuming, and more often than not, due to asinine city rules, the issues were never properly addressed or resolved. I felt little reward for my efforts and lots of frustration at unhelpful city employees who only told me what they couldn’t do.
So when I heard this, I almost felt relief. I could give up my water violations and not feel guilty about not reporting them because if I gave up animal products, I would save much more water than reporting violations that were never resolved ever could. Hallelujah!
So I went full on vegan, even switching to a “honey” made from apples. Being raised on the Standard American Diet, my approach was to replace animal products with vegan versions. Veggie burgers (I especially liked the Beyond Burger and used to eat one a day!), vegan cheese, vegan mayo, vegan lunch meat, vegan protein powder, vegan yogurt, etc. But I did notice my recycling bin start to fill up faster with all these new, vegan plastic food containers. Like really fast. I was taking the recycling out twice a week! Still, I consoled myself that all the water and resources I was saving by giving up animal products more than offset the pollution created making the packaging to support my vegan diet.
And maybe it did, up to a point. But my way of thinking about it changed. I slowly realized that I wasn’t really enjoying the vegan versions. I was always looking for the next product or recipe that promised to taste just like the real thing. And I was constantly disappointed. I started questioning my choices. What difference does it really make if I buy real cheese or vegan cheese? The real cheese probably used more resources to produce, but they both come wrapped in non-recyclable plastic. Is it really OK to eat a Beyond Burger every day just because I’m recycling the package? That’s 3 new plastic trays a week I’m adding to the recycling bin.
My gut must’ve known what was coming next for my brain, as I started avoiding packaging at all costs. Sticking to the produce and bulk foods sections, aiming for a whole foods plant based diet. I would go to two grocery stores, one to buy celery with no rubber band and another to buy loose carrots. I would choose glass jars with metal lids and avoid anything with a plastic top or in a plastic bottle. If they didn’t have it in bulk, I wouldn’t buy it. I learned that since Amazon bought Whole Foods, when one store runs out of something, bulk raisins or bulk cumin seeds for example, all the stores run out of it. So I would go without for awhile. Plus, I learned to call and ask before driving to multiple locations in search of the item.
About 6 weeks ago, I fell down the zero waste rabbit hole. It all started with this post by @theconsciousconsumer about zero waste/closed loop/cradle to cradle companies. @PlaineProducts caught my attention first. I was low on conditioner and searching for a healthy option for me and the planet. The beauty of Plaine Products is that they come in aluminum bottles in a reused cardboard box. Once you use up the product, you send the bottle back for the company to refill and reuse. You keep the plastic pump and for your next bottle of product.
I had no idea companies like this existed! No more recycling my shower products! Amazing! Hello tons of new zero waste accounts to follow and learn from!
I fell a long way down the rabbit hole, and I’m still dusting myself off and exploring my new surroundings.
I read Garbology by Edward Humes and learned about the massive amounts of trash generated everyday by consumers, how nothing in landfills really decomposes (imagine an intact 50 year old hot dog and guacamole), and how it has reached such astronomical levels in the last 100 years that it is coming back to us on our dinner plates with plastic found in fish.
I read Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson and learned what a joy a life with less stuff can be, how diligent on must be to avoid trash and disposables outside the home, and how old school solutions, like shaving with a safety razor, often produce the least waste.
I read Plastic Free by Beth Terry and learned about all the untested chemicals used to make plastic (What are the effects of BPA replacements? Nobody knows.), how recycled plastic is most often downcycled into a less valuable product 2 or 3 times max before it heads to the landfill, and how many products that claim to be good for the environment are often causing harm in other ways.
I read Cradle-to-Cradle by Michael Braungart and William McDonough and learned about the linear cradle-to-grave design and manufacturing processes that design products for the landfill, how humans are the only species on earth that produces in this manner, and how businesses designed to mimic nature in it’s cradle-to-cradle method of creation and destruction improve their bottom lines with more profit and less waste as well as the surrounding environment for their employees and neighbors, human and non-human alike.
You don’t know what you don’t know, right? And so my outrage at this non-recycling vegan started to change into curiosity. Why are they vegan? For the animals, their health, or their environment? But then again, does the reason really matter? Whatever the reason, I know that the intentions behind the choice are good.
Why do I recycle? It’s how I was raised. I grew up in Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle, and my family has always recycled. We would (and still do) scold each other if something that could be recycled was put in the trash. I’m old enough to remember having three separate recycling bins (paper, glass, and aluminum) before it all went into one bin. We had a compost pile growing up, my 6th grade class kept a worm bin outside, and now putting compostables (aka food) in the trash instead of the yard waste bin will incur a fine. It is actually painful for me to put something that might be recyclable in the trash. I can’t stand it. It haunts me. If I pick up trash at a park I sort it when I get home. Kinda gross but it helps me sleep better at night.
So that’s why I recycle, but I remember times in my life when it was difficult or impossible to do so. My freshman dorm room came with two bins, black for trash and blue with the recycling sign for recycling. But in the basement where we took out trash, there was only one bin. There were no recycling bins on campus until my junior year. My first few apartments here in Dallas didn’t have recycling so I found recycling bins around town to put it in, which I think might actually be illegal. We’re all a little crazy about something, right?
In this new zero waste chapter of my life, my goal is to not buy or receive any new plastic. It’s hard. I have to constantly refuse straws, toothpicks, utensils, bags, wrappers, etc. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t buy because of it. Online shopping is a doozie. While I have severely cut back on what I purchase and will not renew my Amazon Prime membership, there are still some things I need/want to support this change in my lifestyle. And so many of these things come wrapped in plastic! While sending a message to the company requesting no plastic packaging has gotten me some great results, it’s not fool proof. The safety razor stand (metal in a tiny box) I was assured would come with no excessive plastic, came wrapped in cling wrap to prevent the smaller box from sliding around in the bigger box. #zerowastefail
Similar to when I first went vegan, I felt like I was walking a tight rope. There’s so much due diligence required in reading ingredient lists and researching companies to make sure they align with my principles and check all the boxes. And even when you ask all the right questions and get assurances out the ying yang, people still might not understand fully and give you something you don’t want.
And it’s not your fault. It’s not even about fault! It takes massive amounts of skill and practice to successfully walk a tightrope without falling. We don’t all have the time or desire to attempt the feat. But why does being vegan or zero waste have to be such a challenge? I think it’s really the perspective one takes when approaching these ideas/ideals. When one walks a tightrope, it’s easy to point out mistakes. It’s obvious when one loses their balance and wobbles or falls off. You should’ve done this to balance yourself out. You could’ve done that to stay on track.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in tightrope walking. Walking on Earth everyday is good enough for me. And that’s what we’re all doing. Just walking around this beautiful planet we call home. Doing our best to keep it beautiful. Doing our best period. Currently, the best I’m striving for is letting go of judgments or thoughts of any kind on how others are doing their best that does not align with what’s best for me.
Do I understand why all vegans don’t recycle? No. Do I need to? No. Will knowing make my life better? Probably not.
I’m cutting my own tightrope and the tightropes I have been expecting others to walk. It’s much safer and more enjoyable for me to just stay grounded on Mama Earth, walking on equal footing with everyone else. All moving towards being the best version of ourselves.