In some ways it’s impossible for me to look back at a full 12 months of time passing and distill my zero waste/trash free learnings into black and white words. I am a different person now than I was at the beginning of 2016. My family has completely embraced the changes we’ve made to drastically reduce our household trash, but our journey to understanding and acceptance wasn’t a straight line.
This post is long but covers only a fraction of the ideas and lessons swirling around in my brain. I’ll likely expand on these and add new musings in future posts, so stay tuned.
There are things I learned and discovered this year that I will never be able to “un-know” or shake off. I’m both more forgiving of myself and others for some purchases and actions, and at the same time increasingly less tolerant (and sometimes downright uncomfortable) with certain wasteful practices.
For example, I don’t think I will ever be able to stomach the casual use of disposable coffee cups. I do think the occasional deviance from a strict zero-waste mindset is necessary for sanity. I’m sure I’ll get coffee in a disposable cup again someday – possibly while traveling, or when I’m sleep deprived due to two small children, unprepared with a reusable cup and in desperate need for caffeine – but mostly I find it to be a very odd idea to get something every day that you throw away.
This year I got coffee without a reusable cup twice. Both times pre-purchase I justified the need for caffeine or “the treat” but looking at the garbage in my hand afterwards I realized I was engaging in pretty bizarre behavior.
Here I was, holding an empty plastic/plastic-lined cup with a lid that was relatively sturdy. But it was definitely not supposed to be considered “durable” by its user. It was designed to be used once, for mere minutes, and then thrown away without a thought. First of all, there is no “away.” Every single item I’ve touched and thrown out in my lifetime still exists on the planet somewhere. It might be out of my eyesight but it is still a burden to the earth. Second, what a weird concept to be so arrogant and value something so little that I took a product that was resource-intensive to create (starting with pulling oil out of the ground to make the plastic, ending with a big truck delivering it to the coffee shop), used it for a few moments and then casually dismissed it.
I was reminded of a story I heard as a teenager while traveling abroad with my father. We were in Ukraine and I was hearing about the reaction to the first McDonald’s location in the capital city of Kiev. When the doors opened, everyone in attendance was thrilled with the low-cost, fast food. But they were cautious and confused about the cups, utensils and other packaging. Apparently many asked, tentatively “What do we do with this? Do we… keep this?” They were flabbergasted that a durable-looking plastic cup would be intended to use only one time for a soda, so many people took everything home to wash and reuse.
At the time I thought it seemed silly. Who would want to bring fast food trash home to reuse? Were they really that hard up for cups? Now I understand better, I think. They valued materials and things differently than I did. They didn’t see “garbage,” they saw a fork. The truth is that a plastic fork is going to break before a metal one will. But that doesn’t mean that it deserves to be tossed immediately after using it one time. I’m not advocating for using plastic utensils but it does make you think twice when a disposable item passes through your hands. Even a fork made of bioplastic or compostable material shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a great option and a solution to our over-consumption of resources and over-burdening of our own personal environments with trash that we must then deal with as a daily chore.
Something I talk a lot about with my husband is the fact that we “can’t go back.” Some changes were easy to adopt and some were harder, but overall everything we attempted this year sunk in to such a degree that going “back” to a previous life – of vaguely wanting to be eco-friendly but not really knowing how – isn’t possible. Here are the big lessons that are now part of my DNA.
Get over the labels
There are a lot of words and labels associated with the types of lifestyle changes we attempted this year. The word “zero” in zero waste particularly gets a lot of attention. Andrea from Be Zero says it best. To me, being a zero waste home means we attempt to drastically reduce our trash, re-examine how materials that come into our lives are used, and use our collective consumer voices to make change. So whether you like the terminology “low waste” “trash free” “closed loop” “plastic free” etc. or not, it’s best to just leave them behind and get on with your bad self. Make changes without fear of judgment or failure. All changes towards being more sustainable are good, large and small. I’ve said these phrases to death this year but here I go again:
Progress not perfection.
Small changes add up.
My husband and I used to joke “What would Bea do?” referring to Zero Waste Home founder Bea Johnson. In the beginning of the year, it was helpful to look to other people and try to copy their techniques when it came to living a zero waste life. There are so many people attempting to drastically reduce their garbage out there, and many of them share their tips and life through social media and blogs. The community of “zero wasters” has been welcoming and wonderful to get to know.
At some point you have to be yourself, though. If a system doesn’t work, don’t force it. I used to care about finding sticker-less produce like Bea but now I don’t even look for them. I prefer to buy from the farmer’s market or from a store that uses paper labels that cab be composted. But if I go to a conventional store and grab an organic apple with a sticker, I understand that’s the status quo and helps the store identify my apple. If I do find a sticker-less apple, it might just mean that the sticker is on the floor of the store instead of on my apple, and that’s not really in the spirit of trying to produce less trash.
We used to store our trash in a jar but we’ve stopped doing that recently, for the most part. A jar of trash is a great way to visually see what waste you produce and be mindful of what is still coming into your home/life, but it may not be practical in the long run. Maybe we’ll go back to that system some day, or maybe we won’t. I’m all about tinkering. I love finding a system that works, that makes me happy and is simple. But sometimes things change and adaptation is necessary.
Don’t get mad, get vocal
If you request “no straw please” but your drink comes with a plastic straw anyway, let the restaurant know. If not while you’re dining, share your thoughts afterwards via an email or call. If your favorite type of pasta comes in a plastic bag instead of a paper box (that’s recyclable/compostable,) reach out to the company and ask them to change their packaging. Consumers have power and get results. I have pushed my comfort level and reached out to stores, restaurants and companies this year regarding their use of disposable plastic, etc. Sometimes I don’t get a reply (and I’ll try again), but sometimes I get a fabulous reply and commitment to change. Business owners and managers not surprisingly have lots of things on their radar and might not even realize that their customers care about plastic straws. Bring these things to their attention!
Personal sustainability is key
I have at times this year folded myself into a pretzel trying to get my hands on something packageless. Most of the time it was a great – if awkward – exercise and I do now feel I know what is possible if I want to follow a more strict definition. In order to make this lifestyle last and be sustainable for me and my family in the long term, some concessions must be made. What I can and cannot do easily or within my time and budget is unique to my current area and my home. What’s “easy” might change if we move to a different part of the country or a different country all together.
Instead of feeling bogged down by all the things that are hard to do in a strict sense of zero waste, I feel confident in figuring out the simple things that I can absolutely always do with reducing trash in mind.
We make a lot from scratch from food to skincare but I’m not afraid to buy from someone else if their product and packaging aligns with my needs and values. I’m also not consistent and that’s okay with me. Sometimes I’ll go months making something regularly DIY, and then I’ll get burned out. I’ve learned to just let these things go and keep up with what I can, when I can (see tough love, below).
I sometimes think about this as if I’m on a trash diet, which can be done at a very strict level. It reminds me of Whole 30. Going 30, 60, 90 or even more days on this diet is totally possible for many people – including myself. But doing this diet 365 days a year …forever is probably not sustainable. Whether you call them cheat days or not, you can be mindful and still “break the rules” on occasion while still living well within the bounds of a lifestyle that feels like it aligns with your values.
I’m on this trash diet for life, so I need to give myself some wiggle room.
While I’m kind to myself, my family and friends for decisions and actions that might not be strictly ‘zero waste’, I truly have no excuses not to do the easy stuff. For example, I now have a grocery store with a small bulk section within walking distance of my house. There is also a store with a bigger bulk section a few minutes drive from me. Anything that these stores offer in bulk that I can bring home in a reusable/washable cloth bag I cannot justify ever buying in packaging again. Will it happen? Maybe, someday, due to weird circumstances. And again, I’ll forgive myself or my family member/friend for the decision. However, I plan to 99% of the time stick to the zero waste plan on this.
This tough love rule also applies to using paper towels in my home, using disposable plates or utensils, using disposable cotton rounds for skincare and make up, and the list goes on. The zero waste, reusable alternatives to these disposable options are just so incredibly easy to use that I have no reason to waver.
It takes time and some purchases to get systems and habits in place, but it’s easy to keep them going once you set up the foundation. In this post I talk about how my husband and I had been making small changes for years leading up to taking on the zero waste challenge in 2016.
Minimalism, consumerism and zero waste are inextricably linked
I like shopping, I like design, and I like stuff. My husband does too. That’s okay, in my book. As long as my stuff doesn’t own me and I’m not chasing happiness through ownership of some particular thing, I will of course allow myself to get pleasure and use from the things I own.
I will also still allow myself to enjoy the act of shopping, the so-called “hunt” that is much maligned in minimalist circles. I experience it in a totally different way now that I am mindful and intentional about my possessions, though.
I both value stuff less than I used to because it’s just an object after all. …And I value things more because I am so careful about what I hold on to.
I do not take lightly what I let into my home and my life. I still make (lots of!) mistakes and am evolving, but I feel really good about moving closer and closer towards my minimalism goals and better understanding the things I own.
I realize that someday I will have two teenage daughters but I don’t think I can step foot inside a fast-fashion megastore like H&M ever again. Knowing the toll on our environment and the human cost of manufacturing cheap clothing, I cannot justify regular purchases of items from fast fashion stores. Buying secondhand and from ethical sources is my priority now. And honestly, it’s just as fun to shop this way if not more so. Paying $4 for a high-quality pre-loved item brings me a definite thrill.
Bottom line: The less you buy, the less materials and resources are used.
The big shift >>> Buying meat, etc.
It isn’t a surprise to those who know us and have followed along with us for a while, but my family does eat animal products and will continue to do so in the future. While we are able to get good-quality, grass-fed, hyper-local, well-treated/humane raised meat in our own glass containers, it is not realistic for us to go to this (unfortunately kind of far away) butcher as often as we attempted to do in 2016. We are able to get some deli products in our own packaging like sliced turkey and Cabot cheddar cheese at a closer supermarket, but again, it’s not at our “regular” shopping location. We will still be making special trips to get these items package-free but I’m guessing not as often.
Moving forward into 2017 we will continue to put our money where our values are and dedicate a large portion of our household budget to high quality local food, including meat/poultry/dairy. The reality is that a majority of the local meat and cheese we can get from farmer friends directly, at the market or local co-ops comes in plastic packaging, which is frustrating but we’ve decided that for the time being, the product inside outweighs the unfortunate packaging.
Cutting back on meat, poultry and fish in general and conventionally raised meat specifically is an excellent and important way to reduce your impact on the planet. My family follows a mostly paleo diet focused on lots of vegetables and some meat/poultry/fish/grass-fed dairy.
Even with this relatively large concession/change to allow more pladtic packaging into our lives, we will still be producing very little trash for a family of 4.
Moving forward in 2017…
There are things I will never do again, no matter where I live and what kind of access I have to package-free ingredients. I’ll never take a disposable plastic bag at a store, any store. I can’t bring myself to chew traditional gum (it’s made with plastic and can’t be composted…what?!) I’ll also never buy a disposable pad or tampon ever again, unless in a decade + one of my daughters really wants to try it. But hopefully in 10 years reusable options will be the norm. (I can dream, right?!) I will also do my very best never to take a disposable coffee cup. (See coffee cup rant story above.) If I do it in an odd circumstance, I’ll probably awkwardly try to reuse the cup as long as I possibly can for kid crafts, etc.
The way we buy meat is pretty much the only change we’ll be making in 2017. However, we also may loosen the reigns a bit with purchasing other items in packaging on occasion, like my favorite snacky downfall, chips! There are brands available that can be recycled via Terra Cycle, etc. It’s not ideal from a resource usage standpoint but we will still be mindful. I just love chips, guys.
This year has taught me that respect for materials and personal sustainability are the cornerstones of my zero waste life.
Respecting materials makes me notice and question every use of materials in anything that I come in contact with. I will always value materials and choose durability and earth-friendly items over disposable. I will always be grateful for the zero waste “lens” teaching me daily to slow down, inspect items that come into my life and question the use and mis-use of materials that have the potential to destroy our planet at the beginning (mining) and end (landfill, filling oceans.) I don’t think I will ever get over misuse of materials. I won’t let it ruin my day or my minute (see personal sustainability, below), but I will notice misuse and avoid it at all costs.
On the other hand, in order for my commitment to a low-waste life to continue, I need to focus on what is personally sustainable for me. Not necessarily what’s easy, but what I can feasibly do with my time and budget. I like pushing myself and experimenting so what is feasible for me to keep up might change month to month (or day to day, even) but moving forward I will be striving for a balance of kindness to myself while still pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.
Given the current political situation in the US, I think it’s more important than ever to live my values and try my best to positively contribute to my home, community, state and beyond. There are lots of ways my family has and plans to #resist, and continuing on our eco-friendly journey towards extreme reduction in our trash, elimination of most plastic in our home and becoming non-consumers are still at the forefront. Some might think that one person or one household doesn’t have a huge impact on the environment, but I can see in my minds eye the piles of disposable items that we’ve avoided this year and I truly think that if we all cut back a little bit, the results would be extreme and important. I truly believe that collectively and individually we can have an impact on protecting and preserving our planet.
I could go on and on and tinker with this post for another year, but I’ll leave it here. Let’s chat in the comments – what questions or comments do you have?
As always, thanks for reading and your friendship!