Let's Talk Trash: Zero Waste


Let's talk trash.  Did you know that on average, Americans produce more than 1 ton of garbage every year?  Considering the number of people in our great nation that number quickly adds up.  Statistics such as this never crossed my mind before having learned about the growing movement of zero waste: the practice of not sending anything to landfill.  I first heard about this unusual practice after watching a talk given by Lauren Singer, of Trash Is for Tossers in which she shed light on the topic and explained how for the past few years she has lived a trash free lifestyle*.  When I first heard about this concept of living waste free I was skeptical.  So many things now a days are made of plastic and come in excessive packaging.  How on earth can people like you and me live in a modern day society and not produce any waste?  

I found in my research that Lauren is not the only one living a zero waste lifestyle but in fact there is a number of people and cities across the United States and the world, who are adopting this practice.  There are numerous blogs, videos, and books out there too that provide applicable steps on how to minimize our consumption.  While our family has yet to go full fledged zero waste, learning about this topic has opened our eyes and has led us to adopt some of it's practices.  I feel that living a minimalist life style and partaking in sustainable practices goes hand in hand in that they both they take a serious look at consumption and how it affects us as individuals, future generations, and the environment as a whole.

Simply put, to live a zero waste lifestyle is to not produce any trash which will then be sent to a landfill.  This does not exclude composting and recycling which are acceptable but encouraged to be done in moderation.  Though this concept may seem a bit radical to most, Lauren Singer, of Trash Is for Tossers disagrees.  "This consumerist trash lifestyle is very new and very modern.  I think its essentially a possibility to revert back to lifestyle habits that existed before this disposable society became really prevalent" (MSNBC).  That's not to say that we need to go back to living in the dark ages or that our mobile lifestyles need to be drastically altered.  It's about taking a look at our actions and understanding how they affect the environment and generations to come.  It wasn't that long ago that disposables didn't exist.  Just last night, my husband and I were watching The Founder of Netflix, noting the astonishment of the main character, Ray Kroc, at the idea of eating a packaged meal.  The concept was revolutionary.  For years, drive-ins had been the way to go.  People would drive up, order and receive their food served on plates accompanied by glasses and silver-wear.  When watching Mad Men a couple of years ago I remember looking at the screen in horror as the Drapers casually swept up their picnic blanket at the end of a meal at a park, sending the trash flying as they walked to their car.  It made me think.  While I'm not throwing trash on the ground, are my actions all that different from the Drapers?  Where do I think my plastic water bottles, wrappers, clothing, and Styrofoam clam-shells go when I'm finished?  They go where the millions of others go: to the landfill where they will sit for years to come. Consider how often our transient society relies on these products?  What if instead we made simple swaps that wouldn't negatively disrupt our day-to-day routines or the environment?

As with anything, its all about starting small.  I took Lauren's recommendation in reading Bea Johnson's book, Zero Waste Home to get a better idea of what a zero waste lifestyle looks like and ended up finishing it in less than a week.  Bea's book is a wealth of knowledge regarding zero waste in the home, offering practical advice on consuming and living with less.  She covers all aspect of the home - everything from the kitchen, to the bathroom, to your closet and explains how cutting waste in a household is quite simple if you follow 5 simple steps: refuse (what you do not need), reduce (what you do need), reuse (what you consume), recycle (what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse), and rot (compost the rest).  Applying the 5 Rs in order naturally results in minimal waste.  The "first and second Rs address the prevention of waste, the third R thoughtful consumption, the fourth and fifth Rs the processing of discards" (Johnson).  After finishing the book, I took Lauren's second piece of advice which is to take a look at your trash in order to determine where you can make edits.  What I found was that the majority of our waste came from food  in the form of compostable scraps and plastic packaging.  The next source of trash came from other household packaging along with disposables.  Gathering this information, I began to make simple swaps such as looking for food that was sold in glass containers, shopping for produce at stores with limited plastic packaging, making food and even some cosmetics from scratch, using reusable bags, shopping in bulk at Whole Foods, and composting.  It was hard to adjust at first, especially when I wasn't working from home like I am now.  Having my husband come on board with our efforts to minimize waste has been a huge help.  We both take responsibility in cooking and using reusable and/or homemade products (In the months to come, I will be publishing posts on what this looks like for us.)  It's helpful to know that while we aren't the majority in our way of thinking there is a growing movement across the united states and the world, of people who are looking to go zero waste.

Cities across the United States such as Minneapolis, Washington D.C., and Austin have set zero waste goals into place during the past several years; and are well on their way.  In 2014, the Washington D.C. City Council made significant strides toward minimizing waste by passing two key pieces of legislation.  The first being a ban on styrafoam and the second being a waste moderation bill.  According to the Sierra Club, "the bill establishes a clear priority for reuse and recycling over landfilling and incineration, requires separation of waste into recycables, compostables, and trash..the bill also requires the government to develop a zero waste plan designed to move DC towards a zero waste goal of 80% waste diversion and leave the possiblity of implementing a Pay As You Throw (PAYT) system, versions of which have contributed to major recycling gains in other cities" (Bodamer).  While Washington D.C. still has a way to go, out west in San Francisco, residents are moving at great speed toward accomplishing their 2020 zero waste goal.  The city began the discussion of going zero waste more than a decade ago and by 2014 achieved an 80% diversion rate (Bodamer).  In 2009 the city passed a law requiring residents to and businesses to sort their waste into recycables, compostables, and landfill trash.  Recology is the private company that handles it all (Stories).  Government representatives from all over the world visit this facility to learn about how they might be able replicate this system.

While I'm in favor of a zero waste lifestyle, I doubt that it is something that my family will ever achieve.  Rather our goal is to be conscious of what we consume and how that affects us and the environment.  Similar to Celia Ristow, of Litterless, I am aware that as one of 7 billion people on the planet my actions have an extremely small effect on greenhouse gas emissions however they're a step in the right direction.  "I can't and don't want to control what other people do," Cecila explains.  "I can only change my own actions" (Clark). 


*I am very much aware and believe that we will never be able to live 100% zero waste live styles as it is difficult to calculate how much waste is produced in production processes, transportation, etc. of products.  While we aren't making waste, a lot of companies that we buy products from still do.


Bodamer, David.  10 Major U.S. Cities With Zero Waste Goals.  Waste360.  2015.

Clark, Leilani.  Zero-waste Bloggers: The Millennials Who Can Fit a Year's Worth of Trash In a Jar.  The Guardian. 2016.

How to Fit Two Years of Trash In a Mason Jar. MSNBC.  February 2015.

Johnson, Bea.  Zero Waste Home.  Scribner.  2013.

How San Francisco Is Becoming A Zero Waste City.  Stories.  2016.