Learning and Teaching Sustainability

The Truth About Zero Waste

Image via ZeroWasteChef.com
Image via ZeroWasteChef.com

Let's talk about zero waste for a minute. For those who aren't familiar with the term, "zero waste" refers to a lifestyle in which you don't generate any trash that goes to landfill. You can recycle bottles and cans, etc., and compost your food scraps, but nothing goes into the garbage bin. I first heard about the concept of zero waste several years ago from Lauren Singer of Trash is For Tossers. She became famous for having accumulated only one little mason jar of garbage over several years. Today, you can find many zero waste influencers and bloggers on Instagram and across the digital world.

After seeing all these influencers minimize their waste and speak up about the environment, I became inspired to cut back as much as possible. I've never put pressure on myself to be perfect, but I have felt twinges of guilt when I forgot my reusable shopping bag, or asked for a straw with my drink order. It's important that we all do the best we can to minimize our impact, but I wanted to bring up an important point that presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren mentioned at the recent Climate Crisis Town Hall meeting.

During the Town Hall meeting, someone asked if it was appropriate for the government to regulate our light bulb choices. In response, Warren said, "“This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry wants us to be talking about. That’s what they want us to talk about: This is your problem.” She continued, “They want to stir up a lot of controversy around your light bulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers, when 70 percent of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air comes from three industries.”

Image via EPA.gov
Image via EPA.gov

Let's break that down a little bit. Her point is not that personal choices are not important - they are. But rather, your personal choices are only part of a larger picture. We can and should do everything we can to reduce our own carbon footprint, but it's even more important that we come together and demand change on a larger scale. I checked out the EPA website to learn a bit more about the "three industries" that Warren was referring to. She's talking about Transportation (our cars, trucks, planes, ships, trains and planes), Electricity Production (which mostly comes from burning fossil fuels), and Industry (which is a bit vague but refers to "certain chemical reactions necessary to produce goods from raw materials.") Combined, these make up nearly 80% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US. In contrast, agriculture, commercial, and residential use make up just over 20% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US.

The most important thing we can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and demand change. On a national level, this means switching to renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and moving towards electric vehicles. A lot of these changes will require political action. That's why we support presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who have proposed some of the most progressive climate change policies. In contrast, the current President Trump has rolled back on many environmental protections and pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement. While these actions may result in short term profits, make no mistake, we will all pay the price for climate change sooner or later. With increased storms, flooding, drought, fires, and mass migrations, everybody will have to pay for disaster relief through our taxes. And perhaps even more important, we will all face dire consequences emotionally from the disruption that these changes cause for ourselves, our children, and grandchildren.

One of my favorite zero waste influencers is Anne Marie Bonneau, also known as Zero Waste Chef. She shares amazing zero waste recipes and cooking tips on her blog, and spreads the important message that "We don't need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly". This aligns closely with our mission at Live to Sustain - we are not here to judge or compete with each other. It's about supporting one another on the journey towards sustainability." So please don't feel guilty, or like we are judging you if you drink out of a plastic water bottle or order a cheeseburger for lunch. Nobody is perfect, and we certainly don't claim to be either. Some zero waste habits are easier to adopt than others, and it's ok to give yourself time to make mistakes, learn and grow. That being said, I wanted to share some of the zero waste "hits and misses" that I've discovered on my own personal journey towards zero waste:

ZERO WASTE HITS

Image via KleenKanteen.com
Image via KleenKanteen.com
paper towel free 1
Screen Shot 2019-09-08 at 3.57.40 PM
  1. Resuable Water Bottle
    This is one of the easiest strategies you can adopt to minimize waste, and maximize hydration. I love the 20 oz insulated Kleen Kanteen because it's great for hot and cold drinks, and Adam is a big fan of Hydroflasks. There are so many options out there, so choose the size and style that works best for you. I bring my water bottle to school everyday, and refill it multiple times with fresh water or hot tea. You can take it to your local coffee shop and request your beverage be served in your own cup. At Starbucks, you even get a $0.10 discount when you bring your own reusable container. There are times when I've forgotten to bring my own bottle, and then I just buy a drink in a plastic cup. Admittedly, I've lost a couple of water bottles over the years, and at $30 each they are not exactly cheap to replace. Still, it's totally worth it, and I'm proud to have saved hundreds of plastic cups and bottles over the years.
  2. Paper Towel Free Home
    When Adam and I moved in together, we decided to go paper towel free. Instead we use a variety of cloth napkins, towels, and cleaning rags. It was actually really easy to get used to, and I've never looked back. There is a bit more work with laundry and folding, but it's manageable. To be honest, a lot of our napkins always look dirty no matter how many times we wash them, but I don't mind. Check out this post to learn more about how to go paper towel free in your own home.
  3. Reusable Tote Bags and Produce Bags
    This is another easy win, especially now that every company under the sun loves to give out free promotional tote bags. We have a collection of roughly 20-something bags that we use for groceries and other shopping trips. You can keep some in your car so you always have them available. Baggu is my favorite brand of reusable bags because they come in a bunch of fun patterns and colors. Plus they are super light and portable, and have a built-in pouch so you can roll them up compact and put them in your purse. I also got these produce bags to avoid plastic bags for fresh produce from the farmer's market or grocery store. If you forget your bags, don't stress. It gets easier with time, and soon enough it will become second nature.

ZERO WASTE MISSES

bath_4
Image via trashisfortossers.com
Image via trashisfortossers.com
Image via divacup.com
Image via divacup.com
  1. The safety razor
    I wrote about the safety razor in this post about minimizing waste in the bathroom. Most drugstore razors are made with random bits of plastic, but these are all-stainless-steel with replaceable razor blades. Quite frankly, I don't know why they call it a safety razor because for me it was a bloody mess! Some people told me they were easy to use with a gentle touch and some practice. I was determined to give it a shot, but I bloodied myself too many times and decided to give up. I honestly don't go through that many razors, and the replacement heads have minimal plastic. There are bigger battles to fight, and I decided not to make this one of them.
  2. DIY Toothpaste and Deodorant
    One of the first zero waste hacks I tried was this DIY toothpaste recipe from Lauren Singer of Trash is for Tossers. I diligently made my own toothpaste for a few months, and even went on to make DIY deodorant. Ultimately, these just weren't working for me. The toothpaste was messy, and didn't make my mouth feel super clean. And I didn't like shmearing on deodorant with my bare hands. These little tasks are something you do multiple times a day, and they were just too messy and inconvenient for me to keep up. So for now I'm back to a regular old toothpaste tube and deodorant that comes in a stick. If you have any good replacements for these items that come in sustainable packaging, let me know!
  3. The Diva Cup
    The Diva Cup is intended as a replacement for tampons or pads for your menstrual flow. I actually purchased one several years ago when I was feeling particularly motivated, but the truth is I've never been brave enough to give it a shot. To be honest, I find them super intimidating. I'm almost 38 years old, so perhaps you might think I have mastered the art of shoving things up my hoo hoo. Alas, this is not the case. I don't understand how it works, but I've also never tried. I'm terrified it might all spill out at an embarrassing moment or get stuck inside forever. Perhaps one day I'll work up the courage to figure this out, but not today.

ZERO WASTE WORKS IN PROGRESS

Screen Shot 2019-09-08 at 4.19.39 PM
Image via SimplyStraws.com
Image via SimplyStraws.com
Image via nofoodwaste.com
Image via nofoodwaste.com
  1. Bamboo Toilet Paper
    We love Who Gives A Crap toilet paper because it's made with bamboo and doesn't consume trees. It comes delivered in a cardboard box, and each roll is wrapped in fun, decorative paper as opposed to plastic. We ordered a big box of 48 rolls months ago, and we still haven't run out. Plus, 50% of profits are used to build toilets for those in need. Pretty sweet, right? But another eco-friendly blogger I love, Mama Eco, has been singing the praises of a bidet lately. Instead of wiping your butt with TP, you spray it with water using a bidet attachment, and dry off with a towel. The website says it helps save water, but I'm not quite sure how that works. I'm sorry, but right now I just can't. This feels beyond my skillset at the moment, but maybe one day.
  2. The Reusable Straw
    The reusable straw seems to be one of the trendiest zero-waste items of the past year because it's a small step that everyone can take. I saw a heartbreaking video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck up its nose, and I'll never look at straws the same again. I got a glass straw from Simply Straws, and I love it. It doesn't have a weird metallic taste, and it comes with a cleaning brush that really gets the job done. Still, there are times when I bring it with me, and other times I don't (mainly because it doesn't always fit in my purse). If I do use a plastic straw, I make sure to throw it in the trash. I don't just toss it on the street or in the ocean. I only have one for now, so if I had a few sets it might be easier to always have one at the ready.
  3. Composting
    Composting is a great way to divert food waste (which can be up to 22% of trash) away from the landfill. This is something I've been wanting to do for awhile, but we don't have the best infrastructure for this here in San Diego. I recently visited my sister in NYC, and was pretty jealous of their composting set-up. They have a commercial compost collection bin in their apartment building, so they just keep food scraps in a little bucket in the fridge and empty it into the bin as needed. It's also relatively doable if you have a big backyard to store your compost. Right now we just have a small balcony, so it's not so easy for us. I found this product called a Food Cycler which seems pretty cool. It looks pretty compact, and claims to convert your food waste into compost in as little as three hours. But at nearly $400, it's not at the top of the priority list for now.

So there you have it. These are just some of the zero-waste habits that I've tried, but we're always striving to be better. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. But remember, the important thing is that we work together to create large-scale change. What are some zero waste habits that have worked for you? What hasn't? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

About the author: Laura Weatherbee
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