It was a warm spring day when I first met Melanie Bernier, an artist and environmental activist based out of Cambridge, at a coffee shop in Central Square. She had just returned from a visit to a materials recovery facility in Charlestown, a sorting station for recyclable post-consumer waste from 75 communities from Maine to Cape Cod.
“I cried,” Bernier told me, showing videos she took on her iPhone of the unfathomably large mountains of waste.
All this trash, and more importantly, how to avoid adding to it, is something Bernier spends a lot of time thinking about. It has been seven years since she and her husband decided to abstain from single-use items and packaging, everything from straws to grocery bags and milk cartons.
Some things have been relatively easy to replace, like oats, which she now buys in bulk using homemade cotton bags. Other things, she simply had to give up, like takeout. These days, Bernier and her husband generate about a shoebox worth of trash every six to twelve months, not including what they send to recycling and compost.
“Living this way can be a challenge,” Bernier told me recently in an interview. Many businesses rely on single-use materials, severely limiting where she and her husband can shop and what they can do for fun. Bernier has become accustomed to bending over backwards to avoid accumulating a daily barrage of plastic, but it’s not always possible. When we met at the cafe, the coffee she ordered “for here” came in a disposable to-go cup.
“We ran out of mugs,” said our waitress apologetically.
Aside from instances like the one at the coffee shop, Bernier has pretty much mastered the art of keeping trash out of her life and home. As much as one can, anyway. Hoping to encourage others, in 2018 she started publishing some local tips and tricks in a monthly column called “Trash Is Tragic” for the free indie newspaper the Boston Compass.
Bernier offers readers insights into her daily routine, which involves carrying a cup and cutlery everywhere and navigating a mental map of nearby zero-waste-friendly businesses that let her bring her own containers. Her tone is defiant, yet motivational. One article describes the “Intimidation Factor,” a term for the stifling hyper awareness some feel when bringing containers from home into a grocery store.
“Do you feel like people are staring at you and your jars?” Bernier asks. “They’re probably just curious. Trash-free grocery shopping isn’t the norm. Own it. You are an inspiration to us all.”
Beneath her determined, nurturing persona, however, Bernier sometimes struggles with how absurd her behavior appears to mainstream society.
“It’s almost like I’m an outlier, or a weird person,” she told me recently, exasperated. “But why should I feel weird? Doing something positive for the environment and my community, is that weird?”
Bernier argues that what’s actually abnormal is a society that devotes enormous taxpayer resources and human ingenuity to hauling around 270 million tons of trash each year—40% of which is single-use materials. In Massachusetts, around 6 million tons per year end up in a landfill or incinerator, a number that has not decreased much since 2010, despite state efforts towards reduction.
There’s a reason why today, residents must go to such painstaking lengths to opt out of single-use materials. The infiltration of disposables into every aspect of our lives has fundamentally changed local infrastructure, which seems to no longer accommodate reuse.
In the last several decades, for example, public schools across Massachusetts went from washing and reusing food ware to serving children lunches on disposable trays, cutlery, and plates (not to mention the food and drink itself, which often comes prewrapped in plastic). Students in Cambridge, where I live, have to worry about five different waste receptacles to manage all the materials that result from a single day’s lunch. But a switch back to reusables isn’t likely to come easy. As one employee at the Department of Public Works told me, schools have long since abandoned the equipment, labor, and corresponding budget necessary to process and sanitize reusable food ware.
Schools are just one example. Across the consumer landscape, finding ways around all the trash has gotten steadily more difficult. Fortunately, Bernier is not alone in her protest. The number of people upset about all the waste is growing steadily.
When Sabrina Auclair, a zero-waste advocate and entrepreneur based in Beverly, made the decision to go plastic-free in 2018, it felt like an impossible task. There was some national momentum around zero waste as a trend—think mason jars and viral social media influencers—but locally, there were very few resources for someone wishing to accumulate less trash. Plastic packaging was everywhere—on groceries, health supplies, cleaning products, and food.
Like Bernier, the more Auclair struggled to avoid trash, the more isolated she became.
“I felt alone,” she recounted in an email. “I thought that there was so little being done in the state or that efforts were not communicated and there wasn’t a ‘hub’ for all things zero-waste, so I decided to step in.”
If the resources to help people like her didn’t exist, Auclair decided to build them herself. Sensing the need for a more communal, information-oriented platform, last March she created a Facebook group called “Zero Waste Massachusetts.” Later that summer, Auclair launched an online marketplace called Unpacked Living, selling zero-waste tools and products to help people like her who were just starting out.
The Facebook group has filled an important void in the Commonwealth. It is a vibrant forum for residents tuning in to their trash and seeking ways to reduce it. In less than a year, it has surged to more than 3,000 members.
Conversations on the group are often led by women, many of them mothers concerned about the effects that all this trash, especially plastic, will one day have on their children. Topics tend to revolve around questions of conscious consumerism. How can the average citizen use their purchasing power for good? One frequently asked question, for example, is how to host a low-waste children’s birthday party—an event that relies heavily on disposable products. (One mother’s tip: borrow reusable flatware from a local restaurant.)
Recently, holiday consumption was another big topic of discussion.
“My mom just stopped over with so much stuff,” wrote one commenter on Christmas Day. “She just blindly buys and it’s killing me. She bought my son so many big new plastic toys. … So much wrapping paper and plastic. She knows I’m on this journey but she doesn’t understand it at all.”
The Facebook group has also become a site of civic engagement—a place where locals can go for advice, insight, and updates on waste-related successes and failures in public services. One woman from Woburn wrote about how, due to a strange state loophole, her entire apartment complex had no option but to send their recycling to landfill.
“I called around to as many recycling centers as I could find within a half-hour radius but they all said they were for town residents only,” she wrote, pleading for advice. “It breaks my heart to throw it out but I’ve done my best and can’t find a place to bring it.” (Turns out, that’s a huge problem in the entire state, one which Auclair says she also experienced at her apartment in Beverly. It was one of the main factors that motivated her to go zero waste in the first place.)
Zero waste means different things to different people, however, and while some view it as an aspirational term, others are more literal. New York-based zero-waste entrepreneur Lauren Singer, author of the popular blog Trash Is for Tossers, boasts that she can fit four years of trash into a single mason jar. These extreme examples can have the unintended consequence of marginalizing those who fail to live up to such feats.
Auclair says she has zero tolerance for the more competitive aspects of the movement, and views it as counterproductive to the long-term goals, which require collective action. The secret to the Facebook group’s success, she explains, is that it has been, from day one, a judgement-free zone. Wherever you are in your “journey,” as long as you’re trying, you are welcome.
Changing one’s habits in an economy designed to favor disposable is challenging. As a result, the zero-waste movement is fairly self-selecting. The people most dedicated to opposing the wasteful, disposable economy (myself included) are often those with disposable resources—the income or, more crucially, the time to do something about it.
This selectivity can make zero waste feel like a trendy fad, something exclusive to those with financial or social capital. Marie Kondo, for example, has built an empire on the coattails of our trash. Churning out garbage bags full of crap is now a spiritual process. Yet rather than linking the war against clutter with the bigger problem of a society that over-consumes on a mass scale, Kondo’s website recently launched an online shop, where followers can re-clutter their newly decluttered homes for a hefty price (a drip kettle runs $130; a tea scoop sells for $52.)
Bernier staunchly opposes the marketization of the zero-waste movement.
“I feel like zero waste is morphing into another consumer trend, when the whole point is to question consumerism,” she wrote to me in an email, recoiling at the perceptions of class and privilege that such trends conjure. “I live in a low-income household,” she explained, “and in my practice, zero waste is great for saving money. I don’t want some perceived bougie-ness to turn people like me away.”
While living with less does imply changes to one’s lifestyle, for people like Bernier and many in the Facebook group, it’s also a radically subversive economic statement—a rebellion against a convenience-at-all-costs economy and a call to rebuild our ability and know-how to provide for ourselves in basic ways. Bernier, for example, is also a member of Extinction Rebellion (XR), a group of grassroots climate change protesters, and her column encourages the link between zero waste and broader forms of social-political protest. (Last June, she was arrested along with 10 other XR activists for demonstrating outside of a meeting of fossil fuel executives in downtown Boston.)
Living with fewer materials and less waste should, in theory, save consumers money and resources. It should also save municipalities money in the sharply rising costs of recycling and trash disposal. But waste-free options are expensive in personal time and inconvenience, especially when compared to the unparalleled convenience of the disposable economy. It’s why, despite recent efforts to reduce waste in the region, facilities like the one Bernier visited in Charleston are still drowning in an avalanche of materials.
After meeting for coffee, I rewatched the videos from her visit, which she had shared to social media to raise awareness of this issue. The garbage was like a living organism, mounds of trash consisting of indiscriminate particles constantly in motion, zigging and zagging across conveyor belts, cascading down in landslides. No end in sight.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of a series on consumerism and waste in Mass by Karine Vann. You can support reporting like this at givetobinj.org and subscribe to our newsletter and read BINJ features at binjonline.org.
Karine Vann is a freelance journalist based in Cambridge writing about the intersection of consumerism and the environment. Her work has appeared in Smithsonian.com, The Counter, Civil Eats and more. She's the former editor of The Armenian Weekly newspaper in Watertown.