After my interview with zero waste advocate Lauren Singer I decided that it would be ridiculous not to at least try to live zero waste, especially after discovering all of her fantastic tips and tricks for doing so.
Last week, I decided to put on my big girl pants, shelve any worries about not being able to do it and just give it a go.
It’s ironic that one of the biggest things stopping me was the fear that I just wouldn’t be able to hack living a zero waste lifestyle, because even if I never get to the point where I create zero waste — or even to Lauren Singer’s tiny mason jar full — any reduction in waste is a good one. And it’s even better if there’s millions of us along for the ride. I hope you’ll enjoy my tale of living zero waste — the good, the bad, the ugly, and the downright weird.
Zero Waste, In Bulk
My first foray began with bulk shopping. I loaded up with my normal shopping supplies — cloth produce bags and reusable shopping bags — and headed down to Bulk Barn, a popular Canadian bulk food store. I spent about half an hour walking up and down the aisles, absolutely floored by what you can actually buy in bulk. I expected baking staples, pasta, and grains like rice and quinoa, but there was also bulk crackers, bulk tea, bulk soap, bulk honey! I had no idea there was so much variety in what I could buy in bulk and without any wasteful packaging.
Happily, I ignored the plastic bags provided and started filling my cloth produce bags. I pick up some cashews and chopped almonds, nutritional yeast, and — I’ll admit — some hot lips candy, too. I even avoided the use of twist ties by logging the bin numbers into a note on my phone. I swaggered to the cash register feeling pretty damn proud of myself and waited to pay.
When I get to the cash register, however, the cashier eyed my bags uneasily. She told me that I wasn’t allowed to use cloth bags because she can’t tare them (taring means removing the weight of the bag, and just charging me for the contents). My bags are super lightweight and I don’t mind paying a few extra cents to avoid the use of plastic, so I told this to the cashier. She continued to look at them uneasily even after she rang them up. Finally, I decide to double check.
“So, I’m a bit confused. Am I allowed to bring these next time?” I ask, gesturing to my bags. “No, ” she says apologetically, “Customers have to use the plastic bags provided. It’s a hygiene issue.”
Another customer (who looks like a seasoned Bulk Barn shopper) leans over from her lineup and says in a conspiratorial whisper, “You can’t bring your own bags. It’s for hygiene.”
I stare at the immaculate organic cloth bags I was given as a Christmas gift. What? This doesn’t make any sense. Suddenly I hate everyone and everything about bulk shopping and I leave in a disgruntled huff. Later, I track down and sign a petition asking Bulk Barn to revisit their policy and allow waste-conscious customers to bring their own containers.
Farmers Market Miracle
Next, I tackle the farmer’s market. Typically I head to a huge supermarket for my weekly grocery shop and although I use cloth produce bags and try to choose items with minimal packaging in mind, I always end up with a fair bit of food packaging — and ufortunately, a lot of it plastic. I’m fortunate enough that my city has several year-round markets, so one sunny Thursday I head out to forage for food — waste free.
I have to admit that I felt a bit like a pack mule. I had my three-year-old daughter clinging to one hand, and my shopping bags, produce bags, jars and glass containers (for cheese or meat) in the other.
The market was surprisingly quiet — a nice change from the packed environment during hot summer weekends. Yet, as I walked around, it quickly became clear that shopping zero waste here would be no easy task. Virtually all of the produce was already neatly packaged in plastic bags , as is the bread. Cheese and meat are both prepackaged in plastic — I guess it’s easier to price and transport this way.
After walking around the market twice to ensure I haven’t missed some bastion of waste-free food, I get what I can waste-free — a few loose bell peppers, a big bag of Pink Lady apples, and a head of lettuce. I feel a bit defeated, and my daughter and I sit down to have lunch. She has a miniature shepherd’s pie — which I refuse a styrofoam container for — and some fresh squeezed apple juice that the juicer kindly puts into one of the glass jars I brought with me. I get a warm flour tortilla filled with eggs, black beans and fresh veggies from a Mexican place, and they use one of my glass containers instead of a styrofoam plate without blinking an eye.
Midway through our meal I realize I’ve forgotten to use the bamboo cutlery I brought, and Olive is using a plastic fork. Crap. When we got her apple juice, the vendor offered her a straw and I hastily said no — a tantrum ensued and Olive has remained grumpy throughout out meal, holding a grudge the way only a three-year-old can. She doesn’t eat much of her pie, and I package it, and our napkins (to take home and compost) into my container and we leave.
As we drive home I feel grumpy and frustrated, and I’ve completed less than 20 percent of my grocery shopping.
What a Week
We go the rest of the week eating food gleaned from our pantry and freezer. At the end of the week, this is what I ended up with for garbage. It’s easily double Singer’s glass jar, and it only took me a week to create.
It’s mostly non-recyclable plastic food packaging — bags of frozen peas and edamame beans, the “organic” sticker from a bunch of bananas bought before the zero waste week, tea bag packages and the sticker from a watermelon. Non-grocery items items include blister packs from my birth control and prescription headache medication, band-aid wrappers, and a weird foil/paper hybrid that wrapped up a sandwich we bought midweek.
Despite not being zero waste, this is far, far less than the shopping bag of trash I typically generate in a week. Not only that, but this exercise dramatically shifted the way I look at what I throw out.
I’ve been cutting down my consumption for years. I make my own toothpaste, body lotion, shampoo and conditioner, and cleaning products. But despite all this, almost immediately during this week, I noticed how differently I was looking at the garbage I produced (Literally. Because I was keeping it in a glass bowl on my counter.) I don’t think I’ve ever been a particularly wasteful person, but this week challenged me to look at the ways I had been unknowingly putting things in the trash that could have been recycled or composted instead. It reminded me that there’s always room for improvement.
All of the tissues in my garbage waste basket can be composted, but I’ve been throwing them out instead. I found an almost empty container of yogurt hidden in the depths of my fridge that had gone moldy — moldy food is my kryptonite — and I think I might have thrown the whole thing out had I not been desperate to not have to add it to my trash pile. I had to stop using q-tips. I wondered what to do with my dental floss.
At the end of the week, I look at this trash and rather than feeling disappointed or defeated, I feel strangely hopeful instead.
What I took from this week: Living a zero waste (or even drastically waste-reduced) lifestyle is totally possible. The biggest hurdle is simply locating the infrastructure to make it happen. Finding bulk stores that will allow you to bring your own containers, hunting down markets with loose produce and in-house bakeries or delis for bread, cheese and meat.
Finding these places will, I suspect, be the most challenging part for most people. As for me? I will definitely keep shopping in bulk, although I’ll need to suss out a store with environmentally-friendly policies. Shopping at the farmer’s market always struck me as overwhelming and crowded, because I’d go on the weekends in summer. But on a Thursday morning in late winter, the place was practically empty and I could shop in peace without having to throw elbows to get the last bunch of spinach. It also made me realize how out of practice I am at shopping seasonally. There were no bananas at the farmer’s market in Canada, in February. No strawberries, no cantaloupe. It was a rude awakening, but I also found it really interesting to explain to my daughter why we couldn’t get those things. I plan to visit a few more of our local markets to see if they have better practices regarding packaging and plastic.
The key, as with anything, is to create slow, sustainable change. Don’t expect to go zero waste overnight and don’t be too hard on yourself. I’d love to hear from you if you try this one out!
Feature image credit kay roxby / Shutterstock