5 Things I Learned From Living Zero Waste

Five days, five ways to reduce waste

Illustrated by Jihyang Lim

I grew up in a household where we preferred paper over plastic, always recycled, and even grew our own vegetables. (You could say our family was greener than most.) So it wasn't until college that I really began noticing how much waste we, as a society, accumulate. Dining halls throw out massive quantities of food on a daily basis. Frat lawns are scattered with plastic jugs and aluminum cans. Most off-campus landlords don't even provide recycling bins for tenants. By the time I graduated, I was fed up with all the trash quite literally. 

A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon the zero waste movement. Those who live this lifestyle advocate for restructuring current systems in order to more easily recycle and reuse materials, with the eventual goal of dramatically decreasing global waste. Encompassing everything from buying used clothing to making one's own laundry detergent, the lifestyle has recently gained increased recognition thanks to blogs like Trash Is for Tossers and Zero Waste Home.

My resolution in 2017 is to reduce waste, so I decided to try living waste-free for a little while and see what it was like. I enlisted the help of Lauren Singer, Trash is for Tossers blogger and founder of The Simply Co., to help me on my journey. She told me that while the lifestyle seems daunting at first, there are several easy steps most people can take to reduce their waste emissions. Below, see what I learned from my time living waste-free (or as close to it as possible).

Living a zero waste lifestyle doesn't happen overnight, and you can't let perfect become the enemy of good.
Singer prefaced our chat by warning me that living completely waste-free is "impossible." Basically, my experiment was over before it even began. She quickly assured me that it is, however, possible to take huge steps toward reducing one's waste in as little as a day. There are several positive changes the average person can make to reduce the global impact of landfills. One great place to start is replacing plastic containers with glass—just be sure to donate or recycle the plastic. Zero Waste Home recommends swapping out disposable items like plastic bags and paper towels for reusables like cloth totes and towels. You can also use a bamboo toothbrush, which is not only recyclable but also less toxic for our bodies. Oh, and for periods? You can actually insert a reusable menstrual cup, a sustainable alternative to pads or tampons.

Making your own products is quick, easy, and affordable—and not at all crunchy.
When it came time to make my own toothpaste, I imagined I would feel like the lovechild of a hippie and Bear Grylls. To my surprise, Singer's three-ingredient toothpaste recipe made my mouth feel cleaner than ever. The combination of baking soda, peppermint essential oil, and coconut oil is a match made in antibacterial heaven. When stored in a glass container, the mixture becomes extra-sustainable. On her site, Singer also provides an alternative to deodorant made from arrowroot powder, baking soda, and coconut oil. Still not convinced? Though Singer herself doesn't recommend any beauty brands, I found that stores like Lush and Whole Foods offer solid shampoo and soap you can buy package-free. 

Buying recycled clothing is significantly more rewarding than fast fashion. 
As per Singer, I hit up my local Buffalo Exchange to shop for secondhand threads. My mission? To find a party look that stood out among a sea of Zara knockoffs. I scored a unique pair of square-toed metallic gold heels and an embroidered velvet dress. I looked great, and the fact that I shopped responsibly made me feel that much more confident.

Always plan ahead.
Singer explained to me that the best way to navigate everyday life is to come stocked with silverware, cloth, and glass containers. While I wasn't ready to commit to lugging a 32-ounce mason jar to my local takeout joint, I found that something as simple as bringing my own fork saved me a lot of plastic. Shopping in bulk, using mesh produce bags, and bringing a reusable tote to grocery shop are other easy ways to be prepared.

Where you spend your dollar matters.
At the end of the day, a few individuals might not make a huge difference, but if we stop supporting unethical corporations and other major sources of waste, it just might add up. Going vegetarian is one of the easiest ways to reduce water usage and carbon dioxide emissions. Eating only at restaurants in line with this philosophy—for example, local, farm-to-table eateries—is another way to say no to waste. Even buying products from zero waste-friendly companies helps: Singer's non-toxic The Simply Co. laundry detergent line, packaged entirely in glass jars, is just one great option. Ultimately, "getting started is the most important part," she says. 

How did I do overall? Making these changes while celebrating the holidays and moving to a new apartment posed challenges. (Wrapping paper, greeting cards, packaged snacks, and cardboard boxes aren't exactly eco-friendly.) In terms of what I could control, some of the things I experimented with definitely made a lasting impact. I've started carrying a metal fork with me to my office and using glass containers for my lunches. By cooking instead of ordering takeout, I'm saving money, eating better, and ridding my body of toxic chemicals in addition to lowering my environmental footprint. I'm frequenting my local consignment shop in Brooklyn, New York, way more than heading to Zara. Most importantly, I'm making an effort to share these changes with everyone around me in order to keep myself accountable and encourage others to reduce their waste, too.