What Does Zero Waste Really Mean?

Waste bins

Lauren Singer is 23 and she wants to change the world. This isn’t a vague idea or a pipe dream, nor a rough sketch of a future plan. She’s doing it. Right now.

Zero waste? Me?

Zero waste advocate Lauren Singer's two years worth of trash

Singer’s two years’ worth of trash.

For the past four years, Singer has lived a zero-waste lifestyle. What does this mean? Well, it means that the entirety of her trash output each year is contained in a tiny mason jar.

For reference, the average American creates 4.3 pounds of garbage each and every day.

Yeah. I know.

I consider myself pretty environmentally friendly — I mean, I write about the topic for a living. Yet somehow the thought of reducing the amount of waste I produce to a singular mason jar terrifies me. I don’t think I could do it.

As I sit considering this and wallowing in a pool of shame and inadequacy, I suddenly realize that I felt this way before I embarked on the life I live now. I never thought I’d be able to make my own DIY recipeslaundry detergent, skin cream, toothpaste or eye makeup remover. I didn’t know if I’d be able to stick with my “no plastic” rule when I had my daughter. And 10 years ago, I wasn’t entirely sure I could give up meat, either.

But here I am. Doing it.

Emboldened, I schedule a call with Lauren to figure out just how she manages to do what she does. She connects with me via Skype from her sunny New York apartment, and after a bit of friendly introduction and small talk, Singer tells me how she began this wild journey of hers.

As a student studying environmental science, she recalls getting annoyed seeing classmates use plastic water bottles, but upon returning to her dorm and opening her fridge, there were shelves full of that same plastic looking back at her.

“I realized I was being a hypocrite, ” she says plainly. She was against fracking and petrochemicals, yet she was still using one of their biggest byproducts — plastic. And that’s where it all began.

Zero-waste crusade

What started as a crusade against plastic became, upon discovering zero-waste pioneer Bea Johnson, a crusade against all waste. Period.

“Okay,” I begin, putting on my Serious Reporter voice. “Tell me what you need to actually do this. What supplies do you need, and what resources do you need in your community to make this lifestyle feasible?”

Singer patiently explains the basics of a waste-free lifestyle, and as she speaks, it becomes clear that the most important facet of reducing the amount of waste you produce is to simply avoid bringing it into your home in the first place. She talks a lot about grocery shopping, as most of a household’s waste will come in the form of food packaging. It turns out that preparing for a zero-waste grocery shopping trip means far more than just reusable bags.

Purchase power

First off, locate a bulk food store in your area. (If you can’t think of any offhand, Johnson has developed an app to help you do just that. It’s called The Bulk App and it maps out the closest bulk food locations. Johnson recently created an IndieGogo campaign to pay for updates and save the app.)

As I speak with Singer, I realize that you can purchase virtually everything in bulk — pasta, rice, baking goods, honey, coconut oil, and even shampoo and conditioner in some places. Singer brings jars to use as containers for wet goods and small cloth bags for dry goods. She uses her smartphone to record bin numbers to avoid using twist ties or stickers, which are items so tiny for most of us that we wouldn’t even give them a second thought, but they’d make up a hefty proportion of her garbage jar.

What does zero waste really mean? Zero Waste advocate Lauren Singer headed to grocery shop

Lauren Singer after a zero-waste shopping trip. Image courtesy of Lauren Singer.

Next, to the farmers market. Cloth bags hold produce, clean pillowcases hold bread. Egg cartons can be given back to the farmer for reuse, and reusable containers are brought from home for cheese or meat. “The best thing about farmers markets is that their fruits and vegetables don’t have produce stickers,” Singer says happily, and I realize how little thought I’ve given to the thousands of tiny stickers I’ve peeled off apples and oranges in my life.

As she’s describing her weekly shops, I imagine her heading off to market with bags full of bags, jars clinking as she walks. “Does anyone ever give you major side-eye for the stuff that you’re doing?” I ask. “Does it bother you?”

She breaks out into a wide grin and replies quickly, “No. Anytime you see someone giving you a weird look, it means you’re showing them a way of doing something that they haven’t seen before. That’s important.”

She’s right.

Personal priorities

Singer does recycle and compost, but she prioritizes reducing her waste over recycling, explaining:

“Even if you get something in a glass jar that can be recycled, the label and the seal inside both go in the trash, and as we know, recycling is great, but it still uses resources and it’s far from a perfect solution.”

Curious, I ask her how long it took for this new lifestyle to become second nature. How long before her shopping routines were established and the zero-waste life became a habit? Was it hard to adjust? What did she miss most? “It took probably around six months,” she says. “And actually, nothing was really hard to let go of, honestly.”

I must have raised an eyebrow at this statement because Singer smiles and goes on to explain that the positive changes in her life came almost immediately. Zero waste meant she had to be organized, responsible and plan ahead — not traits you’d associate with most 19-year-olds. It meant her diet changed and she found herself losing the freshman 15 she’d accumulated after her first few years at college. She was saving money by shopping less, and her new eating habits meant a weekly grocery bill of around $40.

Despite what some may seem as a pretty extreme lifestyle, Singer is emphatic about how she approaches the topic with those in her life. “I hate preaching,” she says with conviction. “I don’t want to tell anyone how to live. I just kind of do my thing.”

Bar fight

But her friends and family have adopted a few of her waste-free practices, and are immensely supportive of her crusade, even if her family did give her a bit of good-natured ribbing in the early days. Speaking of how her lifestyle affects her day-to-day life and if it creates inconveniences, she relates a story about being kicked out of a bar because she refused to wear a plastic wristband. “It was ridiculous,” she says. “I had ID, I had paid cover, I just didn’t want to wear a plastic bracelet I’d have to throw out after. My friends totally supported me and we all left. Why couldn’t they just use stamps?”

As I consider this, I wonder if I’d be bold enough to raise a fuss, to stand my ground over an issue I believe in. She continues:

“Creating these scenes is so important. I like to show people that there’s a different way of doing things.”

And here she hits on perhaps the most important part of her mission, her values, her existence. She’s doing it. And she’s showing us how. We no longer have to wonder if it’s possible to live with less waste, or even wonder what a low-waste lifestyle would look like.

If you live like Lauren Singer, it looks like a big smile, a healthy diet, a simple life and a single jar full of garbage.

Feature image courtesy of vichie81/Shutterstock

Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.

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