Whenever I mention this to someone, the immediate response is “oh yea, I recycle everything, too!” But living zero waste means much more than recycling; it means first refusing, reducing, reusing, repairing, composting, and then recycling as the last option before the landfill.
Recycling is certainly the better choice compared to throwing an item “away”, but the recycling system isn’t the solution for everything, and it has its own long list of complications. Regardless of recycling efforts, 32 percent of all plastic packaging ends up in the ocean. This, combined with chemicals in plastic, concerns me, so I try my hardest to avoid plastics, particularly single-use. There is no need for most of these products. As seen on an unlinked meme on Pinterest: “It’s pretty amazing that our society has reached a point where the effort necessary to extract oil from the ground, ship it to a refinery, turn it into plastic, shape it appropriately, truck it to a store, buy it, and bring it home is considered to be less effort that what it takes to just wash the spoon when you’re done with it.”
Living a zero-waste lifestyle means sending nothing to the landfill (or incineration, depending on what area of the world you’re in), and minimizing waste in the first place. I don’t shop for the sake of shopping. I wear things out and I try to do without. I reuse what I have and repair what I can. I say no to single-use and bring my own, everything. And I don’t feel like I’m inconvenienced or deprived.
Here are some of my habits to make this possible:
If I don’t buy it, I won’t use it. Instead of buying ziplock bags, I own about a million mason jars, which get used for food storage and freezing. I own about a half a million Pyrex and Anchorware for leftovers. I take my school snacks in mason jars. Sandwiches get packed in stainless containers. I have little cloth bags for light snacks like nuts for hiking. What does go into my trash is ‘dry’, because my food scraps go either to the chickens, the compost, or the municipal stream, so I don’t buy trash bags. I don’t use paper towels, and instead opt for a solid supply of tea towels, cotton napkins, and wash cloths.
Bring your own: mug, silverware, straw, bag, water-bottle, napkin, containers. There is almost always a metal or bamboo fork in my purse. If I go out for coffee or tea, I either patron places that use real mugs and I can sit there, or I take my insulated Klean Kanteen for drinks to go. I’ve also had just a normal mug from home filled. If I get something cold, like an iced drink or a smoothie, I bring in a mason jar and a glass Dharma straw. Our house has a collection of metal water bottles. If there isn’t one in my bag, there is one in the car. I never, ever buy bottled water. If my bottle is empty, I’ll fill it from a sink. I order my drinks without a straw (the server will get it right 50% of the time). I never, ever take a carry out bag. If I don’t have one with me, I’ll shove items in my purse, carry them with my hands, or put them back in the cart and wheel them out to my car, and set on the seat.
Choose products with paper or glass packaging. If I have options, I choose items that are packaged in glass instead of plastic, or paper instead of plastic. Oil, vinegar and condiments all come in both options, but I choose ones that are in glass. I use bar soap to wash my hands, body and shave with, and choose a simple bar that’s wrapped in paper. When I need notebooks for school, I opt for ones with a cardboard cover instead of plastic. I buy Strauss milk in returnable glass. I use a brand of chicken feed that comes in a compostable paper bag that I use in the garden.
For the dry goods, I use cloth bags that I sewed from reclaimed sheets. I have the tare weight (how heavy the bag is) labeled on the bag so I don’t have to pay for the weight of them at checkout. Sometimes I use tape to mark the bin code, which I then have to throw away, but mostly I use the twist-ties and I reuse them at home or in the garden.
For produce, I choose loose goods over packaged ones. I either stick items straight into my basket (I usually shop with an African market basket) or the cart- no individual plastic bags necessary. If I see your cart loaded up with things like bananas, avocado, and onions each in their own individual plastic bag, sorry I’m not sorry, but I’m silently judging you. If I’m getting lots of individual items, like mushrooms, I use one of my cloth bags.
For peanut butter, spices and olives, I have a jar weighed at the front service desk and they write the tare weight on the lid or on a piece of tape. If I’m concerned with the lid not always being used for the same jar, I’ll have them use a dry erase marker (that I bring with me and hand to them), but you have to keep the jars upright and not rub on anything or the writing will come off.
Coffee and tea also gets purchased in bulk. Matt goes to Eureka once a month for work and takes a few jars with him to fill at a great herb and tea shop up there. Coffee gets purchased in bulk at the grocery store, although I’m sure a local roaster would also refill containers. You can buy Bella Rosa coffee by refilling (their) containers at Oliver’s.
Bulk shopping can extend past the grocery store. I buy Stella’s biscuit treats in bulk from Western Farms, refilling an old bread bag. Other treats, like hoofs and ears come package free.
Bring my own container for counter service. Now that my parents are raising meat on their hobby farm, I don’t buy very much meat anymore. But when I do, or when I buy fish, I bring in a large pyrex and ask them to fill that instead of wrapping up with their plastic-backed butcher paper. They still give me the square of plastic that they used to grab the item with, but its much less waste.
Bring my own container for take-out. When I worked downtown, I’d often buy my lunch from one of 3 places. Instead of calling in a order, I’d walk to a local restaurant with bowl. I’d order my dish, and have them dish into my own instead of their takeout containers. On the rare occasion that we eat out for dinner now, I’ll bring Pyrex containers for leftovers.
We are very lucky that in Sonoma County, most of us have access to a wide variety of grocery stores. I choose to primarily shop at Whole Foods. Not only because I make eating organic a priority, but because they are the most zero-waste friendly store. They have a bulk section for just about everything, and they are happy to tare weight any container I bring in at the front service desk. Oliver’s also has a great bulk section, but in order to get a tare weight, you have to weight in line, as there is no scale at the customer service desk. Depending on the clerk, some don’t know how to deduct tares when ringing up. Oliver’s has also straight up refused to fill my own container at the fish counter. I would love to support a local store, but the hassles of shopping there make it a stressful experienced.
As much as I’ve been consistent in my habits, I still make trash. For at least the past 5 years or so, my family of 2 has been producing about a half a pound of trash a week. I could certainly do better, but considering the average person produces 5 pounds of trash A DAY, I want to share what I have been able to accomplish.
This is what I’m sending to the landfill from the week of January 18-24. This shows the waste of my 2-adult household, plus pets, including 3 meals a day of plus snacks. Total weight: 5.5 oz.
This is what I’m sending to the landfill from the week of January 25-31. This also shows the waste of my family, including 3 meals a day plus snacks. Not pictured or included in the weight are two poop bags from dog walks, and bag of litter-box cleanings. Total weight: 4.9 oz.
Some things I can work on developing new habits for, some I can’t change. Plants bought at a nursery usually have plastic tags. I will never have enough time to make my own butter. The prescription cat food I need for Gaia only comes in plastic. The meat that I get from my parents is wrapped in a sheet of plastic. We still buy bags of tortilla chips and tortillas. I buy a loaf of sandwich bread in plastic once a week, which I could also make, or buy direct from a bakery in paper or my own bag. For now, I settle on reusing the bags for pet waste. I have yet to master making my own laundry and dish soap, but its possible. Same with toothpaste and deodorant. Buying yogurt or ice cream in returnable glass is out of our price range, so I buy in recyclable plastic, but both I could make myself. Matt’s customers often give us (delicious) samples of goodies, but they are often wrapped in plastic and he can’t say no. Cheese is my favorite food so I still enjoy it but choose the least packaged option. Sometimes my anxiety is high and I just can’t manage life, and I reach for a frozen or packaged meal. We aren’t perfect but we try.
Are my habits going to make a difference? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps I’ll inspire others to take up a similar habit. Maybe eventually the store will notice the highly-packaged items don’t sell, and let the company know. Maybe more and more options will be offered packaging free as people request them. Perhaps you’ll consider analyzing your trash and consider how to make less of it. Regardless, I believe in doing all that I can do, if for no other reason than when the end comes, I know I tried my hardest.
If you’re interested in learning more about zero waste or avoiding plastics, check out Beth Terry’s blog My Plastic Free Life, or Bea Johnson’s Zero Waste Home (which they have at the Sonoma County Library).