Illustrated Interview: Working Toward a Zero Waste World

Published: 9/3/2017 1:24:10 AM
Modified: 9/3/2017 1:24:11 AM

White River Junction — Olivia Lapierre, 22, of White River Junction, is a community organizer, racial justice activist and a recent graduate of Lyndon State College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in applied psychology and human services.

She began her transition to a “zero waste” lifestyle in January 2016 and today serves as an ambassador for Be Zero, a nonprofit organization that works to help people reduce their trash, create simple and sustainable habits, and expand awareness of environmental racism.

She conducts workshops to teach others about reducing waste and would like to open up a “pop-up” shop in White River Junction to sell items that help people do that — glass containers, cloth bags for bulk food items, glass straws, etc.

Lapierre was born in Ethiopia and grew up in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Her interest in environmental activism goes back to her early childhood, and in one instance she recalls climbing a tree to stop it from being cut down.

She took time recently to respond via email to questions about her interest in justice and the environment, her social activism and how people can reduce the waste they generate. (Questions and answers have been lightly edited.)



How did you find out about the zero waste movement and why did you want to get involved?



My partner, Sadik, introduced me to the zero waste movement after reading blogs about it. I was already involved in climate activism work but was not connecting with it because I was not applying any of those values to my life.

Zero waste was intriguing because it gave me consumer power that I didn’t feel like I had.



How is zero waste defined in mainstream media, and how do you define it?



Zero waste is defined in mainstream media as a trash-free and plastic-free life. I work for a nonprofit called Be Zero, and we use the industrial definition of zero waste, which refers to a circular economy versus a linear economy.

In a circular economy, trash is not the end product. We live in a linear economy, which makes it impossible to fully live zero waste. But it is possible for individuals to reduce their waste dramatically.



What are the connections between your racial justice work and your environmental activism?



I see white supremacy as the backdrop of many issues facing the world, including climate change.

I think it’s important to talk about racial justice within the context of environmental justice because communities of color are most affected by climate change. In addition, I talk a lot about the lack of representation in environmental activism because communities of color are not being invited to the conversation, and if they are engaged, they are not given the same platform as white activists.



You’ve spoken about some critiques of the zero waste movement around representation, accessibility, and inclusivity. Can you speak to those issues and how you and others working in the movement can address them?



The zero waste movement is predominately led by white, upper-middle-class women, which is problematic because that is not representative of the many identities of people involved in this work.

I think any movement lacking representation in leadership only upholds white supremacy culture by not providing space for indigenous people and people of color.

Any movement, both social and environmental, must be intersectional if it wants to effect change.



What role does social media play in your activism?



I use my social media platform for activism work, whether it be denouncing systemic racism and white supremacy, highlighting the amazing work by people of color, or sharing resources.

Most of all, I love using my social media to curate an intersectional feminist community that allows me the space to talk about how my multiple identities interact. It’s therapeutic for me when I am able to connect with others alike!



Are you ever torn between convenience versus protecting the environment? How do you balance those needs, and what was the hardest wasteful practice to abandon?



I constantly feel torn between conveniences and protecting the environment. In my activism work I talk about time privilege and how, being a low-income young adult, I do not have a lot of physical or emotional time to think about my eco footprint.

Most foods and beverages that are convenient to eat are prepackaged in plastic. I balance those needs by reminding myself to continue to strive for sustainable intentions rather than perfection.

The hardest wasteful practice to abandon was buying prepackaged foods. I now buy my foods in bulk, which is often cheaper and healthier than packaged foods.

Unfortunately, buying in bulk means I have to cook all of my meals from scratch, and my lifestyle is not set up to make this an easy task. I spend a lot of time stressing about meal preparation. The alternative to making zero waste meals is going out to eat, which is very expensive.



What one step do you think is most effective in reducing people’s waste? Is there advice that you give people who want to enter the movement on how to start?



First, know your trash. When you know what type of trash you’re producing — whether it be food waste, plastic or things that could be recycled — it is easier to see where your first step should be. My biggest advice for people who want to enter the movement is to set intentions that are realistic and most ideal for their lifestyle.

When I first started my zero waste journey, I was constantly evaluating bloggers and social media and using that to establish goals for myself. This became overwhelming because I was not setting goals that were specific to my life and my identities.

Another piece of advice I give is to look at structures, systems and institutions and how they work to restrict the ability of individuals to live more sustainably.


Editor’s note: This is the fourth in an occasional series of illustrated interviews. Suggestions for future subjects are welcome at

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