Three Lessons from Zero Waste Week

We live in a world where there is tremendous overconsumption, not to mention grave inequity where poor and minority populations bear the brunt of the environmental and social burdens of this overconsumption. As we consume and consume and consume, more and more trash heads to our landfills, or, even worse, into our environment and our oceans. Some people have become fed up with this wasteful system.

In recent years, individuals all over the globe have started to adopt a “zero waste lifestyle.” In simple terms, this is a lifestyle which endeavors to produce (and dispose of) as little landfillable waste as possible. Maybe you have heard of bloggers like Trash is for Tossers, whose entire quantity of non-recyclable, non-compostable trash for the last two years fits into a mason jar. When you think about the fact that the average American produces 4.4 pounds of trash each day, that’s a big deal.

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After reading about Lauren Singer (AKA Trash is for Tossers), I became inspired to start pursuing a zero waste lifestyle myself. That was a year and a half ago, and, while I have made a lot of progress, I am still working towards my goal of zero waste. Recently, a group of dedicated sustainibilipeeps joined me in participating in College of Charleston’s first ever, week-long Zero Waste Challenge. The goal was to produce as little landfillable or recyclable waste as possible (because many items are actually downcycled instead of recycled and are destined for the landfill anyways). Here are three lessons that came from that week:

It is a gigantic pain-in-the-ass

…. at first. When you really start looking around, waste is all around us.

Go to a restaurant: When you order a drink, they give it to you with a plastic straw (to the landfill!). They give you a mound of 15x more paper napkins than you actually need (and throw away the ones you don’t even touch when you leave the table). When you ask for a box to-go, they give you a styrofoam take out container and maybe a set of plastic utensils (all of which goes to the landfill).

Walk into a grocery store: 95.67895% (no, that is not the exact percentage) of the food is packaged, often in more than one layer of packaging. Often, even the produce is packaged! And when you get to the checkout, they place your purchases in even more plastic (AKA as the dreaded plastic bag).

Go to your favorite coffee shop (let’s call it Barstucks): Order a chocolate mochaccino with a triple shot of espresso and soy milk and some caramel drizzle. This comes in a paper cup that is lined with a convenient layer of plastic to keep your coffee creation from dribbling all over the front of your shirt (therefore it ends up in the landfill, and usually takes the recyclable paper sleeve and plastic top with it).

Take a peek in your bathroom: All of your beauty products are packaged in plastic! Not to mention, some of your products have plastic in them! (Yes, you may be washing your face or brushing your teeth with plastic. And all of those micro plastics go straight into our waterways. Yummy).

I think you get my point.

I want to make it clear that all of this waste is avoidable. It is just hard to avoid. It takes what feels like constant vigilance on your part. And that brings us to our next lesson:

Preparedness is key

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I’ve mentioned some of the many forms of waste that surround us in our daily lives. And like I said, it is avoidable if you are prepared. So let’s walk through some of those scenarios I laid out above:

Go to a restaurant: When your waiter asks you what you want to drink, you say, “I’ll have a lemonade, no straw, please.” When they offer you napkins, you politely respond, “No thanks, I brought my handy-dandy reusable towel along with me. Save the trees, you know?” When you are stuffed and you cannot possibly finish what’s on your plate, you bring out the tupperware you brought from home and fill it with your leftovers. #zerowasted

Walk into a grocery store: You walk in armed with your reusable shopping bags, as well as reusable produce bags and some glass jars. After weighing the glass jars, you go over to the bulk section (not the kind that sells things in uber-large containers, but the kind that has bins of dry-goods that you can scoop as much as you want out of) and use the jars to stock up on all your grains, legumes, nuts, etc. Then you head on over to the produce section, where you scout out unpackaged produce, using your produce bags for loose items, such as spinach and green beans. You make plans to hit up your local farmer’s market for even better zero-waste produce. When you checkout, all your purchases go into your reusable shopping bags. #zerowasted

Go to your favorite coffee shop: “I’ll have a chocolate mochaccino with a triple shot of espresso and soy milk and some caramel drizzle. Would you please put it in my nifty reusable travel mug? What’s that? Yes, it’s clean. Thanks.” #zerowasted

Sounds simple enough, right? And the reality is that, once you get in the habit of being prepared and bringing your reusable, zero-waste alternatives with you, it definitely becomes a lot easier. But the scenarios I have described above are just scratching the surface. And that brings us to the final lesson:

You have to take baby steps

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Going zero-waste may seem like a breeze-and-a-half from my scenarios above, which can trick you into feeling extremely confident about your ability to rapidly shift into said lifestyle. But depending on how you live your life right now, it can be a major transition, and there can be a lot of barriers to successfully being zero-waste: access, time, money, etc.

Take the grocery store example. How many grocery stores do you know of that have a bulk bin section? In the local Charleston area, I can only think of three: Earth Fare, Whole Foods, and the Veggie Bin. Odds are, your usual grocery store haunt doesn’t have these package-free options. And if you eat a whole lot of cheap, processed foods, buying bulk dry goods and veggies will likely cost you more money (and time to prepare). That being said, if you eat a lot of unprocessed, whole foods, then buying from the bulk bins may even be cheaper than the packaged alternatives. At the very least, it usually will not cost you more.

So if you are a college student or professional with reliable access to a farmer’s market and a grocery store with bulk, and you have the money and time to eat unprocessed, whole foods, then the zero waste grocery shopping is definitely achievable – if you are willing to put in the work to change your behavior.

So what if you don’t fit into this category? That comes to the crux of this lesson: what do you do when you cannot make it all the way?

You do what you are able.

Sounds obvious, but in my experience, people can feel overwhelmed when there is a large, potentially unachievable goal in front of them. So instead of trying to do the best they can, they don’t try at all, and that’s a shame. Doing what you are able – and keeping your eye out for opportunities to improve on what you are able to do – is far better than not trying at all.

This is true even when the goal is definitely achievable. If you are having to shift your lifestyle radically to accommodate zero-waste, then take baby steps! Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to do it all at once. Set smaller goals and work your way there.

At this point, you may be wondering: what’s the point? What does it matter if I do this or not? Well, the simple response is that a little impact is not the same as no impact. Zero-waste is becoming a movement, and it is largely due to people learning about other people who are living the lifestyle and being inspired. I am not saying that zero-waste is The Answer, that we don’t need larger, systemic changes to fix the mess we are in. But by lessening your own impact, you show the world that you are serious about the issue and you live your values. And I think that is incredibly important.

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I would really like to thank the Ecollective Student Project Committee (ESPC) for granting me the funding to order the Zero Waste Kits that we used for the Challenge. If you have any ideas for student-led, sustainable projects on campus, I encourage you to apply for funding; you can get up to $5000 for a project! If you don’t have any solid ideas, but you want to do something, check out ESPC’s Idea Bank or check out what other campuses around the country are doing.

-Tess Dooley, Sustainability Intern 

Tess is a senior majoring in Marine Biology with minors in Math and Environmental Studies.
Tess is a senior majoring in Marine Biology with minors in Math and Environmental Studies.

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