For seven days, I tried living off as little waste as possible.
For months, I had been feeling guilty each time I grabbed plastic forks, knives and paper containers at my office cafeteria, only to dump them in the trash a half-hour later. It had become a daily routine — eat, waste, feel bad; eat, waste, feel bad.
The habit was so contrary to so much of what I believe. I grew up in California in a family of scrap metal recyclers, and I've always recycled. I shop with a tote bag and freeze food that's going bad. Then I came across people on the internet such as Lauren Singer and Jonathan Levy who were living a "zero waste" lifestyle, documenting it and gaining followers. The movement is occupied mostly by millennials, many of whom claim their annual output of trash fits into a small mason jar. They make it sound like something anyone could do.
So I challenged myself to minimize my own waste for a week.
I carried a backpack filled with metal silverware, a washcloth (to serve as my napkin) and various reusable containers. I avoided single-use take-out containers and paper receipts and pushed through thirst and exhaustion when I wanted water or coffee but forgot my reusable jug. I limited my grocery shopping to package-free items and collected my leftover food scraps for composting.
Even though I'm already pretty environmentally conscious, as a millennial living in New York City who rarely cooks, it turned out to be much more rigorous than I envisioned.
Here's how it went and what I learned.
Zero waste, it turns out, takes not only planning and extra time — but also gumption.
Aside from carrying silverware (which constantly has to be washed, so have duplicates), reusable containers (multiple sizes are a game-changer but bulky) and a washcloth (as a napkin, it initially grossed me out but ended up ok), the experiment also meant asking at food joints if I could use my personal items instead of theirs.
Though most places were amenable, I did get mixed reactions. For example, when I asked the server at my local gelato shop to put my two scoops of hazelnut gelato into my reusable Ziploc container from home, he was hesitant, then said I could put them in my container after he scooped them into the store's paper cups. He only relented after I begged him to help me save the planet for a good four minutes.
At Whole Foods, when I had the server at the fish counter place a slab of salmon in my container from home, he ended up wrapping my container in plastic anyway before I could stop him.
Really, the more I focused on reducing my waste, the more I felt like a dinosaur — awkward and out of place.
I also had to deal with some minor inconveniences, like placing a mound of bread from the farmers market in a netted bag. Sadly, many of the seeds fell out, and I learned a cloth bag without holes is better for baked goods.
And one Saturday night when it was about 40 degrees out and I was not feeling well, I gave in and ordered Seamless, but I noticed for the first time that you can request no plastic utensils or napkins. Unfortunately when I got my order, they had placed them in the bag. Things got lost in translation, but I was happy to discover the option.
Mishaps and awkwardness aside, I went from using about 10 single-use containers to two — and I saved on plasticware and paper and plastic bags too. Plus, every time I had lunch at work with my silverware and reusable containers, my colleagues noticed and said I was inspiring them to do the same.
Shopping zero-waste style at an average American store is not easy. Everyday items from rotisserie chickens to cheese to cereals, crackers and gum are packaged.
Since the easiest place to find package-free items is in the produce aisle, I started there. I chose bundled spinach (which means extra time for washing, chopping and cutting) and put items like apples and tomatoes directly in my shopping cart (extra washing on those too). At the buffet area, I was able to use my own container, and a staff member even offered to weigh it ahead of time so that I wouldn't be charged for the additional weight.
There are some stores where it's easier, like my New York City Whole Foods, which has a package-free section filled with bins of nuts, rice, cereals, legumes, dried fruits and chocolates measured by weight, which I put in my own container. Still, even there, the options were limited. The only package-free cereal I could find, for example, was granola, which is sugary and caloric compared to my usual Kashi Whole Wheat Biscuits.
Another trick I used was buying in bulk. Though there's still packaging, it's often less than if the items were individually wrapped.
For the first time, I saved my leftover food scraps for compost.
Composting biodegrades organic waste and turns it into organic fertilizer. All compost requires three basic ingredients — browns (e.g., dead leaves, twigs), greens (e.g., fruits and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, breads) and water, which go in a pile in your yard or in a special type of bin. Compostable household items also include eggshells, houseplants, shredded newspaper, cardboard, tea bags and yard trimmings. (Dairy products, fats, grease, meat and fish bones cannot be composted.)
Since I live in a tiny apartment, I kept my scraps and expired food in a bag in my fridge, and then dropped it off at a compost collections site at my local farmer's market. I even kept a reusable container for on-the-go organic garbage. It was a bit of a hassle but the easiest solution I could find.
Overall, my attempt to go zero waste required a significant amount of time and planning. All at once, it felt like a lot to take on.
The most annoying part was having to wash my containers and washcloths regularly (or by default, reusing them multiple times without washing them — which felt a little unsanitary). It was also annoying having to carry a big backpack — no matter where I went. The most challenging part was grocery shopping, and my cart ended up being much emptier than usual. Thankfully, I had some leftover food from the week before in my kitchen — otherwise, frankly, I think I would have gone hungry.
But the items in my garbage can and recycling bins were also cut substantially, at least half. Yet that's only hit the tip of the iceberg when it comes to living truly waste free. To reach zero waste, one would have to make more substantial changes — thinking through how items are sourced, manufactured and prepared — and go well beyond food into consumer goods, appliances and electronics.
The most disappointing realization I had is that the onus, at least for now, is on the consumer. There are very few large-scale package-free and eco-friendly stores in the U.S. Shops such as Package Free Shop and The Filling Station in New York, the Refill Shoppe in Ventura, California, and Zero Market in Denver, Colorado, are boutique and niche.
But not all waste is equal. The EPA developed a hierarchy of waste management. At the bottom of the pyramid is "treatment and disposal" (e.g., sending items to landfills). At the top of the pyramid is "source reduction and reuse," such as using a bottle like a Nalgene or Swell instead of a disposable plastic water bottle. In the middle of the pyramid is recycling, compost and the conversion of trash into energy.
With that in mind, I'm slowly working toward making my newfound strategies into habits. Some I'll more readily stick to than others, like carrying around silverware in my bag and avoiding plastic bags in the produce section of the grocery store.
I think when it comes to lifestyle changes, starting small and making incremental steps is key, rather than going knee-deep all at once.
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