On October 1st, a group of Ethical Writers and I challenged ourselves to go zero waste for two whole weeks. My experience was both gratifying and frustrating.
You may think 'Zero waste? No way, that's impossible!' Or if you're optimistic to a fault like me, you may think 'easy peasy!' Well, we'd both be wrong. Overall, this challenge showed me that the baby steps that I've taken along the way have amounted to a sizeable impact. My little bubble of control (inside my home and increasingly, at my office) afford me the ability to live almost as sustainably as possible, but that bubble has taken years to construct. The year I bought a reusable bag was not the same year that I began composting my food scraps. My attitude at grocery stores, bodegas and restaurants has turned from helpless to angry to calmly firm over time. This just goes to show that by starting now, by taking that first baby step, you can make a positive impact over a reasonable period of time. And despite the sustainable habits I've developed over the past 7 years having drastically reduced my landfill contributions, this challenge certainly showed me that the bits of waste I still produce are going to be real tough to eliminate. Not impossible, but hard.
Well, I created this blog to document the hard stuff, the actions, reactions & habits that require a little extra attention to improve, and to show myself as well as you that though these things may be tough, they become easier. Attempting to live zero waste, or adopting a vegan lifestyle, or trying to avoid purchasing anything made with slave labor - any of these virtuous endeavors will force one to find as much control over their surroundings as possible. From what we buy at the grocery store and where we eat out to the activities we choose to enjoy and who we choose to enjoy them with, zero waste (or vegan, or slave-labor free) living touches it all.
Good thing I long ago took on the happy role of being that super annoying friend who often dictates or demands what the group will do and where it will eat. A role that also involves gently-but-firmly shaming everyone around me for their habits. Habits like mindlessly eating meat or taking a single use fork or accepting a plastic bag for one f*cking can of soda, that are so easy to perpetuate and are ingrained in our common lifestyles, but that are also reasonably easy to give up. It just takes practice.
We know that waste in landfills is bad. It's gross, it's stupid and it's got to stop for reasons of the environment (landfills leach toxins into groundwater and belch methane into the atmosphere) and reasons of resources (we extract valuable materials from the planet, use them briefly, then toss them in a big stinking pile to slowly - if ever - rot away). We CAN do better than this if we just remember that there is no such thing as 'away.' OK, we'll probably need to remember our reusable bags, too.
Below are my trash items from October 1 - 14. Trash items meaning everything that I could not put in the compost, recycling, or the pile of things to be reused that is currently taking over an entire shelf of my apartment. As you can see from my waste, I am not yet perfect, not yet ZERO waste. And no, it won't be strictly easy for me to get there, but I'm going to keep practicing.
Zero Waste Challenge: The Rules
1. Baseline is not sending anything to the landfill.
2. As long as you can (responsibly) donate it, recycle it or compost it, it doesn't count as waste.
3. However, you can't just throw whatever in there - you have to verify that it can ACTUALLY be composted or recycled in your city's existing systems. For example, in NYC you can't just throw compostable cups into your local garden. And beer caps aren't recyclable.
4. You must document how much waste you produce and why, honestly.
5. That includes waste produced outside of your apartment, like straws, napkins, wrappers, etc.
6. That does not include waste you don't see being produced on your behalf, like plastic wrap behind the scenes at grocery stores or restaurants, because that would be impossible.
Week 1, At Home:
On Saturday I go grocery shopping and pick up my CSA, which mercifully does not offer bags and ties all bunches of greens in compostable strings. Whole Foods, on the other hand, insists on throwing twist-ties, produce stickers and rubber bands into my life. The compost bin in my freezer gets very full this week since I'm being super diligent about putting everything that can go in there, in there.
Shoot. I got excited about wearing new shoes and ended up with a nasty blister. Hello mysteriously not-compostable band-aid.
Double shoot. My kombucha (gut health, yes please) comes with a plastic seal around the cap. I take to Instagram to figure out why and discover that some asshole in 1982 went around dusting Tylenol bottles with cyanide, and so we started sealing things up with plastic. Way to ruin it for everyone, dude.
Week 1, At Work:
I am tasked with cleaning out the storage room, which involves tossing a lot of construction materials in the bin and, when they aren't claimed after a few days of de-beautifying my office space, I toss the unwanted miscellaneous items that emerged from the depths of the storage room, too.
I receive a few boxes of office supplies from Staples. They come swathed in plastic bubble wrap.
High-five to past Faye - I ordered reusable cleaning materials for our office (rags not paper towels) and made sure we got that compost program going. All of my lunches are eaten off real plates with real forks and coffee is made in a reusable filter and consumed from a real mug. Thank goodness for the sustainably-minded BF+DA!
Week 1, Out & About:
Of course the first two days of this challenge we have friends in town. Friends whom I'm not yet comfortable shaming and who, rightly, want to experience NYC via it's numerous restaurants, bars and cafés. We check out Grub Street in the Lower East Side, a few Brooklyn shops & a bagelry (I don't eat there, I just tag along to support my favorite bagel enthusiast), the Hillary Clinton campaign HQ, and Grand Army Bar. Somehow I manage to avoid using all but one paper napkin and one single-use fork that was made from "bioplastic" but labeled "not compostable."
On Monday I head over to the TSA Pre-Check office to pay my $$ and have my fingerprints taken, all for the sake of never waiting in JFK's 2 hour security lines ever again. The very friendly man helping me offers a receipt for my transaction, which I politely refuse, but he hands me two receipts anyway. I am not in the mood to argue.
On Tuesday I attend a swap at Parsons. Hooray for saving my clothing from the landfill! Not hooray for the stickers I am required to put on my person & my items of clothing. No hooray for the plastic cup & lack of recycling bin either.
Wednesday brings unplanned visits to potential sublets & a lazy dinner at some hole-in-the-wall pho establishment afterwards. Pho is yummy in my tummy but single-use chopsticks & paper napkins make me feel just a little bit ill.
The rest of the week passes fairly easily by, with meals cooked at home and a birthday party at an eco-conscious friend's house. That party probably involved some waste, but I wasn't present or party to any of it, phew. Oh, except for that darned bottle cap.
Week 1 Tally
- 1 bottle cap
- 3 paper napkins
- 1 pair single-use chopsticks (and I doubt they recycled the paper wrapper they came in)
- 1 plastic cup
- 4 stickers (and the sheet they came on)
- 2 receipts
- 1 single-use fork
- 3 sheets plastic bubble wrap
- 3 miscellaneous items
- 1 bucketful construction materials
- 3 plastic seals from kombucha bottles
- 5 produce stickers
- 1 rubber band
- 1 twist-tie
- 1 band-aid
Week 2, At Home:
On Saturday we resume our happy practice of pickling, juicing, canning, whatever-ing all of the incredible produce we get in our CSA. My kitchen is a happy place full of hand-jarred goodies with handwritten labels. SH*T my cute little labels aren't compostable or recyclable.
I get lazy and decide to wipe the table/chopping board with a paper towel instead of my usual washcloth. Stupid mistakes.
On Sunday, Jeremia falls ill. We can't find tea that doesn't come in individual teabag wrappers, and when we buy a box thinking the sachets will be free from their foil packets, we find them bunched together in plastic sleeves. WHY?! Regardless, I drink tea in solidarity with Jeremia until on Tuesday, of course, I too fall sick and must drink tea out of necessity. In an attempt to keep our vitamin C levels nice and high, I purchase a bag of oranges at the bodega downstairs. They come in a mesh plastic bag. At least I'm blowing my nose into a cloth napkin and not into tissues. Sexy, right?
On Wednesdays I take out the compost, luckily I live across the street from a NYC Department of Sanitation's Project Compost drop-off point. But I don't know what to transport the drippy mess across the street in aside from plastic bags. I refuse to feel bad, though, because Jeremia sources our plastic bags from his coworkers, and we lovingly give them second lives as our trash & compost liners.
The rest of the week is spent sick in bed, and aside from the continued tea sachets and a few plastic seals off kombucha bottles, I am able to exist within my bubble of control and not produce any additional waste.
Week 2, At Work:
On Tuesday I use a few tissues as I come down with Jeremia's cold. I am home sick Wednesday - Friday.
Week 2, Out & About:
On Saturday we take a jaunt over to the West Village for even more jars to fuel our fermentation fire. I stop off for a tea to warm me up - and forget that takeaway cups go in the landfill. Somehow, I forget again and manage to buy another chai on Sunday before the illness strikes. That's two takeaway cups on the tally.
On Tuesday we go out again for pho (geez, we're so interesting) and though the chopsticks are reusable this time around, we use paper napkins and eat the little candies given to us with our check, leaving two green foil wrappers behind.
During my sickness on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I manage to make it out of the apartment to walk a block to the library and post office. I manage to save all of my packing materials for wrapping future gifts, but I receive a receipt stuffed inside my new library book.
Week 2 Tally:
- 1 receipt
- 2 foil candy wrappers
- 2 takeaway cups
- 4 tissues
- 2 plastic kombucha seals
- Lots of foil tea sachets
- 2 plastic bags (OK but they were carrying compost and had at least 2 lives first!)
- 1 mesh plastic bag
- 2 plastic sleeves from tea
- 1 paper towel
- 3 handwritten labels