Two weeks for a no waste challenge is too short.
It takes practice to live your life zero waste. You need to go to the grocery store and fail, and then go again and fail a little bit, before finally figuring it out on the third try. It takes weeks to use up all the stuff that you bought with packaging as you burrow into your new DIYing, bulk-shopping, stuff-refusing life.
So when two weeks was up, it’s not like I rushed into the nearest 7-11, scooping up bags of potato chips and slurpees. I decided to keep trucking along with the habits I had acquired, which include toting around almost an entire place setting in my purse, and sighing like a Jewish mother whose son never calls when I found myself with a straw.
Here are some tips I learned in the second week of my challenge:
Bring spray sanitizer to the gym.
At my not-as-fancy-as-SoulCycle gym, at the end of class you are expected to wipe down your seat with a disposable wipe. I brought hand sanitizer with me the next time and sprayed it, wiping it down with the reusable towels they provide.
It’s easier to be zero waste when you’re a vegan.
I cleaned out the fridge when I got home from Nashville, and into the trash went some old spicy sausage. They say you can just go to your local butcher to get meat free of plastic, and your local cheesemonger to get plastic-free cheese, and tea place to… well, you get the point. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a French city, and all these charming places are not lined up on a cobblestone street. Does it make me sound lazy to say I didn’t want to add another hour onto our grocery shopping trip to visit these places? Instead, I engaged in some subterfuge, and picked out recipes for that week that were vegan. My dude didn’t notice that we didn’t buy chicken that week.
And if you live near a Whole Foods.
To do a zero-waste shopping trip, we used to have to travel out of Brooklyn to Manhattan’s West Village for our shopping. But a Whole Foods just opened a 10 minute walk from our apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Say what you want about the ravages of gentrification, Whole Foods for many people is the best way to grocery shop mindfully. So we went there on our big grocery shopping trip. We were prepared – we keep a bag of grocery bags, produce bags, jars and sharpies to write on the jars by the front door. Once there, I buy boxes of berries to freeze for my smoothies instead of already frozen ones in bags. I get radishes instead of carrots, because the latter only came in plastic bags. I also buy a set of bamboo utensils for carrying around.
If Americans weren’t so terrified of poisoned food…
I buy a plastic resealable container of goat cheese instead of in a plastic wrapper. And then I find out it is sealed with plastic film. This is a common frustration. Even recyclable containers have tiny bits of plastic wrapped around the cap, sealing underneath the cap, and so on, all for our supposed safety. The thing is, if you look at all the cases of food tampering over the years, it becomes clear that if people want to tamper, they will, and a seal won’t stop them. These tamper seals seem to be just like the TSA’s ban on liquids over 3 ounces – a band-aid that makes it seems like we are safer, but really only annoys us.
Whole Foods employees are unpredictable. Forge ahead.
The employee who checks us out is just bowled over by our clever use of mason jars, gushing about how cool it is. Zero waste is such old news to me, and I’m still feeling like such a fraud in this movement, I miss the opportunity to gush with her and merely shrug and mumble something about how the jars look really pretty in my pantry. The week after, the woman checking us out is annoyed by our mason jars, second guesses the tare weight of my granola jar (turns out Whole Foods has a laminated guide to typical jar tare weights for its employees, and, it’s inaccurate), and is just generally grumbly. And right after the Whole Foods opened a few months ago, an employee in the bulk section flat out told us we couldn’t use our own jars and that they wouldn’t know what to do at the register – not true at all.
A coffee mug > a water bottle.
Water bottles are great, but they aren’t as versatile as a coffee mug. I fell in love with my Cuppow during this experience. I put water in it when I’m leaving the house, and can put tea or coffee in it later. Multiple uses means fewer things to carry around!
You need a big container for smoothies.
I brought my smoothie cup to my favorite smoothie place. They were happy to fill it, and then put the extra in a disposable cup. Which totally misses the point! The next time I brought a large mason jar, which did the trick.
Ordering new things is impossible.
You just never know what kind of packaging they’ll use. I reordered some Tiles, an accessory that helps you find items when you lose them (because it’s not zero waste to lose your keys and wallet) and they came nestled in synthetic spongy material that was glued to the paper packaging.
A reusable zip bag is crucial.
I haven’t seen this on any zero waste lists, but it was so key for this challenge. It’s not as bulky or breakable as a mason jar. I store compostable items in there when I’m nowhere near compost sites, like an apple core or dirty paper napkins. I put used reusable utensils in there when I can’t wash them. It’s a little security blanket for not getting food juice all over the inside of your nice purse while sticking to your plans to not throw anything away.
Little bits of recyclable material should be bundled.
I stopped to get a sandwich midweek, and it came wrapped in paper fused to foil. So, I spent a half hour meticulously peeling the foil away from the paper so I could recycle both. I looked up whether you could recycle bits of foil, and my understanding is that you have to bundle it all together for recycling, or else the bits and pieces just flutter around without making it to their final destination. So great, now I’m a hoarder.
You should always be prepared, except when you shouldn’t.
For our final official weekend of the challenge, we traveled to the North Carolina mountains for a wedding. I was excited! Not only because I love my cousin Sarah, but also because she’s a hugely sustainable hippie, so I knew she would plan a wedding that would be inherently eco-friendly. It was a camping wedding, and my cousin said we would even have a tent and sleeping bags waiting for us when we got there.Still, I packed my bamboo utensils, my Cuppow tea mug, a reusable zip bag, my handkerchief, and reusable tote bag.
But things started to go awry almost immediately after we landed at the airport. Illich and I got bagels at the airport while we waited for my sister and little nephew to land (their flight was an hour late). The bagels came wrapped in paper, but I planned to put the paper in my zip bag for composting later. I was on the phone with someone, and didn’t notice him throw everything away. Then when my sister arrived, the rental car agency said they didn’t have any car seats, so we had to run to Walmart to get one. Once we were there, my sister asked what the invitation said we needed to bring. Illich and I had brought flashlights, but the invitation also said we should bring picnic food for lunch on Saturday, and camping chairs.
Well, bulk is not in Walmart’s vocabulary, and we were already running late enough that I didn’t want to make us drive around, looking for a natural foods store. So we stocked up on food: grapes, sliced cheese, deli turkey, croissants, and trail mix, all wrapped in unrecyclable plastic of some kind. We also bought scandalously cheap camping chairs (how on earth does one manufacture a camping chair for $8.99?) and two $1 flashlights for my sister and nephew.
There’s a Burning Man term I thought of during this whole thing: Sparkle Pony. It means someone who shows up completely unprepared – no water, no reusable cup, no place to stay – and expects everyone to take care of them. I was not going to be a sparkle pony. I had a backpack full of reusables, our camping chairs, and our food.
On the way there, we stopped for coffee, and I was pleased to find that the little mountain town market charges $1 for Fair Trade coffee if you bring your own cup.
In this case, however, we could have sparkle ponied and arrived empty handed, and made it out OK. When we got to the mountain property, they had a big pot of chili simmering and gave us some. And while the camping chairs were nice to have that night, we could have got along without them, sitting on a makeshift bench by the bonfire. All the utensils and plates were compostable, the cups were mason jars we could keep, and the napkins were cloth and also ours to keep.
It seems like I over prepared, and in doing so, created waste.
I got closer, but I will never be perfect.
Despite my implementing new ways to reduce my waste, I still created some:
- Plastic wrap for toilet paper. (My dude refuses the eco-friendly stuff.)
- Plastic bag for granola. (Can I also blame my dude? He went grocery shopping while I was away. He tries!)
- Plastic liner for ghee butter top.
- Bottle cap
- Straw (at a restaurant, my water came with the straw before I could say anything.)
- Hello, my name is… sticker (From a mentoring session)
- Produce stickers
- Numi tea wrapper
- Disposable coffee cup
I did implement some new habits to cut down on my waste. I have new accessories, a few new tricks. I could get slightly closer to waste enlightenment, to trash unattachment. I could shop at the farmer’s market. I could overrule my fiancé and tell him that we’re getting the toilet paper he hates. I could be better about preparing (or refusing to prepare, as it were). But little things will always find their way into my life during a week.
And I’m OK with that. For me, it’s less about perfection, about a gimmick, or a neatly packaged storyline. With all things in my life and this blog, it’s about doing my best while balancing my priorities, and modeling behavior that – while not perfect – if everyone did it, would lead to huge changes would occur in the way we produce waste as a society.
I know this messy imperfection doesn’t make my story as compelling or interesting. I know it will get me fewer clicks. But it’s the pedestrian truth. It speaks to the reality of my life, ad probably yours. And I think that is really valuable.