In Buenos Aires, Why 'Zero Waste' Beats Recycling
Many around the world are seeing a radical reduction in generating trash as key to tackling our massive pollution problem. The big change, as certain residents of Buenos Aires explain, is to stop buying packaged products.
BUENOS AIRES — You're thirsty, you buy a bottle of water. Plastic. You throw out your empty shampoo bottle. Plastic. The greengrocer puts your shopping in a bag. Plastic. You get coffee from a machine at the office. Plastic. You need to buy biscuits, toothpaste or detergent? Plastic, plastic, plastic.
The examples are abundant and ubiquitous, and so ordinary they go unnoticed. While authorities are starting to act, with moves like Buenos Aires banning the distribution of disposable straws, some Argentines have gone further and joined the Zero Waste movement that would eliminate, or at least significantly reduce, trash.
One of its flag-bearers in this city is the singer, actress and environmentalist Connie Isla, who invited Clarín newspaper to visit her home. There is a jute sponge in the kitchen, a metal straw and bamboo cutlery. There are two bins to separate recyclables and non-recyclables, and a compost pot on her balcony to turn waste into fertilizer.
She has practically stopped shopping at the supermarket, which she has replaced with grocery and health shops to which she takes a cotton bag to carry food. Once at home, she puts products in glass jars. When she visits fairs, she takes a compartmentalized container and asks vendors to put food in there. Whenever offered a plastic bag, she gives the simple and effective answer, "No, thanks."
"You need to buy biscuits, toothpaste or detergent? Plastic, plastic, plastic."
In her handbag, she usually carries a tupper-style box, a couple of "green" cutlery items and a reusable water bottle. She'll also carry some fruit in case she feels hungry while she's out, so she does not have buy a snack, which is usually packaged. In her bathroom you can find a bamboo toothbrush (biodegradable), a hand-made wooden brush, solid shampoo and conditioner and vegetable-based soap.
Connie makes her own toothpaste, with virgin cocoa oil and mint oil. She also learned to make deodorant. "It was half liquid, with essential mint oil, essential lavender oil and a bit of alcohol," she says. She later changed that for a natural deodorant cream.
This year she decided to stop wearing makeup. She only applies a facial cleansing cream, sold in reusable glass jars. When emptied, she returns it and is given a refill. Instead of tampons, she uses a menstrual cup and reusable cotton sanitary pads.
It is a process, "we cannot do it all at once," she says, adding "there are so many things we can do for the environment, animals and society. I began gradually informing myself and making little changes in my life."
It may seem extreme, and yet more and more Argentines are living this way. Proof of this is the Facebook group called Comunidad Argentina Zero Waste, with more than 3,300 members exchanging advice and experiences.
To clarify, firstly: Zero Wasters want to reduce single-use plastic, but that is not all. Their philosophy includes the five Rs or actions to reduce waste: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot, or make compost. In that order.
Couldn't you just put everything in the recycling container? "Recycling is a good starting point," says designer Dafna Nudelman, but it would be "a very bad idea not to go beyond that, because the "best trash" is the one you don't produce." Nudelman became known as the "crazy tupper lady" after revealing online that she went to an ice cream parlor with a tupper box. Secondly: Do not "demonize" plastics, Nudelman tells Clarín, as "they are useful in many ways' and have made "revolutionary improvements" to many industries. The point is to differentiate between solid, permanent plastics found in a chair, say, and disposable plastic, she stated.
"This year she decided to stop wearing makeup. She only applies a facial cleansing cream, sold in reusable glass jars." — Coisla via Instagram
Nudelman says she tries to avoid single-use plastics by carrying "substitutes, like a thermo mug, tupper box, cutlery, straw and a bottle." She wants to produce "as little trash as possible" and reduce her carbon footprint.
Another Zero Waster is Florencia Cruz, who launched the Plastic Free (Libre de Plástico) project selling various cloth, bamboo and stainless steel accessories. She admits she has a "low waste" life "because it is impossible to get certain things without plastic. The "zero waste" ideal is quite utopian, and difficult to attain. But slowly, by changing little habits, we can reduce our waste."
According to Greenpeace, 200 kilograms of trash enter the sea every second and between 60 and 80% of that consists of microplastics found in a range of household products. Being too small to be retained by sewage, they end up in the oceans and all too frequently are eaten by sea life. Several studies have ranked Argentina 28th of the world's biggest polluters of the oceans with plastic waste.
Part of the solution is in our hands, and our homes.