A few years ago I did not know what living sustainably meant or where to begin. I was a normal consumer. I stocked up my refrigerator with food items I enjoyed consuming, I cooked as needed, and I chucked the food packaging residue into the trash bin. I rarely recycled because understanding the recycling processes per municipality can be quite a learning curve, and choosing not to learn it felt inconsequential. Per week, my accumulated waste probably amounted to massive heaps but that was abstracted away because it was a thing reserved for waste management to think about. As a consumer, I was kept at safe degrees away from where waste goes and the economy of waste in our world overall.

Sustainability consciousness does not come naturally in a culture of capitalism. Capitalism teaches us to master the art of taking from the land. It reinforces a consumer relationship with resources, automating a modus operandi within us that prioritizes accessibility, convenience, and affordability. It plants a seed of consumerism within us at such an early age, seducing our eyes with all the possibilities of what we can have and overwhelming us with the question “what do you want?” so when we finally realize that production of a thing comes at a cost, it is too late. Uprooting our lives is too unimaginable. And everything does come at a cost. Much of what we consume comes at a cost far too costly than what it is worth. What might not cost us in dollars may cost us the earth. Incorporating sustainability practices into our everyday is a practice of decolonizing our minds, and therefore, unbecoming colonizers of the land.

In this unbecoming, it is essential that we advocate for more than just sustainability for the land and its resources. What is sustainable for the earth must be sustainable for all people. It must not be another altruistic cause that masks as justification to further exacerbate social stratifications of our communities. We must not whitewash sustainability or reserve the sustainability movement only for the rich because the embedded systems of discrimination such as classism, racism, and others are not sustainable. A whitewashed vision for sustainability renders sustainability as unsustainable.

Learning how to embed sustainable practices within our lives has been one of the most defining pillars when my wife (Charisse) and I got married. It began with understanding our economy of resources, which is naturally connected to both the economy of disposal and waste. This being part one of a two-part series, I will look to magnify waste – primarily plastic as a starting point – and hope to discuss more on reimagining a relationship with the land on a social and theological level in part two, co-written with Charisse.

As a New Yorker – technically proud Brooklynite – waste is confronting. There is no escaping it. When you walk out onto your stoop, litter is as rampant as rodents on the train tracks. It’ll meet you promptly as you climb the stairs leaving the subway, sometimes before. When you don’t see the mounting piles of trash, you will certainly be washed by the miasma of odors creeping toward you, probably from around the corner. Which begs the question, where does this waste go? We were horrified to discover that New York State’s capacity for landfills has expired. New York’s waste is actually delivered to neighboring states willing to bear our very literal load.

This is a waste crisis. On a high level, there needs to be reform on how resources are consumed nationally and statewide. Changing the economy of waste on a large scale advances the agenda of waste reduction. But as Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “The climate of the era determines the precedence for the law.” Policies cannot be written unless there is a change from a grassroots level. Waste reduction needs to be our agenda too, on an individual level.

This July, we have been participating in a global grassroots movement called Plastic-Free July (PFJ), based in Australia. Our choice to go plastic-free is not because we find plastic to be unequivocally evil. Plastic, being the cheapest packaging material to produce, serves to preserve resources for longer when it comes to imports and exports. In our global economy, it is why we have the luxury of exotic fruits from halfway around the world sold right in our neighborhoods. And in light of the reality of food deserts in parts of the habitable world with less access to resources, the affordability of shipping guarantees that they can acquire resources at maximum capacity.

On the other hand, plastic does serve to deteriorate the earth in more ways than one. The very existence of plastic releases a whole host of toxins that poison our atmosphere. This wouldn’t be as much of a concern if the attributes of plastic were to be either easily recyclable or quickly biodegradable. Unfortunately, it happens to be neither. It takes approximately 1000 years for a plastic bag to completely biodegrade and because most plastic does end up in landfills – recycling plastic is not impossible but is difficult; hard plastics are easier to break down for recycling than soft plastics – it means every piece of plastic that has ever been produced is still laying around in the world somewhere., since pPlastic is only about 200 years old and plastic bags only bags in widespread only about 50 years. If it has not ended up in a landfill, then it has likely been relegated to our oceans because our landfills have reached capacity –which then bloats fish with plastic infested waters, swells our birds that prey for fish, and then cycles back into our local fisheries, ending up in our bellies. Biodiversity at its finest.

Going plastic-free is but one element of waste reduction; which is but one component of the liturgy of sustainability, or sustainability in the everyday as worship. Waste reduction naturally points to production reduction, moving us away from a linear economy to a circular economy of resources. The kinds of plastics that goes to waste most are primarily single-use plastics, with some of the most popular being plastic bags, plastic water bottles, coffee cups, (though produced with paper, it has a layer of polyethylene that makes it near impossible to recycle) and takeout containers. It begins with asking the question, when is plastic necessary? We have discovered that single-use plastic is most often unnecessary and that most alternatives to single-use plastics are quite accessible. Coffee cups or water bottles can be substituted with reusable stainless steel or glass cups. Plastic bags can be substituted with tote bags. Takeout containers can be substituted with glass containers. Other products made with single-use plastic include saran wrap (beeswax wrap alternative), milk cartons, or other prepackaged foods (bulk binning).

If you’re anything like me, you go hunting for groceries in Chinatown often and refusing a plastic bag might either come off as elitist (oh, you’re too good for my plastic?) or may mark you as a thief (plastic sometimes serve as insignia). It requires creativity to be sustainable. Socially, I have found this too great a price and have accepted the plastic only to convert single-use plastic into reusable plastic. I kid you not, I will wash out and reuse my plastic bags. And if I know I’ll be shopping at specific stores, I will bring the insignia bags back for reuse. A sustainability life hack that works not only for bags, but also for bottles and takeout containers, as long as they remain durable.

Plastic-Free-July is almost over, but it doesn’t have to only be July. PFJ has helped me to see the plastic I consume every day and to grasp for alternatives. In the small act of refusing single-use plastic, I have incorporated rhythms of sustainability in my life that ultimately allows me to listen to the land. It has allowed me to feel the soil beneath my feet and to breathe the air in the atmosphere. It has helped in removing the degrees of separation between the earth and me once bred and colonized by capitalism. But again, PFJ is but a part to a whole. Moving from consciousness that once said removing plastic is so comprehensively unnatural for me to plastic is so comprehensively unnatural for our earth becomes a flashlight that shines on issues that intersect that continues to interrogate what our relationship to the land is to look like.

Photos and videos courtesy of the author.

  • Kevin (he/him) is a writer based in Brooklyn, transplanted from Chicago, exploring stories of the Chinese diaspora, including experiences of immigration, memory, and other aspects of lostness. He is a software engineer by day, delusionally hopeless Chicago Bulls fan always, and hopes to publish literary fiction one day. You can find him at https://kevinhu.dev for more information."