There is a woman who fit two years of her trash in a jar. Two years of stuff in one jar. That was all her trash.
There’s another woman I found who goes around Manhattan to CVS stores looking through the garbage. She gifts or keeps the excellent things they’re tossing then posts it on her Instagram. She does curb alerts, trash rescues, and has crusaded all the way to the top–CVS corporate.
Hard core zero wasters are cool. I want to be one… the question is… can I?
One of my favorites–Zero Wasters like “Zero Waste Chef” who can make a banana peel into a bathroom full of personal care products, I’m convinced, and can cook dinner out of anything remaining in your fridge.
I lurk in a zero-waste groups so I learn to be like them. But, I often walk away feeling like a failure. “Look at that Hellman’s jar! You know perfectly well how to make mayonnaise!” My inner voice yells at me a lot.
For a while, I was feeling really good about my waste reduction campaign. I’ll recycle anything not nailed to the ground, and nobody loves composting more than me. I brought my own bags to the store years before it was cool, when I couldn’t get a cashier to understand I wanted her to put…the…things…in…MY…bag instead of bag it in theirs and put that bag in mine.
After I got my family to use my kitchen rags and fancy cloth napkins, I went to the next step–avoiding clamshells and excess packaging, and cooking from scratch.
This fit well with the spirit of the Poser Homestead. Before long, I was making cookies, condiments, and most of my breads, growing some basic things and eating eggs from my very own chickens. I was buying bulk and continuing my recycling crusade.
There were two problems–some things just taste gross when I try to recreate them. I got in trouble for not buying oreos and for my homemade ketchup. And when I looked in the cabinets and closets, I still saw an awful lot of jars and packages.
I had to ask myself–did I really want to be zero waste… or was I a “waste poser” too?
Challenges to zero waste
Challenge One: “None of your recycling matters–it all goes to the same place.”
There’s a dirty truth about recycling. Not much gets recycled. People either don’t recycle, or don’t recycle correctly, which means workers have to throw out entire batches of unwashed jars or actual garbage that can’t easily be separated out.
“It all gets dumped in the same place. I’ve seen it.” My husband worked a trucking job that brought him to the landfill. “Don’t fool yourself thinking you’re recycling that peanut butter jar.”
This episode of Planet Money explains the process of recycling and why many places in America stopped. In a nutshell–America used to send recyclables overseas. Now, places like China don’t want it. In 2018, China stopped taking US garbage–effectively stalling global recycling. But, even before China decided not to take on the world’s pollution, the US was only really recycling (what you consider recycling… ) 9% of what people put in the bin.
Sounds dishonest, doesn’t it? Without a destination for our waste, there’s almost no point to continuing the charade. Some places–like where I live–continue to pick up the bins. It took years to train citizens to recycle.
Other places, like my parents county, stopped their programs altogether.
Challenge Two: I like toilet paper… and other things.
I have friends who have eliminated things like toilet paper, shampoo, deodorant, and tampons. Even if I, myself, could do these things–which I’m not sure I can–I would have a family mutiny on my hand.
Things went okay when I stopped buying paper towels–people looked for regular towels in The Drawer, used them, then tossed them all over the place so I could hunt down loads of laundry. Reusable toilet paper–or “family cloth” as my friends call it, is pretty logistically simple. If you’ve cloth diapered a baby, at least one person in your family has had reusable toilet paper. How difficult can it be to make a nice clean basket where the tissues now sit on the back of the toilet. Take one, use it, then toss it in The Bucket which will then–I assume–get washed and bleached like a cloth diaper would.
I could also call up the plumber and install a bidet, like many people rushed to do during the Great Covid Toilet Paper Shortage. We could, I suppose, get rid of toilet paper pretty easily.
And, for kleenexes, we could buy and wash handkerchiefs. Diva cups replace tampons and pad for many women. And there are several recipes for making shampoos, soaps, and personal hygiene products waste free.
The bathroom can be pretty close to zero waste if we want it to be. The problem: I don’t. I’m not washing friends and family poop nor stuffing virus germs in my pocket to reuse and dry over and over again. And, every time I try to make homemade personal products they don’t work or I walk around smelling like rotten dinner. The zero-waste bathroom is a big fail for me.
Challenge Three: The kitchen
Now that I know that Hellman’s mayo jar is sitting in a landfill forever, I stop and think in the kitchen. This is my area of expertise. If there’s one room in the house where I can go zero-waste it should be the kitchen.
But, even this room defeats me.
The problem with the zero-waste kitchen is this–it’s still not zero waste. We don’t have a lot of bulk stores here. You can go to Whole Foods and buy flour out of bins that they got packaged in bigger packages and dumped in those bins so you didn’t see their packaging. You feel better and have some plausible deniability, but it’s not zero waste.
And, there are things I buy that I have to buy. I’m not going to ferment my own soy sauce or travel to Italy to have someone refill a five-gallon gas can with freshly-pressed olive oil.
Other behaviors: Amazon and Online Shopping
The world’s shifting to shopping online, especially after the Covid quarantine. I’ve Amazoned entire holidays. It’s miraculous–I go online, click a few times and never have to go to the store. But, no matter what I buy, it comes in a box big enough to make into a tree fort. Entire rainforests die when I buy a sprouting lid for my mason jar. That’s the opposite of zero waste, which makes me feel guilty. I don’t want to go shopping–and more and more stores aren’t stocking things I want anyway. I have to get things on line. But, can I do it in a way that makes me a little less of a tree kicker and more of the tree hugger I once was?
CAN I DO BETTER?
Here are the easy things I did in the beginning to approach zero waste.
- Stopped using one-use bottles. I have a Berkey water pitcher and I refill bottles and jars with water. The Berkey isn’t cheap (I got mine on eBay, my friend got hers at a garage sale because no one knew what it was). Its stainless steel, totally hippie approved, and the filters last about 4 years. This is a no-brainer.
- Bring my Yeti mug with me. This is the best coffee mug ever. I’d wash it out and bring it to the barista if I was on the road, or just fill it myself if possible–I didn’t skimp on the coffee I bought and made, so I wasn’t cheating myself.
- Got rid of paper towels and napkins. My family was on board with this. Guests get confused, but we help them through it. We have an emergency roll of paper towels for dog situations, and an emergency pack of napkins for guests who really can’t adjust.
- Bought reusable silicone bags and containers for lunch. I used mason jars, a tiffin box, and bento gear, too.
- Wrap my sandwich in cloth. Since I often bake bread, it’s odd shapes. I just plop it on the stone and bake “rustic” style. So, I wrap it in cloth napkins “furoshiki” style when I was teaching. It was waste free and odd looking, so I could explain the philosophy to anyone who asked.
- Used my cloth bags for shopping, or skip bagging altogether. Post-covid, no one lets me bring in my bags, so I load my groceries back in the carriage just like they do in the warehouse and discount stores, and I bag them at my car.
- Get off junk mail lists and convert my bills to digital. Paper mail is so last century. Not only is it wasteful, but it’s a security risk, too. People steal credit card statements, phone bills, and utility bills for identity theft and other nefarious purposes. Keep your waste factor down and your security up by checking “e-statement” to everything you can.
- Refused straws. I never liked them anyway.
- Ate out instead of ordering takeout. Or, cooked at home. We’re not close to takeout–we’re in the forest a bit. Food tastes better when someone brings it to me hot. I avoid takeout as much as possible and go to the chef, or just cook at home most nights, really.
- Used less. I still get the products Iike, but I used less, or got large containers of things like shampoo and put them in small pump bottles in the shower. My family uses remarkably less product when it looks like there’s a normal amount. It seems like they pour the shampoo down the drain if it looks like there’s a gallon. Someone did a study on this once, and it’s a real thing. Invest in a pump bottle. You’ll see.
I’m shifting, over time, away from recycling, as you can see, and moving toward conserving, using less, and reusing.
PHASE TWO: Getting closer to zero.
After taking all the chip shots, I was ready to dive deeper.
- Buy bulk foods.
- Bring jars and reusable produce bags to stores.
But, I discovered bulk wasn’t always less waste, and now–post Covid–you can’t bring your jars and bags to the store, and I’m not sure how I feel about sharing a public flour bin at a time I’m barely out of the house.
My compromise was to try to shop things wrapped in paper instead of plastic (a ten-pound bag of flour, for example), and buy online from companies I knew also shipped efficiently. Azure Standard is one.
And, before I buy something in a jar or box, I look carefully at it and ask, “Can I make that and have it taste great?” For things like mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, yogurt, sour cream, salad dressings, and many other thing I use, the answer’s a clear yes. For each one I make, that’s one container I’m not wasting.
PHASE THREE: WHEN TO SAY “NO WAY!”
I compost. I reuse, I refuse to take in junk, and I upcycle. Right now, I’m okay with a little bit of “packaged product.”
We have toilet paper, but I buy one-ply. The reason (warning: this is an extended family argument) is that I feel people use the same length no matter if it’s one ply or seven. So, we use less buying standard Scott tissue.
I switched to applicator-free tampons. It’s not zero waste, but it’s about two-thirds less.
I make iced tea, coffee, brew beer and kombucha (no one-use bottles!). I can meats, meals, and jams. I dehydrate. I reuse the containers from the deli for freezer stocking.
“One thing at a time.”
It’s like peeling back layers of an onion
Going zero waste is very, very difficult. I’d have to grow all my food or get it from no-wrap places, not use fertilizer bags or sprays, only buy things in permanent containers or compostable packaging, avoid paper products, wear the same clothes or thrift shop locally, and rip every single straw out of my 12-year old’s hand.
But there are things I can do…
- look for things in my local “buy nothing” group before I go shopping
- shop on Poshmark or thrift instead of buying new clothes.
- shop at farms or grow things–no packaging there.
- cook from scratch–even though technically ingredients have packaging, it’s less. For example, I have a milk jug from buying milk, but I don’t have all the little yogurt plastics since I make my own. Every little bit helps!
That’s what the Poser Homestead philosophy is all about–do the next great thing every day.
There are people out there that never do a single thing. I’m doing what I can, and tomorrow, I’ll do a little more by doing these simple things:
Analyze,” and “act.”
- Analyze my daily routine and note where you could pick a zero-waste option.
- Act on that, one thing at a time.
How do I approach zero waste without being insane?
For each thing I use and do, I pause. I ask myself, “Is this the lowest waste option I can realistically use? If no, I change my ways. If “yes,” (I need coffee and it comes in a bag. It’s that simple), I don’t feel guilty.
“Realistically” includes budget, too. Some zero-waste “environmental” options are unaffordable for the average person. There are companies with reusable containers that ship you refilled product–but it’s out of reach for the average budget.
Do what you can, one layer of the onion at a time. That’s my plan these days. I’ll update this and let you know how far I get. I may not get to be zero waste like the pros, but I’ll put a dent in my waste, I promise!