Freweyni Asress is a 26-year-old environmental justice activist based in Washington, D.C.
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Mekelle, Tigray, is the first land I ever learned to love. The city in northern Ethiopia is not a place that’s known to be lush or green and is often assumed to be infertile. Many have called it uninhabitable, though it has given life to so many generations of my family. My homeland has taught me that there is no good or bad land, that land is land. Land doesn’t make a place uninhabitable. State and corporate violence, food apartheid and militarism make a place uninhabitable. My love for this land is a revolutionary one, it’s unwavering, and has instilled in me a deep political commitment to protect land wherever I may be and wherever I have not yet been to.
I began my zero waste journey in January 2016 after years of being involved in climate activism. Reducing my personal consumption and waste was a new and creative way for me to think about other ways I could be in relationship with the land. At that time, zero waste was becoming a hot trend with hundreds of lifestyle bloggers sharing their single Mason jars filled with the trash they had produced in a year.
As I started to build my online presence, I found myself deep in the zero waste digital community. I was daunted by how racialized, gendered and apolitical this space was. Most, if not all, of the people I was interacting with were upper-middle-class White women living in some of the most gentrified neighborhoods in America. Zero waste wasn’t an entryway to a political home working toward collective liberation. Rather it was just another way to enforce white supremacist, colonial practices on sustainability and climate activism.
When I challenged zero-waste bloggers to interrogate the harm and violence of what was happening, including erasure of Indigenous knowledge, I was met with the particular harshness of anti-Blackness found within climate activism. There was so much intersecting violence being ignored, including anti-Blackness, colorism, ableism and classism.
So I decided to organize with other Black and people of color zero-wasters who were also tired of the ways we were being ignored, disregarded and disposed of. Together we uplifted each other, shared resources and built our own political home that centered our communities’ needs and visions for liberation. We claimed loudly and proudly that we were here and that our communities have always been the foundation of environmental justice movements. We come from generations of water protectors, land defenders, herbalists and healers.
As for me, zero waste is about fiercely and unapologetically holding to our indigeneity in the face of all that is trying to destroy us and our lands. I’m fighting for Black ecological futures.
To help readers understand what zero waste looks like for me, here’s a five-day diary, documenting how I navigate different challenges each day that lead to a sustainable way of life. This is how I live low waste, meeting myself where I’m at and not compromising my well-being.
Melkam Arab! Happy Friday! I started my day with a pastie from Black Lion Market, one of my favorite Ethiopian grocery stores in the DMV. I’m obsessed with pasties, especially the taste of the tikur azmud or black cumin, which is amazing with any bread. I had it with a glass of water and my vitamin B12, which I started taking in January after dealing with debilitating fatigue for years. It has really changed my life; I have so much more energy.
Working from home has meant that I get to be more intentional and creative with my meal prep. For lunch, I had leftover pasta aglio e olio on my back porch. I first made this meal last year after growing tired of my signature dishes. It’s a super affordable, zero-waste meal! You can buy the pasta and red pepper flakes in bulk using your own containers and you can buy the parsley using a cotton bag. For my afternoon snack, I had a handful of peanuts and a few plums my roommate’s partner brought over from the farmers market. They were so juicy! I had a hectic work day and week, so I’m happy I was able to eat delicious food. This evening I’m going to stay in and watch my new K-drama!
It’s finally the weekend! Today I’m thankful for being able to rest and sleep in after a week of not sleeping that well. Saturday mornings are perfect farmers market days. I had a slow start to my morning, taking my sweet time getting ready for my day. I prepared the compost to drop off at one of the two farmers markets I will be going to today. Lately, our house has been getting a lot of fruit flies because of our compost being on the counter during the D.C. summer heat. I’ve been remedying this by putting our compost in the freezer then transferring it to the green compost bucket when I’m ready to drop it off.
I’m really grateful to be able to compost while living in a city although, sadly, it’s not accessible to a lot of people because drop-offs are not available everywhere, plus it takes time and resources that not everyone has. After I dropped off the compost, I walked to a second farmers market to pick up some produce, flowers and sambusas for my friend who’s visiting me later.
Today I’m taking a trip to Great Falls Park with my boyfriend! I’m really excited to get out of the city and to finally be surrounded by nature. Slowly I’ve been adding to my list of parks and trails in the DMV I want to visit. We’ve been able to go to a few, including Billy Goat, which was absolutely stunning! This is my first trip to Great Falls Park so I’m excited to be going! Before we left, we packed some food and picked up sandwiches for a picnic. The drive was really beautiful and the weather was perfect. I like this park because, although it’s on the opposite side of Billy Goat, you don’t have to work as hard for the scenic view (lol). I didn’t realize how much I needed to get out of the city and be around nature. It feels so good to be able to be still and rest.
Being at Great Falls Park made me miss home. The last time I was home was in fall 2019. I miss my family’s farm in Gonder. When I’m there, I spend the majority of my time outside — almost always near water and mountains. There’s something so liberating about laughing, playing and experiencing pleasure from the land that has held your family for generations. I’m eager to return to that feeling.
After our hike, we wanted to continue our slower pace for the day, so we decided to eat out instead of cooking. We went to Beau Thai, one of our favorite restaurants, and came home to watch some Netflix.
Today is a special day because one of my best friends, Pomi, is sleeping over for the first time! I haven’t had a sleepover with friends in so long, so this is a treat. When she arrived, we immediately went to Whole Foods to do some light grocery shopping. My go-to D.C.-area grocery stores to shop low waste at are Each Peach, Yes Organics and Whole Foods. We picked up ingredients to make keysir wot (beet stew) and dinich wot (potato stew) to have with injera.
I love cooking with friends because I learn so much from their style and traditional cooking techniques using zero-waste whole food ingredients. Sharing styles and recipes for meals really feels like a love language. I’ll eternally be grateful for the love and offerings my sisters have gifted me with.
Wow. Today was so busy. I typically work from home, but today I had to unexpectedly go to the office, so Pomi and I didn’t have enough time to eat breakfast together. Instead, we went to Black Lion Market to buy sambusas before Pomi left to go home. After work, I dropped off a book at the free library in my neighborhood. I typically don’t buy new books unless I’m supporting my favorite Black-owned bookstores, like Sankofa. For books I know I only want to read once, I go to my neighborhood library. Books I want to reread I buy secondhand.
When I got home, I immediately showered because it was humid today. I have a busy weekend so I decided to have my wash day today rather than Saturday. When I first started living zero waste, I abandoned all of my hair products because they were packaged in plastic containers. I resorted to using a shampoo bar, package-free conditioner, a homemade hair moisturizer and flaxseed gel. I used these products for years, but they left my hair dry and without a curl pattern. Like most package-free and plastic-free hair and skin products, they were made for White people. After getting the “big chop” in 2019, I decided to drop my package-free hair products and relearn how to take care of my hair. I spent months of trial and error trying to find products that would make my hair feel nourished and loved again.
Other zero-waste practices I dropped included using homemade toothpaste (which eroded my gum line) and not using sunscreen (because there were no zero-waste options for dark skin people). Reflecting back makes me wish I had listened to my body more. Now, my lifestyle looks completely different. I still live low waste, but I’ve found a balance between caring for the planet while also caring for my body.
Freweyni Asress is an Ethiopian organizer, facilitator and the content creator behind Zero Waste Habesha: a multimedia project focusing on the Black environmental justice movement. Her work is rooted in abolition, decolonization, anti-imperialism and Black feminism.