It’s Wednesday afternoon and the five female volunteers at Bare Market, a Toronto-based package-free shop, are struggling to keep up with demand. Standing in the centre of the Bloor-Borden Farmers Market behind a jumble of wooden brushes, metal containers and glass vats filled with milky liquids, they hurriedly calculate the weights of products and containers on printed sheets. An elderly woman stops to marvel at the retro designs on several tiny cardboard boxes full of razor blades while a tall middle-aged man wearing a button-down shirt and a bicycle helmet asks about the ingredients in the unscented shampoo.
The roving stall appears at markets around the Greater Toronto Area several times a week and is the brainchild of Dayna Stein, a 27-year-old environmental consultant. Stein was partly inspired by Vancouver’s recently opened Nada, a package-free supermarket, and is looking for a bricks-and-mortar location this fall.
Her shop is part of a wave of new Canadian businesses looking to tap into the growing “zero-waste” community, whose members aim to reduce their environmental footprints, with a focus on minimizing the use of disposable plastics. Zero wasters, who seem to be mainly young women, use social media to trade tips on everything from BYO-container-friendly grocery stores to soap recipes, food-preparation safety to menstrual cups.
“I’ve noticed zero-waste influencers gain incredible momentum more recently in just a matter of months,” Stein says. “Many of the people that come to our pop-up shops say they found us online or are already following us on Instagram. It’s more than just social media though. The media is consistently publishing stories about waste management and plastic pollution, and that’s contributing to the everyday consumer being interested even more.”
When they describe their come-to-Jesus moments, zero wasters often cite one of a series of news stories or viral moments – the video of a plastic straw being removed from a sea turtle’s nose, coverage of the Pacific trash vortex or Instagrammer Bea Johnson’s feat of producing only a mason jar full of waste in a year.
But the movement also reflects a deeper dissatisfaction with modern life. Zero wasters feel a sense of helplessness in the face of so many simultaneous and seemingly intractable environmental crises and have decided to do something – anything – about it.
"There's a lot more conversation about sustainability in general right now, but the thing about climate change is that it can feel very overwhelming," says Kate Parizeau, an associate professor at the University of Guelph whose research focuses on the social context of waste.
For many people, she says, the waste they produce at home feels like something they might actually have control over. “It’s a way for people to feel like they’re environmental agents in terms of how they live their own lives.”
Living a low-waste lifestyle has also benefited from an unlikely rebranding. Thanks to Instagram, activities that might once have carried a sandals-and-granola stigma – buying beans in bulk or making your own sunscreen – have become glamorous.
The social network is the movement’s primary hub. Top influencers such as New York’s Lauren Singer and California-based Johnson share their chic zero-waste lifestyles with hundreds of thousands of followers and travel the world giving inspirational talks. Soft tones, artfully arranged market shopping hauls and mason jars full of lentils are all staples of the format.
Guelph-based influencer Tara McKenna founded the community forum Zero Waste Collective last year and readily acknowledges the role of visual storytelling in the movement’s online success.
She collaborated with local photographer Camilla Brenchley to shoot the images on Zero Waste Collective’s Instagram, and the account, which boasts more than 150,000 followers, exhibits a bright, minimal aesthetic.
Instagram has been essential, because there’s a huge visual component to the zero-waste lifestyle, says McKenna, who works on the project between the demands of her job as an environmental planner for the Ontario government. “It looks different for everybody, and I realize that I’ve made it in a specific style. It doesn’t need to be that way." She says people have criticized her polished approach. "I have people saying that in my comments, critiques about it being so pretty. But, quite frankly, I think I’m able to reach a broader audience. If that’s the way to do it, and to help people have difficult conversations, then I’m excited that people are interested.”
Last year, in response to repeated questions from users about where to get books on the zero-waste lifestyle, kitchenware, cleaning products and cosmetics, McKenna set up an online shopping portal on her site, although she urges customers to reuse what they have before purchasing new items.
Others are not as high-minded. There has been a rush to cash in on the trend, and zero-waste Instagram is awash with ads for wooden toothbrushes and metal lunch boxes. An Amazon search for “zero waste” returns more than 3,000 results.
Many zero wasters embrace the lifestyle – and its aesthetic – so quickly and wholeheartedly that they're excited to acquire the trappings and disappointed in themselves when they use disposable products – even those they've already purchased.
However, most seem aware that the fetishisation of beeswax paper and metal straws risks replacing one form of consumption with another.
“I see a lot of consumerism, especially around the ‘zero-waste essentials’ – your reusable bottle, your mason jar, your cloth napkin,” says Sophi Robertson, a Toronto-based Instagrammer who manages zero waste events for the Toronto Tool Library.
"But what's essential? It's going to look different for everyone. If you don't eat out, then you don't need that. Most of what we need we already have, especially if you're relatively privileged. This isn't a new way of living. I'm living the way my grandmother used to."
Robertson exemplifies the kind of enthusiasm people bring to the lifestyle. She sold her massage business to spend more time on her volunteer work in the community, although she still works as a therapist.
“When I started, it was about documenting what I was doing and learning from others,” she says. "Now, because I’ve been doing it for two years, I’m helping teach other people. Instagram has been phenomenal. I’ve met so many people. "
When several major companies, including Starbucks and United Airlines, announced in July this year that they would stop supplying customers with disposable plastic straws, many zero wasters hailed it as the movement's first major victory.
But others pointed out that the campaign had not considered the needs of disabled people, some of whom require plastic straws to drink, and accused some in the first group of being privileged and exclusionary.
The tight-knit community is still coming to terms with the ramifications of the dispute and is trying hard to be more realistic and inclusive.
Many have even backed away from the label “zero waste.” Robertson prefers “lower waste” and McKenna says it’s important to reject the idea of perfection.
For her part, Stein won’t label Bare Market a zero-waste business and admits that, despite trying to make changes, she still ends up adding to her condo's trash facility.
"I think it's the effort that's made with small changes that's going to add up. Hundreds of thousands of people refilling their shampoo instead of buying a new bottle are going to make more impact than a few women on social media with a jar full of plastic waste," she says. "I also think it's a bit polarizing, to make it seem like that's possible when it could be much more difficult for the everyday consumer, whether that's because of access, affordability or something else."
Beyond the question of accessibility, it's easy to be cynical about the fashionable campaign against straws, given that they make up such a small percentage of plastic in the world's oceans (0.3 per cent according to one estimate), but the zero wasters I spoke to described the ban as a symbolic first step, rather than a game-changing victory.
There’s also a recognition that efforts from consumers are only part of the solution, and that traditional activism will be necessary to force social change. After all, households create less than half of Canada’s annual total of nearly 25 million tonnes of waste, with the rest produced by industry, commerce and other sectors. Stein also points out that waste is only one part of the equation.
She says there’s a lot of focus on plastics at the moment, but she sees it as a way to help people start talking about other ways they can have a positive impact on the environment.
But even as it seems ready to take up the tactics of traditional environmentalism, the zero-waste community remains something different. It's brighter and shinier, yes, but also more optimistic. Zero wasters still have an innocent, PSA-worthy faith in the power of one.
Perhaps that can be harnessed to achieve real change. Guelph University’s Parizeau is hopeful.
"I hope it's not just a trend. I hope it becomes an opportunity to organize, to try and change the system and learn more deeply about interrelated environmental issues," she says.
"It’s a great first step, but I think the mason jar approach can be individualistic, almost atomic: ‘If I can buckle down and reduce my own waste then I’m going to be okay.’
“Actually no, we all have to work together to reduce our society’s waste.”