London is expensive and informative. I’m woefully woke and sickeningly skint. Nowhere, perhaps with the exception of LA or Shanghai, would it be harder to hide from the deafening impact of my own thunderous carbon footprint while being relentlessly pressured to buy more stuff.
The free magazines outside tube stations scream zero waste guilt. You must buy tinted lip moisturiser in recyclable aluminium tubes, not those devilish plastic pots. Buy one in each colour! The next column is a real-life horror story: the toxic plastic microfibers from your clothes are polluting rivers and oceans via your washing machine and suffocating aquatic organisms. Only purchase clothes made with natural fibres from now on!
Instagram Search is similarly determined to whisk me down the zero-waste rabbit hole. Earnest models match grave expressions with bikinis and boardshorts, grasping bulging bags of single-use plastics they have collected along tropical beaches. Videos of the whirling Pacific Garbage patch induce a dizzying sense of vertigo at the sheer expanse of eternal trash human beings have made.
Beyond the thin, slippery pages and endless scrolling digital grid, I can’t escape carbon and plastic pollution around the city. Every fresh lungful of polluted air is heavy, gritty. The pavements are littered with plastic packaging. I feel gluttonous and ashamed of my complicity in all this and re-forge a broken promise with myself to attempt a zero waste lifestyle. Homemade lunches, refillable wine bottles, home-grown herbs, maybe composting? A spell of daydreaming later and I am convinced my tiny apartment and 4×3 foot balcony can accommodate a level of self-sufficiency akin to 1970s BBC sitcom “the Good Life”.
Until this wholesome new urban life of self-sufficiency materialises, I need an army of durable, non-plastic containers, string bags and reusable wrappers. At least, the hordes of zero waste bloggers I’ve been following tell me these are essential: an investment. Buying more stuff feels counter-intuitive, but I venture West, to zones abundant with zero waste homeware stores. Inside one, I lift a price tag on a set of glass lunchboxes and shudder involuntarily. I scrutinise their fragility as I recall the ocean of reusable coffee cups I’ve bought and somehow lost over the past year, before fleeing empty handed.
Food-wise, a complex groceries map is the only way to survive the weekend staples shopping marathon. Cycling my janky old bike down Hackney Road is a high speed, Olympic-level sport. The pavement and tarmac have become an obstacle course and I dodge the debris of discarded plastic bottles while balancing a heavy backpack stuffed with bulk buy spaghetti. The weekly cross-city grocery shopping route is now a five-hour roundtrip; a slow, gruelling marathon.
Each evening after work, the labour intensive craft of combining suspicious looking fridge scraps with bulk buy, zero waste ingredients sucks away the hours. Eating out is impossible. Life and leisure evaporate in a zero-waste haze.
Downtrodden, I remember one budget-conscious blogger recommended Amazon as a treasure-trove of sustainable toiletries and other essentials. Unable to shake the image of a tiny seahorse navigating the high seas, its tail wrapped around a plastic cotton bud, I sneak Amazon open on my browser. 100 biodegradable bamboo cotton buds for only £2.95. Undeterred by the universal Doctors’ advice not to poke cotton buds deep inside your ear canal, nor by my mum’s recent cotton bud related earache saga, I click ‘Buy Now’. The next day, the package plops through my letterbox. Since seeing that National Geographic seahorse, I have spent 10 long months deprived of the unbridled relief found from wiggling a sterile foreign object inside my ear.
Amazon first entangled me in a Prime subscription by offering one month free. After months of nudging emails and adverts for Prime membership, I finally succumbed to the allure of binge watching the TV adaptation of Philip K.Dick’s “the Man in the High Castle.” Free TV! Foolishly, predictably, I forgot to cancel the subscription before the end of the month months and they hit me with a full annual subscription fee. £79. As a disorganised graduate student with towers of textbooks to buy, the staggeringly low prices and convenience of next day delivery helped me post-rationalise that Amazon Prime was a bargain.
In this latest dalliance with Amazon, the algorithm was tightening its grip while I was weak with the exhaustion of zero waste living. The intimacies of my search history means Amazon guesses what I am up to and what my idealistic hopes and dreams are. Then, the product recommendations begin. The gadgets, the bulk buys, the “customers who buy this bought this”. Buy buy buy. So cheap!
I start reading posts from Polly, a zero waste budget blogger who helps assuage my guilt for supporting such a notoriously unethical company with soothing advice that boycotting Amazon is a privilege. She recommends some tactics for overcoming their wasteful packaging including emailing Amazon customer services to add a note on your account to avoid plastic packaging and using Amazon’s Frustration-Free Packaging service, which avoids the box around a box fiasco. Then, there is Amazon warehouse which sells second hand items. Decidedly happier, I scroll for more tips, until she hits me with the bombshell advice to avoid next day delivery, as it is terrible for the environment. Clumping purchases into one order helps minimise the carbon emissions associated with your order. Damnit. It dawns on me that everything about Amazon Prime is enabling and encouraging me to go hog wild buying zero waste products when really I should be buying as little as possible.
Although products are affordable, I am buying things I don’t really need and spending more than I budgeted for. Perhaps one reason local suppliers aren’t stocking these products at affordable price points is because Amazon undercuts everything. It’s a false economy. Local shops just can’t compete with London commercial rents to pay. The Amazon algorithm has data about my innermost concerns and manipulates me with clever marketing tactics. Perhaps, rather than sitting behind a computer screen or trekking to West London to shop zero waste, I should chat with local shop owners and encourage them to stock zero waste products. Then support them by buying from them. Huh.