ZERO WASTE: WHAT IS IT, WHY IS IT
Since 2013, my spouse and I have worked towards living waste-free. The landfill-bound trash we create in one year wouldn't fill a shoebox. Our commitment to reducing waste and consumption is a daily practice, stemming from a larger ideal of supporting environmental and human rights, and a desire to live simply.
America boasts the most wasteful culture in history, which is the result of an economic model dependent on a continual increase in the amount of manufactured goods. Our limitless appetite for material objects and cheap energy stuffs the atmosphere with harmful greenhouse gases and creates mountains of liquid and material waste which can't safely decompose, thus undermining the balance of earth's life-sustaining systems. The quest for more stuff clogs our homes and workplaces with unnecessary objects, the management of which occupies precious time and energy. Careful marketing makes what we do have seem inadequate.
America's cultural and economic narratives are based in a fantasy of endless, inconsequential growth. Yet climate change indicates that the natural world can't support our oversized needs. What can the average person do about a contradiction so massive? Rather than go on feeling frustrated, my spouse and I decided to take action and attempt a zero-waste lifestyle. This means we:
- aim to contribute nothing to landfills through reduction and re-use, while drastically reducing our recyclables
- reduce our energy consumption through efficiency
- prize our time and energy over material acquisitions
Zero-waste is a meaningful practice with many rewards. It provides focus in a culture stuffed with consumer choices. It develops attributes such as creativity, empathy, efficiency, and resourcefulness. Benefits to our health are manifold, and the associated buying practices save us money. Rather than complicate our lives, the goal of trash-free has greatly simplified them.
Below is a growing outline of resources that have helped my spouse and I reduce waste over the past several years. Use it as an entry point to a low-waste or zero-waste lifestyle.
BASICS OF ZERO WASTE GROCERY SHOPPING
By now, most people are familiar with the idea of bringing a re-useable grocery bag to the food store. This idea can be extended to buying most food when you shop with your own containers - at health food stores with bulk sections, farmer's markets, and suppliers. For one example of what trash-free shopping looks like, see this TV segment with Bea Johnson, author of Zero Waste Home.
Before leaving home...
- Keep a list of pantry items that need to be replenished. This simple organizational practice will prevent you from over-buying, and it will save you time.
- Pack enough jars, bottles, and reusable bags to get the groceries you need.
At the store...
- Bulk food is charged by the pound rather than with a SKU, so jars must be weighed, or "tared," by a cashier before food goes into them. The weight of the container will be deducted from the total weight during checkout.
- Buy fruits and vegetables without using plastic produce bags. Use cotton bags instead - purchase or make your own out of repurposed material, such as old sheets.
- Jars and cotton bags can be filled with dry bulk items (grains, almond butter, legumes) or small produce (mushroom, peas, brussels sprouts).
- Jars can be filled with cold cuts at the deli counter - just ask the counter worker to place your order in the container instead of a plastic bag.
- Fill bottles with liquid bulk items, such as olive oil or dish soap. Cleaned wine bottles with a cork stopper, or bottles with pop tops (such as empty Grolsch beer bottles) are fine options here. Dark glass is best for cooking oils, as it prevents light-related spoiling.
- Fill cotton bags with loose loaves of bread from the bakery.
- Can't find it in bulk? Find a supplier - a bakery, deli, brewery . . . Or make it!
Do you feel like people are staring at you and your jars? They're probably just curious. Trash-free grocery shopping isn't the norm. Own it! Your efforts will undoubtedly inspire others, as ours have.
- Store food properly to ensure longevity.
- Replace bottle stoppers with metal pour spouts - your friend who works at a bar may be willing to sneak you a few. These allow olive oil, dish soap, and other liquids to pour easily from the bottles they're in, reducing mess and waste.
- Compost your food waste. Learn more about composting here.
- When it's time for another trip to the store, be thoughtful about how much you need. Did any of last week's groceries go bad? If so, buy less.
FOUR SIMPLE, WASTE-REDUCING ITEMS TO CARRY WITH YOU
1. Re-useable drinking container.
2. Re-usable cutlery. I use a to-go kit of bamboo 'silverware.'
3. Re-usable bag.
4. "No, thanks." Use in response to: would you like a bag, a straw in your drink, a bunch of soy sauce packets, a free sample, etc. Refusing what you do not need is an important element of waste reduction.
ONLINE RESOURCES TO GET YOU STARTED
The websites below offer time-tested strategies for developing a zero-waste lifestyle. It's a process, so go slow, and remember that everyone - even the authors below - make some trash. It's not possible to reach absolute zero in a culture that relies on disposables. Start with modest goals and then keep going. By picking and choosing accessible strategies, you'll eventually build your own unique practice that is low-waste, if not zero-waste.
Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson
Johnson's family of four creates one quart-sized jar of trash in a year. 100 Tips for Reducing Waste offers essential knowledge, and the Bulk Finder app is a free tool to help you find package-free goods. Her book Zero Waste Home is a comprehensive, practical, and inspiring guide to waste-free life.
No Trash Project by Colleen Doyle
Colleen Doyle is an artist who went on to study sustainable design and waste management. Readers can learn from her ambitious attempts at living trash-free as she details both her successes and failures with a curious, process-oriented attitude. Projects include: creating paper from discarded jute sacks, a field trip to the Greenpoint's Waste Water Management Plant, and attempts at indoor composting. A post about her struggle with the efficacy of living trash-free is one beautiful instance of Doyle's reflective, thoughtful nature.
My Plastic Free Life by Beth Terry
While the mission of this site is to help eliminate plastic from your life, there are many intersections between plastic-free and trash-free. Terry's posts are tenacious in their logistical detail. 1oo Steps to a Plastic-Free Life and How To Store Produce Without Plastic are essential resources.
Trash is for Tossers by Lauren Singer
This blog is a good resource for young adults who are curious about going trash-free. See her list of zero-waste alternatives to trash-creating products.
Zero Waste Chef by Anne Marie
Weekly recipes to keep your zero-waste kitchen game fresh.
FURTHER READING, LISTENING, VIEWING
Books - find in your local library
Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield
My New Roots by Sarah Britton - cookbook or blog (friendly to zero-waste cooks)
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
Trashed by Derf Backderf
Zero Waste Home (book) by Bea Johnson
Koyaanisqatsi directed by Godfrey Reggio
Closing America's Largest Landfill, Without Taking Out the Trash by Liyna Anwar, NPR News
Plastic Is Everywhere And Recycling Isn't The End Of It by Christopher Joyce, NPR News
Plastic Pollution Risks 'Near-Permanent Contamination of Natural Environment by Matthew Taylor, The Guardian
RESOURCES FOR A TRASH-FREE LIFE IN BOSTON & CAMBRIDGE
Bulk Finder App (via Zero Waste Home) - for worldwide use!
Breweries - Buy beer in growlers, which are filled at breweries and returned for re-use. On average, there is a $2 deposit which is paid at purchase and then refunded when you return the jug. You might also bring your own and ask for a fill-up - check with the brewery to see if this is possible. Breweries in Cambridge include: Lamplighter Brewery, Cambridge Brewing Co., and many more. Check out this list of all the New England craft breweries.
Cambridge Naturals, Porter Square - This natural health store has a comprehensive selection of dry bulk items related to health and wellness, making it a great spot for those who make medicinal/nutritional supplements and beauty products. They carry unpackaged soaps and trash-free menstrual products.
Central Bottle, Central Square - This wine merchant has loose loaves of locally made bread, a dope cheese counter, and an olive oil fusti where you can re-fill your own 750ml bottle. They are accommodating to customers who bring their own containers.
Find a supplier - Visit your local bakery, fish market, or butcher for unpackaged specialty foods. See if they will fill your order into the containers/bags you bring.
Food for Free, Cambridge MA - Food For Free rescues fresh food that might otherwise go to waste and distributes it within the local emergency food system where it can reach those in need. Free produce is offered to anyone each week on Bishop Allen Drive in Central Square - visit their website for more details.
Food Not Bombs, various locations - This classic social justice organization provides free meals to anyone who wishes to partake. Produce, bread and other food that can't be sold from grocery stores, bakeries, and produce markets are safely sourced for the meals. The Central Square FNB stand opens on Sundays from 3-5pm. Bring a utensil!
Harvest Co-Op, Central Square & Jamaica Plain - Harvest boasts a diverse, inexpensive dry and wet bulk section which includes: cooking oils, castile soap, laundry detergent, liquid lotion and shampoo, honey, maple syrup, nut butter, grains, cereal, beans, legumes, flours, and a large spice section. Recycle old plastic bags here (recyclable plastic bags CAN NOT be placed in curbside bins, but can be dropped off at designated recycling spots).
Mass Farmers Market, various locations - These pop-up grocery markets sell locally grown produce directly from the farm to consumers, often at a lower price compared to grocery stores.
Whole Foods Market, Inman Square - While their bulk section is more expensive than Harvest's, deli and fish counter workers at this location will put cuts of meat and cheese into a container that you bring. I mention this because there is inconsistency across Whole Foods Markets regarding this policy. All Whole Foods Markets have a bulk section, though this store boasts a greater selection than other WFMs in the area.
Home & Garden
Ace Hardware, Central Square - This small hardware store carries unpackaged nails, bolts, nuts (you name it, they have it), as well as wire, chain, and rope by the foot.
Boston General Store, Coolidge Corner- A good stop for compostable and long-lasting cleaning products such as the Redeker dish brush and sea sponges.
Online Suppliers - When you can't find good local options, several home goods stores exist with the explicit purpose of providing products to reduce your waste output. Check out Package Free Shop in NY or Life Without Plastic.
The Works, Cambridge - Learn all the ways to compost and where to donate or recycle just about anything. The Works gives away finished compost at their location on Hampshire Street - bring your own bucket to haul away free, unpackaged, nutrient-rich humus for your garden!
Second-Hand: Get it or Get Rid of it!
40 South St., Jamaica Plain - Mid-to-upscale vintage boutique.
Bobby from Boston, South End - Upscale vintage.
Boomerang's, Central Square & Jamaica Plain - Thrift. Accepts donations.
Buffalo Exchange, Davis Square - Second-hand and vintage. Buys clothing - but keep in mind, their buying methodology is erratic.
Craigslist Boston, online - Buy, sell, barter, or find free from locals looking to downsize.
Freecycle.org, online - "A grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (and getting) stuff for free in their own towns and neighborhoods."
The Garment District, Kendall Square - Vintage, contemporary, costume, and dollar-per-pound clothes. Buys clothing and awards $5 store credit for donations.
Global Thrift, Waltham Center - Thrift. Accepts donations.
The Great Eastern Trading Company, Central Square - Mid-to-upscale vintage and costume boutique.
Goodwill, Central Square and Davis Square - Thrift. Accepts donations of most items for resale, reuse, or recycling, including ripped clothes (given new life as rags), broken christmas tree lights (the copper wire is recycled), old glasses, single shoes - see this list of 9 things you didn't know you could donate to Goodwill, this list of acceptable and unacceptable donations, or check with your local store.
MassArt ReStore, Longwood Medical Area - The ReStore is a free, public store that carries used and unusual artmaking supplies. They accept donations of "most objects that won't mold or explode."
Oona's, Harvard Square - Mid-to-upscale vintage boutique.
Second Time Around, Harvard Square, Coolidge Corner, & Newbury Street - Upscale contemporary. Buys clothing.
Urban Renewals, Allston - Thrift. Accepts donations.
Get Rid of it
See Second-Hand list above!
Where to Compost (via The Works)
Where to Recycle or Donate Anything (via The Works)
Nike Reuse-a-Shoe Program - Bring worn-out athletic shoes of any brand at a drop-off point (located in most Nike stores) and they will be recycled into courts and playgrounds.
Shelters and Charities - Many accept donations of canned food, used towels and sheets, toiletries, electronics, and much more. Google it!