There’s a woman I follow who fit two years of her trash in a jar. Two years!
There’s another woman I found who goes around Manhattan to CVS stores rescuing things getting tossed as garbage–“almost” expired products, perfect or seasonal unsold merchandise–anything that shouldn’t be in the trash. She gifts or keeps the good “garbage” then posts it on her Instagram. She does curb alerts, trash rescues, and has crusaded all the way to the top–CVS corporate. Now stores are more intentional about destroying this stuff so it’s not taken out of the trash.
I hope that mentality changes soon.
Hard core zero wasters are cool.
One of my favorites, “Zero Waste Chef,” shows ways to avoid the garbage, plastic, and bags. She can make a banana peel into Ulta-worthy skin care.
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.
But watching these guys, I feel like a failure. I should do better. I’m looking at you, Hellman’s mayo jar in my sink. I’m going to wash it and use it for screws on my workbench. These jars are the perfect size and they don’t smash like mason jars. But I know how to make mayo… I don’t need to buy this to begin with.
But I’m only human…
So, I do what I can humanly do. That’s the spirit of the poser homestead–do your best, learn, and do a little better each day.
Pick the low-hanging fruit.
First, I got rid of paper products. I stopped buying paper towels and napkins, and since nobody else was going to go grocery shopping, they started to use the cloth stuff I put out. The more I started cooking from scratch, the less packaging waste I generated. But, not all products are created equal in packaging land, so now I look for minimally packaged, bulk, and bring-you-own jar places when possible.
Cooking from scratch saved three layers of Oreo and Chips Ahoy plastic: cookies wrapped in mylar-plastic lined up in a plastic tray with an interior shrink wrap of plastic. Making jams, salsas, and condiments eliminated a one-use jar. Making kombucha in reusable flip-top bottles eliminated a lot of soda and beer bottle waste.
I bake bread, make soft cheese, make smoothies, ice creams, yogurts–the food’s better and I’m saving the landfill from packaging.
I’m not even close to zero waste, though. I have a couple hidden “dog towel” paper towel rolls… just in case. I don’t often make that mayo, and the last time I tried to make mustard, it was disgusting. And, there are several processed food items my family won’t give up.
It’s a compromise. If this were real homesteading you could criticize. But, it’s not. It’s “do your best” style. No judgement here.
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, don’t recycle correctly (which ruins entire batches of recycling that can’t be separated out), or people think they’re recycling and the bin gets tossed into the same janitorial cart. I saw that happen for years when I used to teach.
“Don’t fool yourself thinking you’re recycling that peanut butter jar.” My husband drove trucks from a regional transfer station to the dump for a few months. “It all gets dumped in the same place. I’ve seen it.”
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 recycling 9% of what people put in the bin.
My parents’ county stopped their program altogether. My town picks up the bin–it took a long time to train people to recycle–but I don’t know how much gets made into something useful.
Challenge Two: I like toilet paper… and other things.
I have friends who have gone to extremes. Think–diva cups (reusable menstrual cups), cloth toilet paper, bar shampoo. These are not things I want to do.
The idea behind cloth toilet paper makes sense–if you’ve cloth diapered a baby, at least one person in your family has had reusable toilet paper. It makes sense to have a basket for cloth toilet wipes and a diaper-style bin to toss them. They’d get bleached and washed. And now, after the Great Covid Toilet Paper crisis, many people have bidets.
We could, I suppose, get rid of toilet paper pretty easily. I’m not there yet. I also never loved the idea behind the handkerchief–saving germs to spread them to pockets, counters, bedside tables, and then wave them around the air.
I made my own laundry soap with the idea of reducing the carton waste–but it took four cartons to get the stuff to make that one bucket of soap. And, I’ve not yet found waste free personal hygiene or care items that worked. I have more hunting and research to go.
Challenge Three: The kitchen
This is the area where I do the best, but we don’t have a lot of bulk stores here. We have the usual bulk aisle at Whole Foods, but that’s not really zero waste–they dump it from their package into that bin. I save a little plastic, spend a whole lot more money, and it’s still not zero waste.
Other behaviors: Amazon and Online Shopping
The world’s shifting to shopping online. I’ve Amazoned entire holidays. I love not having to go to the store. But even when I choose to, it’s tough because so many store things are out of stock or only online for delivery.
I feel bad shopping online because no matter what I buy, it comes in a box big enough to make a tree fort. I bought a sprouting lid for my mason jar–that’s good. But, an entire rainforest died to get it to me. Not so good. I’m glad to see more recyclable packaging but–now we have to revisit the fact it’s not going to be recycled, don’t we?
CAN I DO BETTER?
Yes. I can. Here are some of the easy things on the “done” list:
- No more one-use bottles. I have a stainless steel water filter pitcher and I have refillable drinking bottles. Savings level: big! Bottled water is expensive and one-use bottles are top of the list to avoid. This is a no-brainer.
- Bring my mug with me. I have a few snooty mugs–my Yeti mug and some Fellow thermoses (a dedicated one for tea only–if you drink tea, you know). I love using them, they don’t taste like whatever I drank last, and the Fellow ones don’t leak. This is an easy savings, too. I’m usually my own barista–I can make coffee, tea, espresso, and lattes like a boss, so this is a waste and cash savings here. Savings level: big!
- Got rid of paper towels and napkins. We have an emergency roll of paper towels for dogs and friends who don’t know how to use a cloth napkin. Savings level: big!
- Use reusable silicone bags and containers for lunch. I used mason jars, a tiffin box, and bento gear before I was remote. My family doesn’t bento, but they’ll use Rubbermaid containers to pack snacks. Savings level: lower.
- Wrap sandwiches in cloth. I often bake bread on a stone. Then, if packing it, I wrap it in cloth napkins “furoshiki” style. It’s waste free and odd looking, which gives me a chance to explain the wrap to anyone who asks. Savings level: low. I’m remote these days.
- Use cloth bags for shopping, or skip bagging altogether. This is easier to do these days. Before, cashiers would look at my reusable bags, and hand me a plastic bag anyway. Now, we’re all in the reuse flow. Savings level: moderate
- Get off junk mail lists and convert my bills to digital. This is not easy, but it’s important. Paper junk mail is wasteful, but unnecessary bills and statements are a security risk, too. People steal credit card statements, phone bills, and utility bills for identity theft. Chose a electronic only for all the bills you can. Here’s the Federal Trade Commission’s opt out page.
- Ditch straws. I have metal boba (thick) and regular straws.
- Skip takeout. I avoid takeout as much as possible because I’m a great cook and we live in the forest–it’s twenty to thirty minutes each way to pick up food. It gets soggy. If I want a chef, I’ll eat out.
- Use less. I get products I can’t find a substitute for, but I use less, or buy in bulk.
I’m shifting away from recycling and moving toward conserving, using less, and reusing as much as I can.
PHASE TWO: Getting closer to zero.
I discovered bulk wasn’t always less waste, and during the pandemic, clamshells and takeout packaging came back in full force. My advice: do the best you can.
I looked for minimal-packaging things wrapped in paper instead of plastic (a ten-pound bag of flour, for example). Before I buy something in a jar or box, I ask, “Can I make this?” For each one I make or learn to make, I’m saving all the future containers.
PHASE THREE: WHEN TO SAY “NO WAY!”
I compost. I reuse, I refuse to take in junk, and I upcycle. 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. For the things I’m not going to stop using (toilet paper), I look for the best products I can find in the least amount of packaging.
It’s like peeling back layers of an onion
Going zero waste is very, very difficult. I’d have to grow all my food, 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 kid’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.
I work to do better each day.
How do I do better without obsessing?
For each thing I use and do, I pause. I ask myself, “Is this the lowest waste option I can realistically use? Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes there’s a better alternative.
“Realistically” includes budget, too. Some zero-waste “environmental” options are unaffordable for the average person. I was rooting for some companies that put mainstream products in reusable containers and swap out the containers like old-school milk delivery. But, I saw the price. Doubling my expenses for the same product isn’t reasonable.
Also, many environmental startups are greenwashing things. You could end up paying more but not really helping the environment.
Do what you can, one layer of the onion at a time. That’s my plan these days. I may not get to be zero waste like the pros, but I’ll put a dent in my waste, I promise!