No Waste Challenge

Dear readers,

On my first four days of the no-waste challenge, I jumped right into the deep end, with a trip to Nashville for a bachelorette party. I tried my best to prepare. I read Lauren Singer of Trash Is for Tosser’s tips for Wanderlust on traveling without creating waste, in which she advises aspirational no wasters to:

  • Not check any bags
  • Bring a multi-purpose mason jar, which you can use for beverages, or even to carry compostable food in until you can find a suitable place for it. (But shouldn’t you bring more than one, in case you want to carry water and compost?)
  • Bring reusable napkins and bags
  • Pack snacks ahead of time and refuse airline snacks. Ask them to fill your mason jar on long flights.
  • Use the bulk locator app to find places to buy waste free and visit the farmer’s market

Easy enough, right? Well, the above picture is not accurate, because it doesn’t include all the waste I left behind at restaurants! Here’s what happened…

Friday

When I flew down, it was a free day, since the new month didn’t start until Saturday. I have some convenient amnesia about the waste I created. But I did try to plan ahead and pack. I packed:

I did not pack a camping set of utensils, because I didn’t have time to haul out the Burning Man bin and dig through it. I also didn’t bring a reusable straw, because the only time I’ve ever thought, “Huh, this drink would be better with a straw” is when drinking a mojito. For everything else, it’s seems to me like a glorified garnish.

Saturday

Here’s the waste I produced:

Plastic wrap: If we are counting from midnight, then I immediately failed. We got back to the hotel room at 4 am after a few hours of beer drinking (from aluminum bottles with aluminum caps – recyclable!), and ravished some room service fries and sandwich. Just try to tell a drunk girl she can’t have fries because waste. I dare you.

In the morning we have access to the hotel’s VIP lounge through a friend who frequently travels for business. I am ready with my travel mug, but the tea sachets are all individually wrapped in plastic. No tea for me. I forlornly gnaw on a green apple before putting the core in my compost jar.

Fork and knife and plastic wrap, styrofoam plate: For “brunch,” the group decided on barbecue. I had warned the bride to be about my challenge, and she was supportive and sympathetic when I looked around while waiting in line and saw that everything was served on styrofoam plates. Horror! What could I do? I could leave the restaurant and try to find something else then meet everyone later. I could not eat anything and hang out, watching everyone else eat. I could have packed a camping plate like a freak, but that wouldn’t have fit in my fashion backpack. Friends, I gave in. It seemed so completely un-fun and holier than thou to stick my nose up at a meal to celebrate the bride. I got a 4-vegetable meal on a styrofoam plate, and – lamenting my lack of portable utensils – got a plastic-wrapped set to eat my green beans and macaroni and cheese with. I had packed my glass mug, however, so avoided using a styrofoam cup.

Tag from hat: If you had asked me if I would find anything I liked in the Country Music Hall of Fame, I would have laughed. Except I found the cutest wide-brimmed, wool hat that’s made in Mexico. I bought it, and the check-out girl took the sticker off for me.

Bottle tops? We commenced drinking after that at Honky Tonk, a three-level country music bar. I asked the bartender if they had any cans, but she said no. I ordered a bottle of local craft beer, which arrived sans top. I know that bottle tops are not recyclable, so it was probably thrown away.

2 cocktail straws: We go out to a nice dinner that night, and I order a cocktail off the menu. And I forget to say “no straw” because I never freaking remember that, ever! And I forgot to say “no straw” for my second cocktail as well. Straws are the bane of my existence.

Bachelorette accessories wrapping: Before we head out, a friend of the bride surprises us with bags full of goodies: tiaras, glowstick necklaces, plastic disposable champagne glasses, raunchy cards, etc. It all comes with wrapping, and because she reveals this all in our room, it ends up in our trash can. It is a lot.

Tissue: I failed to pack my reusable cotton round in my makeup bag, so I have to use a tissue to take off my eyeliner.

Sunday

Butter packet, and napkin wrapped around silverware: We head out to brunch, and I order biscuits for the table, which come with those little plastic butter tubs with the foil top. Plus, the silverware arrives to our table wrapped in a napkin. This is a very common Nashville thing, I’m finding. Or maybe a southern thing?

Plastic packaging for new iPhone: My iPhone was pickpocketed the night before. Because I’ve had the worst luck with iPhones this month – my old one broke after two years, I got a new one, it got wet, I put an insurance claim in and got a refurbished one, which was stolen – I don’t think I can put in an insurance claim for another refurbished one. Plus, I need my phone now since I’m traveling and supposed to stay and work in Nashville for two more days by myself, where Uber is required. Plus, putting a claim in or even outright buying a refurbished phone means I have to wait for it to be shipped to me. I head to the Apple store and splurge on the 7, which, for an electronic, comes with minimal extra plastic. But it’s in there.

Straw: The bride to be was game for a vegetarian meal at a health conscious restaurant, and I created no waste there. But when I visited a cocktail bar later on and specified no straw, I watched the bartender taste my drink with a straw that he then threw away.

Plastic wrap: The hotel I’m staying in has provided some cheese, crackers, nuts, and dried fruit, plus wine as a welcome gift. The snacks are on a plate with plastic wrap on top. I’m too soaked in booze from the weekend to enjoy the wine (I hope the housekeeper took it home with her!), but I nibble on the nuts.

Monday

I’m on my own again and ready to explore the rest of Nashville. I head to the farmer’s market with my reusable produce bag, eager to buy some travel snacks, but on a Monday, the only things they are selling is decorative pumpkins and gourds, plus some apples. Sorry, but one cannot live on apples alone. I guess I could have gone out to the Whole Foods, but I was packing in as much as possible and grocery shopping was the last thing on my mind.

Sticker and claim ticket from museum: What could be more anti-consumerist than some museum art? But I have to wear a sticker on my shirt for admission, and I can’t find my claim check in my wallet to get my backpack, so I accidentally take the plastic covered claim check with me.

Soap wrapper: The hotel provides a mini travel soap wrapped in paper with a sticker. I need hand soap, so I unwrap it.

2 mini straws: I have dinner at a farm to table restaurant, and order a whisky mule. I forget. It comes with straws.

Plastic bag: I’m in a really nice hotel, with turndown service. I so rarely experience this that when the housekeeper arrives carrying a little jelly candy on a plate and a bag of ice, I tell her that sure, ice sounds lovely. She places the bag of ice in the ice bucket. I immediately realize my error, but can’t bring myself to tell her I changed my mind. Though, I’m sure she’s dealt with crazier rich people than me.

Tissue: For taking off eye makeup

Tuesday

It’s my last day in Nashville – I fly back to NYC in the afternoon. I refuse the napkin wrapped silverware for my avocado breakfast toast. I am triumphant.

Luggage tag stickers: I bought a poncho that’s made in the USA. (Its tag is paper with a paper twine string.) But this glorified blanket, plus the leather jacket that I wore out of NYC but is too hot for today, forces me to expand my roller bag and check it.

Napkin: This is where no-waste privilege/unpreparedness guilt come into play. I have an unfortunate layover that was originally 4 hours, but stretches into 5 and a half. I need food, and terrible person that I am, did not make time before I left Nashville to visit Whole Foods and pack a dinner for my travels. I walk up and down the Philadelphia terminal, scouting my options, and settle for the Asian place, which I am positive is the most overpriced option in the terminal, but the only one where the food doesn’t come on disposable plates. I order dumplings, plus two other vegetarian dishes that the server tells me are both sold out. I settle on edamame. I use a fork for my dumplings like a dork, instead of the chopsticks. I refuse a napkin and use my handkerchief. But the edamame comes out with a decorative napkin placed between the bowl and plate. The total for five, small, vegetarian dumplings (edamame comped) is $15.

5 tortilla chips: After my sad excuse for a dinner, I find myself hungry an hour later. The terminal has recycling, but not composting, so I’m extremely limited in the snacks I can buy. No bananas or oranges, nothing packaged in thin plastic.I scout out a Mexican place that serves chips in a paper bag with guac in a recyclable plastic container. But the guac goes too quickly, and I find myself with five extra salty tortilla chips that I can’t choke down. My opaque composting jar is checked in my roller bag. I throw the chips away.

What I Learned

  1. If you are truly going no waste, skip the fancy water bottle and just bring a multi-purpose mason jar mug. That plus a water bottle is too much.
  2. Most of your waste will come from people trying to be helpful. The straws, the plastic wrapped complimentary food and plastic bag of ice, the bachelorette gifts  – they were all little gifts and conveniences presented to me as a sign that I’m an important and valued customer or friend. That makes it so hard to complain or refuse. You end up feeling like an ungrateful grouch all the time.
  3. Sometimes you are presented with a choice to either: a. Go along and make waste, b. Impose your views on your group and insist you go elsewhere, or c. stay with the group and watch them eat and drink while you straddle your high horse by yourself. I chose a this time, because I am weak willed, but maybe next time I’ll try b or c and see how that feels.
  4. To survive in the waste-free world of your own making, you must be like a boy scout on an overnight camping trip: always prepared, thinking ahead, and with all the accessories. You need a handkerchief/napkin, a mason jar, utensils, a portable plate, snacks, your favorite tea, and maybe even a meal, reusable bags, and hand soap. What with all this stuff, you also need a large bag or backpack with you all the time!

But there’s more to come. Stay tuned for this weekend, when I talk about my week back home.

Other No Waste Challengers:

Holly from Leotie Lovely struggles with French dinner and French wine.

Leah from Style Wise is has figured out straws, but not compost.

Natalie from Sustainably Chic found a zero waste sock brand!

Stephanie From My Kind Closet doesn’t know what to do about toilet paper. (Full disclosure: Neither do I!)