Above: Here’s all my recycling from September. To give you a sense of the quantity, it all fits inside of my shopping tote & market basket.
1.) “Isn’t ‘Zero Waste’ impossible to achieve?”
2.) “If a zero waste activist has a trash jar, why don’t they include landfill trash, recycling, AND composting Isn’t it all waste?”
3.) WHAT does a zero waste activist recycle?
These are some of the most common questions I hear people ask about the zero waste lifestyle. My Answers: 1.) Yes, ‘zero waste’ is impossible to achieve but the goal of the movement is to always move in the direction of zero and to make a difference in any way you can. 2.) Because that would just be unrealistic and take up a lot of space. And be gross. Mostly gross! However, I do consider the landfill waste, recycling, and compost that I produce to all be part of my waste. More on this in a moment. 3.) Well, let me give you a tour of my recycling! (Never thought I’d be so excited about this…)
Ultimately, I believe the reason that zero waste activists show jars that only contain landfill waste is not because they are trying to be deceptive about the waste that they are recycling or composting. Landfill waste is the worst offender, as well as the most harmful to our planet and our health, because it never truly goes away or breaks down fully; alternatively, composting and recycling do cultivate a more circular economy when done properly and in moderation. Activists use trash jars to illustrate that you can live a happy, fulfilling, rewarding life without producing 1.5 tons of landfill waste per year. (Yes, that’s how much trash the average human being creates in a year.) Zero wasters like Lauren Singer or Bea Johnson both live exciting, rewarding, and incredibly impactful lives, and each of them only makes a handful (literally) of trash a year. Both of these women also recycle and compost to live the way they do. But just because you can recycle an item doesn’t mean that it actually gets recycled. Often times, collection plants send recyclable items to the landfill because demand is low for a particular material. And that is why myself and countless other activists work to recycle less and not more in our daily lives.
My focus is to produce as little waste as I possibly can each day. ‘As little waste as possible’ is going to look very different from person to person depending on resources and where you live. For me personally, I actively try to reduce any waste that needs to be thrown away, recycled, or composted. In December of 2015, I targeted the worst offender: I worked to eliminate any trash I was producing that was landfill-bound. I wanted to eliminate the trash I created on a daily basis that would exist in a dump for hundreds of years.
Initially, reducing my landfill waste resulted in a significant increase in recycling. I traded out products that were packaged in ‘trash’ and opted for products packaged in recyclable or compostable materials. But again, the key to zero waste isn’t to simply recycle or compost more. The lifestyle is about learning to live with less. It’s as simple as that! Less waste, less stuff, less impact, more joy.
As as I continue to discover more and more bulk (package free) products in my area, I am slowly cutting down my waste across all three areas of waste.
Here’s all my recyclable waste from September that I consider ‘essential’. This is just an average, it’s not reflective of every single month. (For reference, I eat a plant based diet.)
Yes, I could have made my own flax milk, cooked pasta sauce from scratch, ditched the tortilla chips and beans from my diet, decided to never eat pasta again… those choices would have eliminated a lot of waste. At the end of the day, I will not sacrifice my mental health, lose excessive amounts of sleep or time, or drive miles away to find a package-free replacement. Making sacrifices and lifestyle changes are an important part of the zero waste journey but ‘slow and steady’ is my chosen path. That’s why it took me 2 years to get where I am and I still have a ways to go.
Flax Milk: A few months back, I wrote all about making flax milk at home. It is easy and affordable but the shelf life is only 4-5 days. I traveled all over the U.S. in September. When life gets hectic, I will buy a half gallon of plant-based milk simply because it can last 3 or more weeks in the fridge. I can come home late at night from a long trip and have milk on hand.
Jovial Pasta: This brown rice pasta is outrageously delicious. The noodles aren’t packaged in any plastic and the box itself is made entirely of paper. Even the clear window is plant-based: it is made from wood pulp. The box is fully compostable at home but I usually recycle clean paper, as it has a very high value at recycling centers these days.
Refried Beans: These vegan refried black beans are a great source of protein and the perfect compliment to tacos, nachos, fajitas, or eating them on their own as a snack. I have yet to try making these myself, its on my list of ‘to dos’!
Mid’s Pasta Sauce: This sauce is from a family-run business in Ohio, a few towns over from where I grew up. My mom will buy me jars and bring them when she comes to visit. This is my favorite pasta sauce, hands down. I haven’t found another brand that even comes close in terms of deliciousness. I do make my own sauces at home but I haven’t been able to master the flavor profile that I like in a red sauce. (Wow..does that make me sound SO pretentious? Nah, I just really wanted to use the phrase ‘flavor profile’.) I often keep the glass jars to make cleaner using lemon peels and vinegar.
Paper Bag: To avoid the non-recyclable plastic bag from tortilla chips, I buy my chips from one of two places: El Paso (a local Mexican Restaurant) or Chipotle. Again, sometimes I will compost these bags if I need extra ‘brown’ materials to balance out the carbon to nitrogen ratio of my compost barrel. But if I don’t need the paper and it is clean, I recycle it.
Foil: Did you know that aluminum foil is recyclable, so long as it is clean and consolidated into a tight ball? I buy tortillas from El Paso (the same local Mexican restaurant where I get salsa + chips). Sometimes the staff will put the tortillas directly into my produce bag, sometimes they will wrap them in foil first. I also ate a vegan burrito from Chipotle this month, so I washed the foil and recycled that, too.
Laundry Soap: Tangie’s laundry paste is amazing stuff! The paste looks like a large bar of soap and it comes packaged in a little cardboard box that is compostable. You drop the paste into a gallon of water overnight to dilute it and you end up with 264 loads of liquid laundry soap! Talk about awesome.
Dishwasher Detergent: I live in a house with 3 other girls and we take turns buying items like dish soap, detergent, and toilet paper. I always buy dishwasher detergent and compostable dish brushes so that I can get the most eco-friendly, zero waste options available. I don’t have access to package free soaps so I buy Seventh Generation products (best option).
Toilet Paper: I share a bathroom with 2 girls and we take turns buying toilet paper. I use between 4 – 6 rolls per month. Keep in mind that I travel, I spend 10 hours of my day at work or commuting to/ from work, and I most definitely pee in the shower in the morning to avoid a needless flush and save paper. Judge me, I dare you! You’ve never peed in the shower, I am sure…
Prescriptions/ Supplements: This month I finished a bottle of my anti-depressant, my anti-anxiety, and a supplement called DIM, which is an amazing supplement for skin health if you suffer from acne!
Prescription Papers: Ah, the annoying papers that the pharmacy prints with every prescription I pick up. It’s not like I don’t already know the warnings + instructions on how to take a med I’ve been on for 2 years…
This Day: A daily prayer book, great for guided prayer/ meditation and it is fully recyclable.
Misc: Tags from a ‘new’ purse and a computer bag, unavoidable scraps of paper from work venues and hotels, flyers left on my car windshield… annoying papers that found their way into my life.
Personal Mail: This is the tiny amount of mail that I received this month and actually cared about…largely consisting of wedding invites, save the dates, and my bi-monthly paycheck deposit confirmation letter.
These recyclables reveal some of my weaknesses. I don’t need to drink alcohol or soda or eat popcorn or ice cream. But I believe life is about moderation. I really do work hard to avoid as much packaging as I can, and perhaps I fall short more often or make more small exceptions than other activists. Laying out my recycling to take pictures for this post did make me realize that I could cut my recyclable waste by making small, easy changes. Slow and steady!
Hard Cider (+ caps): I’ve never been a big beer drinker… or a coffee drinker… or a liquor drinker… I basically hate all that is good in the world. Nah, I just have a pallet for sweets! I usually opt for ciders or wine. I just discovered that my grocery store sells growlers that are very affordable and they currently have a local cider on tap.
Wine: I live in the heart of Virginia wine country…and I have yet to find a winery that sells wine refills. Wine is something I could give up but I DO enjoy it. That $5 pino grigio in a glass bottle has me all heart-eyed. I keep the corks in a kitchen drawer for future use, and they can be composted. Oh, and I discovered a spot near my office that collects wine corks and turns them into yoga mats and yoga blocks!
Apple Cider: My family went to a Harvest Festival last month. I had my trusty water bottle but my boyfriend and I decided to splurge on some ice cold, locally made drinks in glass bottles.
Carnival Treats: At the same Harvest Fest, we snacked on freshly popped popcorn and french fries. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get either food in my own container but both the paper box and the paper boat are clean and recyclable.
Plastic Tray: My colleague had a monthly subscription to a snack deliver service. She’d get little snack packs of nuts /seeds /dried fruit delivered to her house. Half of the time, she didn’t like what the company sent her. Most of the snacks were vegan so I would eat the ones she was going to throw away. (She unsubscribed.)
Ice Cream Carton: In my county, the recycling centers accept waxed cartons, including milk cartons and tetrapaks. Ice cream containers are similar to beverage cartons, I was told they can also be recycled. So I rinse ice cream cartons out and recycle them with the clean, dry paper. Current favorite plant-based ice cream: Nada-Moo.
Soda Cans: Well this is just embarrassing! I almost never buy soda. (I know, it’s basically like drinking tar.) But my office has free sodas in the fridge… soooo, when life gets insanely busy and I am completely and utterly sleep deprived, I can either pay between $2 and $5 for chai tea at a local coffee shop…or I can drink a soda with breakfast. Oy vey.
DoTerra Soap: I bought a bar of DoTerra Serenity soap with some of my extra points. Unfortunately, the bar was wrapped in plastic inside of a paper box AND the soap contains palm oil. Sigh, I should have done my research before hand. It smells lovely, if that counts for anything.
Scrap Paper: Recyclable thrift store receipts, candy wrapper, a pizza coupon.
I’ll be honest with you: I have NOT been persistent enough in shutting my junk mail problem down. My goal for the rest of 2017 is to get myself off ALL of these mailing lists and sign up for every possible ‘do not mail’ list I can possible register for. I am going to start with Eco-Cycle’s tips for stopping junk mail.
Moving clockwise, top left corner: 1.) Magazines 2.) Credit card offers. 3.) Ads from local businesses. 4.) Request for donations or membership offers from charities. (Environmental organizations in particular should be ashamed of wasting SO much paper by sending me solicitations.)
Perspective: here is my landfill waste from September. Curious about my trash? Check out August’s audit! It consists of receipts, plastic jar seals, airline tags (I often have to check a bag for work trips), jar and produce stickers, food wrappers, shipping labels, and other miscellaneous plastic trash. I had a pretty rough go with anxiety at the end of September, leaving me depleted and craving every non-vegan food you can imagine. I bought myself some vegan cheezes and a burrito to satiate the cravings. It’s a shame that the majority of vegan foods come in plastic packaging that can’t be recycled.
(Spoiler alert: I save A LOT of money living a zero waste lifestyle.)