#SEAthechange: zero waste guy

Last week in Recurrent, we announced the start of our new month-long series: the #SEAthechange campaign. For the next few weeks, we will be highlighting amazing creators that are passionate about various areas of sustainability. This week’s article features a conversation with zero waste movement advocate Jonathan Levy, otherwise known as @zerowasteguy on Instagram. Jonathan shared with us his views on sustainability in the reality of COVID pandemic, how to engage in zero waste practices during the current health state of the world, and his advice on seeking a career in sustainability. 

Jonathan’s journey in sustainability advocacy began all the way back in 2012 when he worked for a big retailer on optimizing the flow of merchandise through a linear supply chain. At that time he was not familiar with the term “zero waste,” but he knew that the environment he was working at did not align with his values. “I felt overwhelmed by the amount of single use items that were flowing through the warehouse,” says Jonathan. As he started investigating the problem, Jonathan realized that the way to contribute to the solution was going backwards in the supply chain and helping businesses become more sustainable. In the process of working on aiding businesses to reduce their waste, Jonathan came to understand that he needed to take inventory of his own habits. This was the beginning of Jonathan’s commitment to the zero waste movement that now inspires his many followers. 

With increased attention to waste reduction, more and more people have become interested in going zero waste and realize their consumer habits need to change. However, those determined to try a less wasteful lifestyle are often at a loss in regards to where to begin. Jonathan says that “Zero waste starts at home.” He believes a good starting point is doing an inventory of what you have in your household. Practices that Jonathan advises to implement are focusing on identifying disposable items and trying to replace them with reusable alternatives (ex. using cloth towels instead of paper towels), while looking at your purchasing habits and changing them by buying less and keeping items longer. Jonathan believes that by changing your mindset, you can both reduce waste and save up money in the long run. 

Practicing “zero waste” does not stop at cutting wasteful household practices. As end users, we often fail to see indirect waste associated between retailers and consumers. Jonathan says that to him, “behind the scenes waste” is almost more shocking than the scale of waste coming from our homes. It takes more than being mindful of your personal habits to solve the issue of increased pollution. 

The COVID-19 pandemic showed how wasteful our current infrastructures of consumption are. As people more heavily rely on deliveries and single-use plastic items, many begin to see how much waste goes into getting their everyday essentials shipped to their doors. Jonathan understands the importance of following safe guidelines, but argues that businesses in hospitality should stay mindful of their impact on the environment. He believes businesses can still try to take a step back from fear-based decisions, and see things through more pragmatic lenses. 

“It is still unfolding,” says Jonathan in regards to how people’s attitudes towards sustainability have changed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. He thinks “people seem to be more open minded than ever before.” At the same time, while staying very mindful of the challenging situation of our current reality, Jonathan sees many people opting for disposable products and packages. For many, staying safe and also sustainable seems to not be a viable option. And sustainability advocates are faced with the same concerns. According to Jonathan, people in zero waste are doubling down on how to find new ways to continue to live waste free. But given today’s reality, it is as difficult as it has ever been. 

Jonathan’s advice on staying sustainable in the new COVID-19 reality is to “support businesses that support your values.” Try finding small or local businesses that engage in sustainable practices. Jonathan believes that small businesses are more responsive in implementing sustainable measures than big brands, and he argues that now more than ever, for those who have the means, it is important to support local economies. Shop at your neighborhood’s businesses and farmers markets, and order from local restaurants and coffee shops. 

Jonathan shared that he hopes to see a lot of innovation in how we do business. The pandemic has proven that our reliance on plastic needs to change. It showed the current recycling and waste processing systems are flawed, as they are unable to cope with the increased flow of litter. “If what we think is being recycled is not getting recycled we need to find more sustainable options,” believes Jonathan. 

Engaging in sustainability can go beyond being mindful of daily routine actions. The events of the past few months have shown that it is time to make our workplaces more sustainable. To our question on how to start a career in sustainability, Jonathan replied that he is a big advocate for transforming any work environment to a more sustainable one. “It’s hard to transition businesses into really seeing, embracing sustainable practices,” says Jonathan, and he adds that as a sustainability consultant he will probably have less luck in convincing businesses to implement a change than the employee who knows the business from within. Greater impact can be achieved in the workplace through using the right language to convince the business to implement sustainable measures. And employees often know the proper internal “language” to use.

It is true that zero waste might not seem like an easy practice to adopt. For Jonathan, the most challenging thing in the beginning of committing to zero waste was reducing his usage of plastic. Jonathan says that realizing plastic is a “never ending flow” makes the process of transition to zero waste sometimes depressing and stressful. “It took me over a year to get comfortable with the idea that I can only do as good as I can do. There are systemic limitations, financial, cultural limitations that make it impossible to divest from plastic,” shared Jonathan. Indeed, perfect 100% zero waste is not viable. Living such a mindset makes many think zero waste is something they can never do. But the truth is, implementing any scale of sustainable practices can help to reduce the waste we make. 

Jonathan tries to stay mindful of what impact he is having on everything. And though sometimes assessing that impact is emotionally challenging, in another way Jonathan says that his impact is also the most rewarding aspect in his sustainability journey. What makes it worth it for Jonathan to keep advocating for zero waste are things like seeing his advocacy transition into other people’s actions, getting feedback from followers on adopting zero waste practices, and becoming more mindful of their impact.  

For those starting (or interested in starting) your zero waste journey, Jonathan recommends checking out these awesome creators:

  • The og zero-waste advocates @trashisfortossers and @zerowastehome 
  • @wastefreemarie and @greengirlleah that talk about systemic racism in advocacy for environmentalism 
  • @zerowastefarmer
  • @por_favor_menos_lixo who is trying to create awareness to pollution in Brazil
  • @plasticfreejuly - a movement started to encourage people to try limiting their plastic use for 30 days and to find useful practices on how to limit your use of plastic

We hope you have been inspired by Jonathan’s journey and the creators he shared, so that you can try implementing some of the zero waste practices they promote! As Jonathan told us, we need to have as many people as possible be aware of the waste problem, so that we can influence policy makers’ legislation, and the businesses we work for and support.

written by Kathrine Serebrianski

This article first appeared in our Recurrent email newsletter on August 12, 2020. To subscribe to Recurrent and get a story from our community of sustainability, education, and advocacy every Wednesday, click here.

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