I Tried Creating Zero Waste for One Week to See How Hard Being Sustainable Really Is
I thought I was doing pretty good with my eco-friendly habits—I use a metal straw, bring my own bags to the grocery store, and am more likely to forget my workout shoes than my reusable water bottle when going to the gym—until a recent conversation with a coworker. She said that most consumer trash comes from food and packaging; the convenience of sealed bags, cling wrap, and single-use plastic was overflowing landfills and putting a strain on our resources. I did more research on my own and was shocked to learn the average American creates 4.4 pounds of trash per day (!) with only 1.5 pounds able to be recycled or composted. More recently, a plastic bag was discovered in the Mariana Trench, the deepest point of the ocean that humans can't even reach. Reading that plastic remnants are being found in the most remote, inaccessible location in the world was eye-opening, so on the spot, I decided to take on the challenge of creating as little waste as possible...at least for one week.
I knew going into this challenge that the key to my success was preparedness. With the Lion King song stuck in my head, I packed my work bag the first morning with my lunch, a cloth napkin, metal straw, travel coffee mug, and a few reusable bags. For breakfast lately, I've been loving vegan yogurt with granola but the plastic container made that option out of the question, so I just grabbed a banana on the way out the door. I bought coffee in my travel mug and made it to my desk with no garbage. Success!
After work, I stopped by Whole Foods, reusable bags in tow. First stop: produce section. Normally I plan my meals before stepping into the grocery store but I didn't know where the pitfalls would be, so I decided to wing it. I grabbed lemons, apples, bananas, onion, green pepper, and tomatoes. The only trash created was the stickers—score. A more-expensive-because-it's-a-glass-jar of tahini was added to the cart and then I made my way to the bulk bins.
I had brought a few glass jars with lids for this scenario. I weighed my containers before starting to fill with pearl couscous and garbanzo beans. I weighed again but couldn't find a way to subtract the jar weight. I grabbed an employee to explain that I was avoiding plastic and my glass jars weighed nearly a half pound more than the store ones and I needed his help to print a price label. He became extremely agitated that I wouldn't just use the tiny plastic tubs provided by the store. Isn't the entire point of bulk bins to avoid plastic? I thought to myself. Finally, he said the check-out might know how to help as he rushed away. Lesson learned: Not everyone is game for the amount of group effort zero waste requires. (Related: The Upcycled Food Trend Is Rooted In Trash)
The biggest hurdle to creating no garbage while grocery shopping was meat and dairy. Other than a $6 per single serve artisanal yogurt in a glass jar (I'm trying for zero waste, not zero balance in my bank account), there was no yogurt that wasn't in plastic containers and no plant-based yogurts in any size bigger than individual servings. Cheese was also virtually impossible to find not shrink-wrapped in saran or in a plastic bag. The most eco-friendly solution I could see was to buy blocks, instead of pre-shredded, in the largest size available. I bought a large chunk of local goat cheese and planned to put the piece of packaging in my trash jar. Last stop on this never-ending grocery trip: the deli counter. There I realized I hadn't thought to bring a container for meat (OMG so much pre-planning was needed for one freaking trip to buy food), I bought one pound of spicy chicken sausage and watched the employees wrap it in paper from a box that said made from post-recycled paper.
More than an hour and $60 later, I made it out of Whole Foods relatively unscathed and blew out a sigh of relief. Rather than whipping through the aisles grabbing what I needed, I had to meticulously scrutinize each decision and the amount of trash it would or wouldn't create and whether my choices were right or wrong (beyond how healthy they were).
The next morning was Saturday so I walked to the Farmer's Market near my apartment. I bought red potatoes, kale, radishes, carrots, and local eggs. The eggs came in a cardboard container which can be torn into pieces and composted. While at the Farmer's Market, I also learned they have community compost bins (and that you should store apartment compost in the fridge or freezer to avoid the icky smells).
That evening I went out for drinks with friends. I got an on-tap IPA in a glass and paid in cash—aka no receipt to sign and no receipt printed for me. We ended the night with a stop for lavender rosemary ice cream—cones FTW. A successful day with zero trash! (Related: How to Use "Root to Stem" Cooking to Cut Down On Food Waste)
Sunday is always my cooking and cleaning day. I meal prepped egg muffins with tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and goat cheese. A kale salad made with pearl couscous, tomatoes, radishes, and vinaigrette (from a glass container—natch). Roasted red potatoes and chicken sausage became dinner. Fresh fruit and a big batch of homemade lemon-garlic hummus and carrot sticks for dipping would be snacks if I got hungry. Spoiler alert: I ate healthier this past week than I have in many weeks prior because I had to eat what I meal prepped. There was no temptation, or rather I didn't give in to the temptation, to open a bag of chips or have Thai food delivered after a stressful day. (Related: How Meal-Prep Lunches Can Save You Almost $30 a Week)
Cleaning my apartment became another moral dilemma. While the packaging of natural versus chemical cleaners is typically the same, green products are often sustainably manufactured and use biodegradable materials. Natural cleaning products also use renewable resources which benefits the earth's waning non-renewable resources (like petroleum). For this challenge, a plastic bottle is a plastic bottle, but the impact of switching to green cleaning products has a greater benefit to our planet in the long run. Now seemed as good a time as any to make the switch so I bought a natural all-purpose spray, a disinfectant made with thyme oil that promised to kill 99.99 percent of germs, and while I was at it—toilet paper made from recycled paper. (Related: Cleaning Products That Could Be Bad for Your Health—and What to Use Instead)
The spray cleaner and a rag were perfect for wiping off counters and removing caked-on food messes. Bonus: the mint scent made my kitchen smell ah-mazing compared to the slightly suffocating smell of bleach-based wipes that I'm used to. I used the disinfectant in the bathroom and was surprised by how great it worked. If I'm being honest, I'll probably stick with traditional products for things like the toilet because I need to trust that it's truly clean, but the all-natural stuff appeared to work just as well.
Days 4, 5, and 6
As the week went on I learned that the hardest things to remember were the ingrained habits. I did well with eating my meal prepped, zero-waste lunch, but would have to remind myself to grab the metal, versus plastic, silverware from the office cafeteria. In the bathroom, I had to make a conscious effort to use the hand dryer instead of grabbing paper towels. These decisions weren't difficult or costly to make but I did have to remind myself for each step of my routine to make the eco-conscious choice.
Upon entering this challenge, I decided to not switch out every single beauty product for a more eco-friendly version. I had a few reasons for this: the first was I didn't want to completely drain my bank account (just being honest here). The second was, while I think the packaging in the beauty industry is an issue, I go through way more yogurt containers in a week than I ever do a moisturizer or conditioner.
In fact, during this week-long challenge, I didn't use up a single beauty item—eco-friendly or otherwise. (Full disclosure: I am a beauty editor and own/test a LOT of products). Halfway through the week, a friend asked if I was switching my plastic, non-recyclable, non-biodegradable, landfill-overflowing, potentially bacteria-ridden toothbrush for a completely sustainable, antimicrobial bamboo one. In my head I said, f*ck, even my toothbrush is out to get me. With that being said, my beauty routine is the next area of my life I'd like to tackle. I'm currently testing solid shampoo bars, a paper-packaged body wash, and reusable cotton pads to name a few. A few years ago I switched from wipes to cleansing balms to remove makeup and let me tell you a melting oil and a hot washcloth to steam off mascara is just as satisfying as taking your bra off at the end of the day. (Related: Eco-Friendly, Natural Haircare Products That Actually Work)
By the final day, I was seriously jonesing for a Starbucks iced coffee and was running late for work. I'd put my order-ahead ways on hold for the challenge since you can't use your own mug, but today I caved and pre-ordered a venti iced coffee to have it there waiting for me. It. Was. Worth. It. (Yes, I have a slight coffee addiction.) I did remember to use my metal straw though. Progress! (Related: Cute Tumblers That Will Keep You Hydrated and Environmentally Woke)
My trash total for the week: A cheese wrapper, produce stickers, labels from salad dressing and tahini, paper wrapping from the meat, a few tissues (I tried it but using a hankie is so not for me), and a venti Starbucks cup.
While I did collect my trash in a jar and post a pic on the 'gram to show the results of my one week challenge, I don't think it's a complete depiction of a week of waste. It doesn't show the resources used (and waste created) to make the things I needed to get through that week. It doesn't show the boxes and bubble wrap used to ship the items. And while I avoided all online shopping and takeout week because I knew with it would come plastic bags, boxes, and unavoidable garbage, I can't promise I'll never Seamless some Chinese food or place a large Nordstrom order to be shipped to me ever again (no, really, I can't make that promise).
I also don't think we can have honest conversations about the planet and sustainability without talking about the elephant in the room: I have the money to afford pricey reusable gear, organic, local produce, and non-processed ingredients. I also had the free time to complete hours of research before starting, go to two grocery stores in one week, and meal prep all of the fresh food I bought. I am lucky to live in New York City with its abundance of specialty food stores and farmer's markets within walking distance. All of this privilege means that I have the opportunity to explore a zero-waste lifestyle without an extreme detriment to my finances or basic needs. (Related: What Living a Low-Waste Lifestyle Really Looks Like)
While sustainability is an important topic in our current world, it can't be divorced from privilege and inequities in our society. This is just one piece of a larger problem of the affordability of non-processed foods in this country. Your socioeconomic status, race, and location should not dictate your access to healthy meals. Just that one step: access to affordable, local, fresh ingredients would cut down on the garbage created, increase compost and recycling, and better our standards of health in America.
What I hope to get across in this challenge is that each day and each action is a choice. The goal is not perfection; in fact, perfection is nearly impossible. This is an extreme version of eco-friendly living—just as you wouldn't run a marathon after one jog around the block, it's a little insane to think you can be self-sustaining after one week of zero waste. You don't need to create less-than-one-mason-jar's worth of trash on a yearly basis to help our planet, but being more mindful of your decisions can go a long way. Each baby step—bringing a refillable water bottle instead of buying a plastic one every workout, using the hand dryer instead of paper towels, or even switching to a menstrual cup—is accumulative and brings our world one step closer to living sustainably. (Want to get started? Try these Small Tweaks to Effortlessly Help the Environment)