Americans have grown accustomed to convenience – plastic water bottles, prepackaged foods, anything you need in an “on-the-go” option. We live in a time of throwaway consumerism, but these conveniences come at a cost. According to the Center for Sustainability and Commerce at Duke University, the average person generates 4.3 pounds of waste each day – most of which ends up in one of over 3,500 growing landfills, threatening the environment and public health.
What is the solution? A growing number of people are shifting their own habits and adopting a zero-waste lifestyle. Proponents of zero waste boast not only reduced waste, but also healthier lifestyles and money saved. Seems like a win-win-win, right? So, I decided to try to live zero waste for one week in Corvallis.
What Is Zero Waste?
Zero waste sounds like a fairly straightforward idea, but there are differing opinions about just how waste is defined. For this story, I’m defining waste as anything that cannot be composted, recycled, or re-purposed – essentially, whatever gets sent off to our beloved Coffin Butte landfill. Remember the four R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot (compost).
Steps to Zero Waste
The first step in transitioning to zero waste is to evaluate the trash you currently make. Go on, get your hands dirty – look through your actual trash and identify what kind of waste you’re making. This way, you can identify problem areas and determine sustainable solutions for yourself and your routine. For me, the biggest problem areas were from food and household product packaging.
Now that you know your waste intimately, it’s time to figure out sustainable alternatives. The key here is using long-lasting products made from sturdy materials – cotton, stainless steel, wood, and glass – to replace single-use items and packaging from your daily routine. The easiest switch for me to make immediately was to carry a reusable cotton bag, with a reusable stainless steel water and/or coffee bottle, a set of utensils, and a cloth napkin everywhere. These few items can do wonders for reducing waste throughout the day.
Shopping Zero Waste
Grocery shopping is often a primary culprit for generating waste. Lucky for us, Corvallis is equipped with plenty of options to buy food and household products in bulk and package-free. I go to Winco for most of the bulk food products I use – beans, pasta, nuts, dried fruit, and spices – and supplement the rest at First Alternative Co-op. And, for the record, this place is Mecca for zero-waste alternatives. They have an incredible bulk section for dry foods, but also for eggs, oils, hygiene products, and more. Bonus waste-less points for tons of local options, too.
I used re-usable cotton bags for produce and other dry bulk items. And, I know the Ladies of Pinterest have really co-opted the mason jar thing, but these came in handy for a myriad of uses – wet bulk containers, beverage vessels, and Tupperware.
Other shopping tips beyond groceries: Buy bar soap instead of packaged body wash, and get shampoo and conditioner in bulk in reusable containers. Replace your plastic toothbrush with a compostable bamboo brush, and your plastic razor with a stainless steel safety razor. Switch out your Charmin for recycled, unbleached toilet paper. Buy clothing secondhand, and use a drying rack instead of the dryer while you’re at it.
My Zero-Waste Week
Living zero waste for one week took a little bit of practice at first, but it’s simply a matter of shifting habits. I had become accustomed to thinking I need something like a paper towel to dry my hands, when the clean handkerchief in my bag would do the job just fine. Once I got into it, it started to feel more like a puzzle to find more and better alternatives to the wasteful items in my daily routine.
Despite my best efforts, I did produce some unavoidable waste. There were lots of produce stickers, which are made of plastic and non-recyclable. (In the summer, buying produce from a CSA or the farmers’ market can solve this problem). There was a Band-Aid, because hangnails don’t care about the environment. From a moment of weakness, there was a Snickers wrapper. And then, there’s the problem of dog bags – though I admit I briefly considered leaving just a few neglected droppings in the neighborhood, my friendly neighbor is ever quick to remind me before I even had the chance: “YOU MUST CLEAN WHAT YOUR DOG LEFT.” Yeah, okay.
Trying to live zero waste yielded a lot of successes for me, and some failures, but the point is to work toward sustainability and a better environment. With a little bit of preparation and creativity, you can make a big difference in the amount of waste you produce and tread just a little gentler on the Earth.