Well over a year ago, while living in China, someone showed me a video of a girl going zero waste, so successfully that she could keep four year’s worth of trash in one mason jar. I felt inspired. Zero waste felt right up my alley. Climate change, the environment, cruelty free, and wildlife conservation are all important issues to me personally. Add in a Catholic guilt complex and the result is a feeling of moral obligation to live a greener life and an intense inner feeling of shame anytime I don’t. (Though if my conscience had a voice, I’d say it’d sound like a disappointed Jewish mother nagging me to make better choices anytime I buy something wasteful.) Going zero waste would be nearly (almost certainly) impossible while living in China, but I promised myself that I would give this whole zero waste thing a go once I returned stateside. It took me just over a year of being back to finally get my shit together enough to do it. For the entire month of September, I went zero waste, only using products that can be recycled, reused, or composted. The goal? Put nothing into the trash bin.
While there are government policies and business practices that definitely need changing if we’re going to be more environmentally friendly as a country (which we need to do—if 2017’s weather patterns haven’t convinced you that climate change is a thing, than there probably isn’t anything I’m going to say that will change your opinion), individual lifestyles play an important role in creating lasting change. Think “vote with your dollar” and “lead by example.” Choosing to create less waste as an individual and supporting companies that are green can feel like a difficult and costly endeavor (my grocery bill was more expensive by probably $10-$20 a week). But to me, it’s worth the extra effort and cost if it means I’m doing what I personally can to help create change and work towards a better future.
My recommendation to anyone looking to live a greener lifestyle and take the plunge to zero waste is to use more of a “phasing out” technique than doing what I did for September: give up producing trash cold turkey. If I learned anything this month, it’s that there’s way more little plastic bits and pieces on products and packaging than I realized (I knew it was a lot but seriously, its a lot). Since I was only being super strict for a month, if I accidentally ended up with a product with hidden non-recyclable bits on it, I simple put it away somewhere and decided I would deal with it in October. (It’s a little like cheating but, I did “punish” myself by not letting myself use the product during the month). The best way to go zero waste, I think, is to make note of all the products you currently have that create non- recyclable, reusable, or compostable waste. Mark them with a Sharpe, put a sticker on it, make a list, or whatever system that might work well for you. When you’re finished using that product, replace it with a greener, zero-waste alternative. When making shopping choices, I rank options using the following guidelines for products/packaging and food: Reusable > Recyclable > Trash and Compostable/Biodegradable > Trash. (This is how I’ll be zero waste from October on—phasing out any leftover waste-creating products from before September.)
Out of all the things I have tried for “Gretchen Tries Stuff” this year, going zero waste is probably the one thing I’ve put the most thought and prep into. For months leading up to it, I started tracking what aspects of my life were creating the most trash and researched zero-waste alternatives, but that being said, I still ran into many unforeseen complications during the month:
- Cheese: I love to eat cheese (if I could get away with only eating cheese and a fresh baguette for the rest of my life, I totally would). Cheese, if you haven’t notice, comes wrapped in plastic wrap or in a plastic container with a non-recyclable plastic seal. Finding zero-waste cheese was extremely difficult. (However, I did pick up a book about making cheese and will try my hand at making my own. I’m also looking at the logistics of getting an entire wheel of cheese to avoid the packaging).
- Almond and coconut milk: Alternative milks are my favorites for most of my cooking. I found almond milk is ideal for much of my baking (baked goods rise so well with almond milk). Coconut milk is my preference for things like over-night oats and smoothies. I found it impossible to find zero-waste nut milk and used dairy milk in a glass container for most the month instead. I experimented with making my own but haven’t perfected the process yet.
- All the small plastic things: From the little plastic wrap on the top of a glass bottle of kombucha to the stickers on fruits and veggies, little bits of non-recyclable plastic make there way into so many products. Avoiding plastic is no easy task. One of the worse cases of this occurred when I put on a shirt with one of those uncomfortable plastic-ish tags and realized that cutting it out of the shirt would create trash. It was an uncomfortable day.
- Online shopping: Purchasing items online instead of seeing them in person first can be a bit risky if you’re going zero waste. While cardboard boxes and some other packaging material are recyclable, much of what is shipped has at least a little bit of something that can’t go in the recycle bin—not to mention any waste that may be created by the actual shipping as well. I ended up with packages arriving throughout the month (subscription boxes I forgot to skip, items that I was hoping would arrive before September, and a few things I splurged on that arrived a couple days before the month was up). So I thought it would be fun to store them all until the month was over and than measure how much waste a month’s worth of online shopping creates.
There were a few things that I decided would need to be exceptions to my quest for zero waste, either because there is no zero waste alternative and it’s a product that I need — such as medication, floss, and my contacts—or it just wasn’t very feasible—such as my cat’s litter. My cat has a very specific type of litter that she likes and it’s not the most environmentally friendly on the market. I’ve tried swapping her to a different litter in the past and it was a complete disaster. Neither me, my roommates, or my cat wish to experience that every again. (And before you ask, yes, I did use toilet paper. When faced with a product that has no true zero waste alternative, do some research to get a more environmentally friendly option. I used Seven Generations toilet paper because it’s made from recycled paper.) There were also a few things that I simply didn’t need to find a zero waste alternative for yet. Though those products didn’t create trash during this month, they are all products I’ve been researching zero-waste options for:
- Number one, my razor. I’m currently using a razor from the Dollar Shave Club and didn’t need to replace the head during September. A safety razor is a better zero-waste alternative but I haven’t made the switch yet (the initial setup can cost between $20-$145, but then the replacement blades are very affordable and can be taken to a recycle center. Truth be told though, I’m a bit of a klutz with a regular razor, and I fear for my legs when I swap to what’s basically a straight razor on a stick).
- Number two, feminine products. I’m on the coil and thus haven’t had a cycle for nearly a decade. But there are some really good zero-waste feminine products now (that are actually a better choice from a health standpoint, too).
- Number three, alcohol. I’m in the middle of my 100 Days Sober project so I didn’t need to worry about things like bottle caps that can’t go in the recycle bin or wine corks. My recommendation is to use refillable growlers whenever possible for your alcohol purchases.
- And last but not least, number four, meat. I’m currently eating vegetarian so I didn’t need to worry about what type of packaging meat comes in or the extra cost of getting meat that is sustainably raised from a local butcher. (I’m actually not strictly vegetarian, but I am very picky and only eat meat that is sustainably raised/free-range, and produced within a 100 miles of where I’m buying it.) It’s also been my experience that even at the butcher shop, meat comes wrapped in a waxy or plastic-lined paper, probably for sanitation reasons—you can’t recycle food soiled paper products regardless. If you’ve ever purchased meat products in zero-waste packaging, let me know in the comments section.
Now that my month of zero waste is over, I’ll probably be more forgiving of a few things (I avoided eating at restaurants much during September to avoid creating any trash unintentionally or “second hand”). Nevertheless, I have no plans to revert back to a trash-filled lifestyle. I intend to take everything I learned about being zero waste and continue applying it to my shopping choices going forward. Once you’re in the mindset, zero waste (or nearly zero waste) doesn’t seem as overwhelmingly difficult of a lifestyle choice as it sounds. And while you might need to invest in a few bags or containers, the extra cost of shopping local and greener is completely manageable (or it was for me, a single middle-class 30-year-old with no kids). Interested in knowing more and make the switch to an (almost) trash-free life? I’ll be posting videos with tips for living zero waste on my YouTube channel, as well as linking useful resources in the video descriptions. Have a question about being zero waste? Leave it in the comments section below and I’ll either answer it there or in a future vlog post.