Somewhere between recycling and minimalism I stumbled on the idea that you don’t have to produce a bunch of trash every week. I quickly embraced the idea that a person could work toward a zero waste lifestyle by adjusting how they do things. It probably doesn’t shock anyone that knows me in real life that I have a thing about wanting to know how things used to be done. Probably explains the degree in anthropology too. One of the assignments in my intro classes also helped with that since we dug through trash to see what we could find out about people based on it…. no worries, it was the professor’s, and he is the one that brought it in… but what can you really learn from looking in your trash?
- What you spend your money on.
- What you actually use.
- Where you get stuff that you don’t want.
And where to start. Back when people were living on the farm and raising their own food, or wandering the prairies following the herds they used everything that they had. They picked the vegetables and maybe cut them up or cooked them, then they ate them. They didn’t wrap them in plastic, put them in a Styrofoam tray, plaster them with language to make them sound appealing to everyone else in town. They didn’t need to. If you think about it there are probably places in your town that you can still buy vegetables that way. If you are lucky you might be able to buy things out of bulk bins like rice or beans, maybe herbs and spices too.
What was in my trash at first you might ask? A lot of everything. Many people said switch to reusable… but I already had. Think cloth napkins instead of paper, kitchen towels instead of paper towels. Lots of people seemed obsessed with reusable straws when I first joined groups, but I didn’t use straws at that point…. I have since started drinking smoothies for breakfast and bought stainless steel. I am reusing the foaming hand soap dispensers that I have had for years, and if you need to know how to clean them I highly recommend watching this video from Stacy at Humorous Homemaking. I have started getting shampoo and conditioner from Plaine Products, who include shipping for you to send the containers back to them to be cleaned and refilled…. but I had already been using a wall mount dispenser that GREATLY reduced the amount of product we go through in a year. It has actually taken me about a year to get to their product because I had most of a bottle of my old brand here already. But maybe I am getting a little ahead of myself here. The point is you need to look at your trash and see what’s in there. I would recommend just snapping a quick shot with your phone, and then picking 1 or 2 things to try to get rid of. In order to do that, let me explain the steps of zero waste…
The zero waste movement was started by Bea Johnson who decided to eliminate the waste coming in and going out of her home. As I recall, I believe she basically made this her job at the time to change how their family of 4 did things. Anyway, she came up with an expansion of the 3 R’s that we all know and love (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), and so the 5 R’s of Zero Waste are Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot.
Refuse- This is the best approach for the little knick-knacks and clutter that people give away for free various places, as well as a viable approach for a fair amount of random purchases you might make if you are prone to impulse purchases. You simply say no thank you, and move on. Or you enjoy the item in the store without bringing it home.
Reduce- Choosing items that are less or not at all packaged allows you to eliminate the need to throw away the part of what you bought that is not usable. Recent pictures I have seen highlighting this are individual oranges wrapped in plastic or maybe putting a gallon of milk in a bag. If you need a bag for your milk you can change to a reusable option… but the image I saw was a gallon of milk in a plastic jug in a plastic bag still being carried by the handle on the gallon of milk.
Reuse- In some instances something can be reused. This might be the jar that you bought pasta sauce in being re-purposed for canning peaches, or a box from pasta being used as a fire starter. You might be inspired by craft projects to transform the item on Pinterest, or you might use the item as is. You might use it for the same purpose as before, or you might use it for something completely different. Use your imagination, and if you choose your materials wisely they can follow you to the next step if you wind up with too many.
Recycle- This is probably the most recognized step in the process and comes with lots of misconceptions. Many people think things can be recycled that can’t, and others think things can’t be recycled that can. Unfortunately this often takes a little bit of research on the services in your area, and if you don’t have curbside recycling a little more legwork to get the materials to their next life-stage. It is also important to note that pretty much everywhere recyclables must be relatively clean or they still go to the landfill.
Rot- The last step on this journey is rot. Once you have refused, reduced, reused, and recycled, most of your waste is carbon-based. That means that it can go into a compost pile or bin of some sort to be broken down in any of several ways, then used as nutrients for the next batch of gardening you or your neighbor might choose to do.
Hopefully this gives you a bit of information to chew on and we can dig into each of the steps further as I refocus and work on our waste output again. When I started we were pretty well filling our big rolling trash bin each week, and taking a few recyclables to what we called the smiling families. I have since picked up curbside recycling which is a very small investment for the amount of time, effort, and peace it has given me.
Wishing you easy first steps,
Going Green Mom