When I was about 10 years old, my middle school started a recycling program for paper. Although I think many of my peers didn’t think much of it, I took the concept to heart, and I started smuggling all of my household’s paper trash to school so that I could dispose of it in the classroom recycling bin.
So for most of my life, being conscious of the trash I produce has come naturally to me. Even into adulthood, I would often go out of my way, holding onto an item of trash until I found an opportunity to recycle it.
Imagine my delight when I discovered that there is a whole movement of other people who think the same way! As with many things, I found out about these people on Facebook, on a post about sustainability in one of the vegan groups I’m part of. I was immediately intrigued, and I dove right into this new community of fellow sustainability nerds.
I think most people will agree that big lifestyle changes don’t usually happen overnight. Becoming zero-waste is a journey, and I’ve come a long way in the 15 months since I’ve started upon this path, but that’s not to say that I’m perfect or that my journey is complete.
There are changes that everyone can make to become more sustainable, even if they are not well-situated to fully commit to a zero-waste lifestyle. While I wouldn’t ask anybody to make the exact same changes to their lives that I’ve made, I do ask you to please consider trying at least one of these things to reduce your waste!
What I was already doing:
Recycling: As mentioned at the beginning of this post, recycling is almost my default way of disposing of trash. Actual trash cans are a last resort only for things that can’t be recycled.
Bringing my own bag (usually): I knew it was bad to use so much plastic, so I brought my reusable shopping bags with me as much as I could. Being forgetful, this was maybe 75% of the time, which meant I was still using plastic bags sometimes.
Reusable period supplies: It’s 2018, so I’ll assume everybody’s okay with me talking about periods for a hot second. Four years ago, I invested in a menstrual cup, 3 cloth pads, and 3 cloth pantyliners for somewhere around $50 altogether.
Though I was happy that it was more eco-friendly, I mostly made the switch because I had allergic reactions to tampons and disposable pads (let me tell you, that is NOT a place you want to break out in a rash). I haven’t bought a single period product since, so I’d say it was well worth the investment, and I can take pride in the fact that I’m not sending extra waste products to landfills.
Veganism: I originally went vegetarian at age 16 because I have always been grossed out by eating dead animals; it just doesn’t feel sanitary. However, my shift toward veganism happened when I realized how much better it is for the environment.
Facilitating discussion of eco-friendliness in my classroom: At the start of each school year, I made sure students were aware of our recycling program and also that they understood why it was important to recycle. Occasionally, other topics would arise during lessons that gave me an opportunity to make the connection to environmentalism. Such as the school assignment in which students had to write essays about how to protect the habitat of monarch butterflies.
What I began doing:
Stopped buying (most) things pre-packaged: I learned how to buy bulk foods in my own containers at Whole Foods. For some things that I couldn’t buy package-free, I tried to make sure I was at least buying them in sustainable packaging, such as cardboard or glass–this did mean that sometimes I had to pay extra, as the cheap coconut oil came in a plastic jar, but I’d rather pay a little extra for the oil in the glass jar, which I could then reuse to buy bulk foods in.
Stopped using produce bags: I realized that you don’t need to use a plastic bag for your fresh produce in the grocery store; just stick the apple in your shopping basket and bring it to the register. If I couldn’t find produce at Publix that wasn’t wrapped in plastic, I waited until the Sunday farmer’s market, when I could buy it package-free. I also tried my best to make sure I was buying my produce locally, as there is obviously a lot of waste (and sometimes human rights issues) associated with importing products from farther away.
Became a bulk foods expert (and taught a few others): I was still working through a lot of anxiety at the time I began this journey last year, so it felt scary to do this totally new thing, but I was passionate enough about reducing my plastic waste that I was able to push past my fear. It ended up being really easy to bring my own containers to Whole Foods.
You have a store associate weigh your containers at the customer service counter and then you go fill them with whatever bulk foods you want! At the checkout register, they charge you by weight for the product, subtracting the weight of the container. It does make the cashier’s job easier if you can provide the PLU number (found on the label of each bulk bin), so record this in your phone as you are filling your containers so that the cashier doesn’t have to take the time to look up each of the numbers for your products!
Every time I go to Whole Foods, at least one other customer asks me about my containers and expresses an interest in bringing their own containers after I explain a little bit. I always feel so happy when I’m able to inspire someone to think about reducing their waste.
Refused straws and other disposable products at restaurants: It wasn’t until starting to become zero waste that I noticed how many restaurants automatically put a straw in your drink. It soon became second nature to order my water with “no straw, please!”
I’ve seen too many horrible videos of scientists digging straws and plastic cutlery from the noses of sea turtles, and I want to make sure I’m not contributing to their suffering.
Most of my dining in the past year was at the cheaper restaurants at Disney World, where they serve their meals on a paper plate, and you can get plastic cutlery from the condiment area. I bought a portable spork and carried that with me at all times so that I didn’t need to add more disposable cutlery to the landfills and oceans.
Never shopping without my reusable bags: Before, I used my reusable bags most of the time with the exception of sometimes when I would forget to bring them. My awakening came when, once again, I learned how sea turtles are affected by plastic bags that end up in the ocean. The turtles mistake the bags for jellyfish and eat them; since the bag can’t be digested, it stays in the turtle’s stomach and makes it feel full, so that the turtle eventually starves to death.
With this knowledge, it was easy to set the ground rule for myself that if I don’t have my reusable bag, I don’t go shopping. End of story. This helped me get better at remembering to always put my reusable bags back in my car so I’d have them when I needed them. While traveling, I have a fold-up reusable bag that fits easily in my pocket, and if I’m in another country, I make sure to learn enough of the local language that I can say “No plastic bag, please” and gesture to the one I brought.
Joined the Facebook page: There are a few zero-waste Facebook pages. I joined the vegan one, and I’m amazed at how much I’ve learned. As with any group of people, there are some who are frustratingly aggressive or take things way too far, but overall, most of the other zero-waste vegans I’ve interacted with are just trying to help others live more sustainable lives.
Changed my buying habits: Zero waste does not apply only to food habits. I started to evaluate the packaging of other items as well as the resources required to make them. For this reason, I started to avoid buying new items except when absolutely necessary.
When I do have to buy new things, I try to make sure I’m buying something that will last a long time, even if it means paying extra for higher quality. Everything else, I manage to thrift. Clothing especially is responsible for a lot of resource depletion and pollution, so not only do I feel good about saying no to fast fashion, but I also enjoy the challenge of finding things in thrift shops that are my style or that I can alter to fit my tastes, now that I’ve learned how to use my sewing machine.
Using bar soap and shampoo: My first visit to Lush wasn’t until a few months ago, but I now swear by my my Godiva shampoo bar. Nothing is wrapped in plastic at Lush, so you can choose between paper wrapping or buying a travel tin; I bought my shampoo bar just before my flight to Hong Kong, so I paid a little extra for the travel tin. I’d been skeptical that a shampoo bar would have the same power as bottled shampoo to wash out the grease in my hair, but my curls are THRIVING more than ever!
Began composting: I made my own little compost bins out of some small trash cans that I thrifted. That way, all my kitchen scraps were able to be returned to the earth rather than rotting in a plastic bag in a landfill.
Made my own hankies: My first big sewing project was taking several thrifted shirts ($2.50 total), cutting them up into squares (or square-ish pieces), and then hemming the edges. They aren’t the prettiest things, but does something you blow snot into really need to be aesthetically pleasing?
I made some special ones for the kitchen as well, so that instead of using paper towels, I have a steady supply of kitchen rags to clean up spills or use as napkins. I also made some for the bathroom, which I use to wipe after peeing. This way, the only paper products I dispose of are when I needed to use toilet paper for other bathroom visits.
Contacting companies: I haven’t done much of this yet, but there have been a few times when I was unwittingly served something that came in styrofoam or a plastic container, and I later left feedback with the restaurant, thanking them for providing great food and customer service, but requesting that they consider using less disposable plastic in the future and briefly explaining why it’s important to do so.
What’s left to do:
Become more educated! As much as I like to bill myself as an eco-princess, I’m not going to pretend that every single thing I do is perfectly sustainable. I’m doing what I can, but I know I need to learn more so I can try to phase out any other harmful practices I may still be doing. Becoming more educated will also allow me to better educate others.
Continue contacting companies and inspiring others: In all honesty, the amount of trash reduced by one person going zero waste isn’t going to cause very much change. However, I feel that one person who is zero waste can inspire many other people to evaluate the sustainability in their own lives. Eventually, as more people become conscious of the negative effects of things like single-use plastic, we will be able to put pressure on companies and lawmakers, who have more power to effect change.
Miscellaneous: I would like to be involved in projects such as cleaning trash from Florida’s beaches. I’d like to travel and learn about sustainability practices in other parts of the world. I want to learn about why various habitats are at risk and how we can help them survive. Eventually, I would love if I could get a job that allows me to work on sustainability projects.
I am surprised at the change I’ve noticed just in the time since I’ve first become zero waste. I have seen friends become insistent on not using straws, I’ve noticed companies moving toward more eco-friendly policies, and I’ve spoken to a lot of people who are reducing their consumption of animal products.
There’s so much work left to do to decrease the plastic pollution that humans are producing, but I do feel like many people are starting to take steps in the right direction!