TRASH-FREE: WHAT IS IT, WHY IS IT
Since 2013, my spouse and I have worked towards living trash-free. The landfill-bound waste 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.
"The economic objectives of our society are grounded in a continual increase in the amount of manufactured goods," writes Phillipe Squarzoni in Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science. As a result of this model, modern-day America boasts the most wasteful culture in anthropological history. Our limitless appetite for cheap energy and material objects undermines the balance of Earth's life-sustaining systems. It stuffs the atmosphere with harmful greenhouse gases, creates mountains of liquid and material waste which can't safely decompose.
America's cultural and economic narratives are based in a fantasy of endless, inconsequential growth. Yet climate change indicates that the natural world can not support our oversized needs. Rather than ignore this contradiction, my spouse and I decided to limit our consumption and stop making trash. To us, trash-free means:
- Contributing nothing to landfills through reduction and re-use
- Reducing our greenhouse gas emissions
- Thinking outside the capitalist model
We make informed choices about what is consumed after considering an object's material, manufacturing, packaging, origin, usefulness, and durability. We bike and use public transportation. Our social goals are framed around community and collective responsibility, rather than maximizing individual gains.
Trash-free 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-trash/no-trash lifestyle. Hopefully, you'll be inspired to do your own research. Feel free to ask me a question or suggest a listing!
THE BASICS OF TRASH-FREE GROCERY SHOPPING
You can eschew your consumption of many things, but food isn't one of them. Much of the waste mitigation in our apartment comes from changing our food buying and disposal habits. I recommend starting your trash audit in the pantry.
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 grocery 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...
Pack enough jars, plastic containers, 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 containers must be weighed, or "tared," by a cashier before food goes into them. The weight of the container will be deducted from it's filled weight during checkout.
- Buy fruits and vegetables without using plastic produce bags.
- Containers and cotton bags can be filled with dry bulk items (grains, almond butter, legumes) or small produce (mushroom, peas, brussels sprouts).
- Containers 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 section, or buy bread in brown paper bags (sans plastic window). Compost or recycle the bag at home.
- 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.
- 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, TRASH-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.
ONLINE RESOURCES TO GET YOU STARTED
At its core, trash-free is the art of reduction and re-use. The basic strategies are pretty uniform across the board. While I relate with some of the below authors more than others, each provides detailed instruction that I'm too lazy to recreate (why re-invent the wheel?). Pick and choose strategies that are accessible for you and eventually, you'll build your own unique practice.
And remember . . . trash-free is not about competing to have the most Instagram-able collection of jars. It's not about buying an aesthetic or being any one type of person. Regardless of how each author presents their practice, there are many ways make it your own. I encourage you to contact me with authors that inspire you!
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. Next-level stuff.
My Plastic Free Life by Beth Terry
A self-described "on-again, off-again activist," Terry has successfully petitioned for companies like Brita to create recycling programs for their products. 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.
Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson
Johnson's family of four creates one quart-sized jar of trash in a year, so her blog has useful information for people with children (and pets). 100 Tips for Reducing Waste offers essential knowledge, but I'm most impressed by the author's Bulk Finder app.
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.
My New Roots by Sarah Britton
If you're used to cooking with pre-packaged food, the thought of switching to bulk goods and produce may seem overwhelming (or boring). The recipes in Britton's My New Roots are healthy, tasty, and can be made with food easily found unpackaged. Her methodology is backed by a Holistic Nutrition education, so expect to find recipes using natural and seasonally-available ingredients.
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
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
Trashed by Derf Backderf
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!
Where to Compost (via The Works)
Where to Recycle or Donate Anything (via The Works)
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.
Cambridge Naturals, Porter Square - This natural health store has a comprehensive selection of dry bulk items such as teas, herbs, spices, and waxes - a great spot for those who make their own medicinal/nutritional supplements and toiletries. They also 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.
Food for Free, Cambridge MA - Food For Free rescues fresh food - 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 the 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: canola and olive oil, Dr. Bronner's, laundry detergent, liquid lotion and shampoo, honey, maple syrup, almond and peanut butter, all manner of grains, granolas, beans, and flours, and a large spice section. They also carry Preserve products (made with 100% post-consumer waste), 100% cotton tampons, Diva Cup, Glad Rags, unpackaged soaps, waxes, etc. Recycle plastic bags here (recyclable plastic bags CAN NOT be placed in curbside bins, but can be dropped off at designated recycling spots).
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."
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. Very fresh!
Why buy something new when there is an ocean of perfectly great, lightly used goods waiting to be claimed for little or nothing at all? Second-hand stores are abundant in Boston and Cambridge. Most accept donations, and some will buy your clothes for re-sale. All of the stores listed below carry men and women's clothes; most carry home goods as well.
40 South St., Jamaica Plain - Mid-to-upscale vintage boutique.
Bobby from Boston, South End - Upscale vintage.
Boomerang's, Central Square & Jamaica Plain - Thrift. Operated by the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts. Accepts donations.
Buffalo Exchange, Davis Square - Second-hand and vintage. Buys clothing - but watch out, they are picky!
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.
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.
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.
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!