My passion for zero waste began about a year and a half ago. Before this journey, I was just an average 20-something-year-old struggling to find a career path I was truly passionate about pursuing. But now, I can look back on my life and see how individual moments helped form and inspire me to join this movement. For the first time in my life, I know I am exactly where I belong, participating in a lifestyle that I am truly passionate about. I hope to make the world a more beautiful and just place by sharing my story and helping others take steps towards a greater respect for our common home.
Left: A glimpse into my bulk pantry shows spice jars that I refill at a local spice shop and glass containers filled with a variety of package-free, dry goods from the dispensers at the local grocery store. Right: To avoid plastic bags at the grocery store, I either bring a basket to carry all my produce or I use cloth produce bags and canvas shopping bags.
In January of 2016, I sat on a non-stop flight from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles and read Bea Johnson’s book, Zero Waste Home. Johnson is the founder of the zero waste movement and she began transitioning her family to this “new” lifestyle in 2008. I read Johnson’s book cover-to-cover before we even touched down in California. Dare I say it, but I am not a person who enjoys leisure reading; I probably only read 3 books a year, at the MOST! But I couldn’t put Johnson’s book down. 5 hours and 300 pages later and I felt like a whole new world had opened up before me. Unfortunately, it was a messy, trash-filled world that needed our immediate attention. Book gripped to my chest, slack-jawed, and head spinning, I de-boarded the plane and knew that my consumerist habits couldn’t stay the same.
In Johnson’s book, one statistic stood out to me that I will never forger: the average American adult produces over 1.5 tons of trash per year. Chew on that for a second!
I grew up with my family in a small, depressed steel town in the Ohio Valley. My mother, a native of Austria, was accustomed to sorting and recycling items into numerous different categories, including paper, plastic, aluminum, glass (by color), compost, scrap metal, medical waste, electronic waste, and more. For as long as I can remember, my family had a recycling station set-up in our kitchen. America doesn’t quite do things the Austrian way but my family sorted all of our recyclables into one of four bins: aluminum, glass, paper, and plastic, Each week, we would bag up the bins and deposit them at a nearby recycling center. My parents still live in my childhood home in Ohio and to this day, there is no curb-side recycling offered by the city. Every week, my parents continue to drive to the drop-off location a couple miles down the road.
While growing up, my father kept a small garden in our back yard where he grew tomatoes and various other fruits and veggies and herbs. I enjoyed seeing new life burst forth as spring turned into summer. I was most excited about the strawberry and raspberry plants because I would snack on them with my friends while we played outside in the summer heat. But I can’t say I took a particular interest in either recycling or gardening as a child. I always grumbled and pouted when it was my turn to take out the recycling, and I mostly watched from afar as my father tended the garden to avoide being asked to help plant or prune. (Sorry, Mom and Dad!) But both of these memories have remained so vivid over the last 20+ years and I can see how those activities and chores served as stepping stones towards my current love of a simple, zero waste lifestyle.
My initial discovery of the zero waste lifestyle actually happened in 2010 when I stumbled across Bea Johnson’s Zero Waste Home blog. I was blown away by the fact that a family of four could fit all of their trash from a couple of years into a 1-liter jar. But after reading a bit about Johnson and her family, their lifestyle became a distant memory. I was studying biology in college at the time but environmental courses were not required for the pre-medicine track that I was on, so I opted not to take a single environmental class. In short, I had no apparent interest in the environment. Yet.
I have always been a bargain hunter and a thrift shopper. I am not much of a D.I.Y. girl but I have a gift for finding treasures. When I landed a full-time job as an event planner in college, I set aside money for what I believed were great deals on cheap, discounted clothes and accessories. I found myself continuously buying things I didn’t really need. I ended up with quite the wardrobe in college, everything organized by season and color and style. And yet, I would wake up, open the closet, and feel like I had nothing to wear. I ate a healthy diet through college but I never really considered buying things without packaging, bringing my own grocery bags, or trying to make more foods from scratch. I had convenience at my fingertips, which was both a blessing and a curse. I saw exactly how much food waste and trash I threw away each week, but I never really considered the truth: there is no such thing as ‘away’.
Throughout college and into my 20’s, I had a constant yearning to buy new, pretty things or food in order to fill this void that I felt in my chest. A void that I thought could be filled with stuff that I found for “a great deal”. But I found the reverse to be true: the more belongings I owned, the emptier I seemed to feel at the end of the day. As my college years were drawing to an end, I was struggling to feel like I had a place in the world and that I would ever find a career I felt called to pursue. That was the void I was feeling. I knew I could continue down the road to become a doctor but I wasn’t truly passionate about the idea and something didn’t feel right. I decided not to apply for medical schools and in September of 2014, I packed up all of my belongings and moved to Springfield, VA (a suburb of D.C.) to look for work. After a few months of searching while working retail and waitressing, I took a job as an event planner in Washington, D.C. The job allowed me to grow and thrive as a young profesional, challenging me in new ways and allowing me to use my organizational skills on a daily basis. But something was still missing.
When I rediscovered Bea Johnson and several other zero waste activists (Lauren Singer; Katherine Kellogg) in 2016, the reality of our society’s consumption and waste problem hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew I was a part of the problem and I wanted to make a change. I went out and purchased Johnson’s book a few days later and my journey truly began.
After reading Zero Waste Home on the plane to LA, I had a zillion questions and I felt like I saw nothing but trash. I was completely overwhelmed thinking about how much harm we as a society (myself included) are causing to the environment. “How do I find eco-friendly, waste-free alternatives?”; “How do I combat our disposable society as an individual”; “How can one person do anything to protect our oceans and forests?”; “WHY am I so scared to ask the server not to give me a straw in my drink when I am at dinner with friends?!” I asked myself questions like this day in and day out for months. I scoured the internet for research articles, documentaries, and eco-friendly products. I joined on-line zero waste communities, reached out to zero waste bloggers and activists, and began volunteering with The Sierra Club’s Zero Waste Committee. All of this was in an attempt to find answers and educate myself. And what I found was my niche.
If you are just beginning to show interest in reducing your trash output or are already a Zero Waste guru, there is a phrase my colleague shared with me that I think about each day. I think it applies to everyone on this journey: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” I encourage each and every person to take a stand against our disposable society, whether it be small changes or a lifestyle overhaul. Every individual action adds up. Seeing 1-liter trash jars and compost bins and pantries lined with nothing but bulk food stored in glass can be overwhelming, and even feel divisive at times. But don’t let fear or doubt stop you from doing what you can handle today. This journey WILL be messy and imperfect, you will fail and make mistakes. I am still scared to say “no” to certain things and I make mistakes every day! My Instagram feed may depict zero waste perfection, but DON’T be fooled. Each day, I challenge myself to lean into the discomfort that a zero waste lifestyle brings. Together, we can make a difference in protecting our planet and change the way society treats Mother Earth. One small step at a time.
Since purging my life of all the clothes I didn’t wear, appliances I didn’t need, and developing greater confidence to say “no” to needless disposable products and freebies, I truly feel lighter and my heart is much more full. The saying really is true: