Listen to this story
The first time I heard about the concept of “zero waste” — a movement and lifestyle wherein one attempts to produce as little waste as possible in order to, excuse my French, save us all from dying in a fiery hellscape — I was blown away. I had never thought of my life in terms of how much trash I produced, but once I saw my household as a sort of machine — one with input and output that I control — I couldn’t return to my old to-go cup ways. The zero waste lifestyle is a radical one, a stunning contrast to our deep-seated cultural convictions that everything should be convenient. But it’s also beautifully simple, aesthetically pleasing, and a concrete way of saying that you’re invested not just in your little plot of land, but your neighbor’s, too.
In an attempt to learn more about life without trash, I spoke to eight zero-waste bloggers and Instagrammers about why (and how) they stick with this whole composting, glass-jar-bringing, secondhand-shopping thing.
On That Come-to-Jesus Moment
Anmei Kirkes, TaintedByTrash.com: I was watching a documentary on Netflix called A Plastic Ocean. It surprised me how sad the documentary really made me feel. I remember this one scene where scientists were picking up dead birds off the coast and examining them. All the birds had died from starvation due to eating plastic mistaken as food and then not being able to digest it but feeling full. I am generally not a huge fan of birds, but this scene actually made me cry. So I began researching online what I could do in my life, location, and at my age that could help. I felt like I was just this small fish in this enormous world and that there was not much I could really do that would make a change. While researching I discovered zero waste. I had never heard about it before, and the ideas and the lifestyle really struck me. I thought to myself I could definitely make changes in my life, and most of them did not seem that life altering for me.
Sadly, I can just walk outside and see how tainted our world is by trash. This is also how I came up with my [blog] name. I was actually at a football game and they were singing the national anthem. It was an amazing autumn day in October; the weather was ideal. The sun was setting right behind the flag as they were playing, and the flag was majestically waving in the wind. Then, shortly into it, I noticed a white plastic bag floating along in the wind right in front of the flag, like it was dancing in front of the flag and tainting this majestic moment. I have had many moments like this since, but images like this keep me going.
On Community and Culture
One zero waster may be an island, but a community of zero wasters is a powerful change-making machine. Whether it’s fighting for more representation in the world of sustainability or simply acting as an example by bringing a reusable container into a restaurant for your leftovers, the movement depends on people not just reducing their own waste, but looking outward, too.
Olivia Lapierre, @zerowastehabesha: When I first started my zero-waste journey, I redesigned my whole life to mirror the lives of the many white, upper-middle-class bloggers who represent the face of the mainstream zero-waste movement. At the time, I couldn’t find any alternatives, and so I assimilated, as Black people do in a world dominated by whiteness. Although this experience of assimilation was extraordinarily challenging and stressful, I convinced myself that it was an internal issue rather than a structural issue — that it was about something I was doing wrong and not something wrong with the mainstream zero-waste movement.
Several instances inspired me to rethink how I was leading a zero-waste lifestyle. Sometimes I wouldn’t do my laundry because I ran out of homemade laundry detergent and the bulk laundry detergent was too expensive. I kept using homemade toothpaste even though it made my mouth bleed and my gums recede. And I would often choose not to eat when I was traveling, because I forgot my container and there were no zero-waste options.
I finally realized that the only way I could ensure my happiness and health while continuing to advocate for a circular economy is to realize that I live in a linear economy. This means that producing trash is not only inevitable but a necessary product of global capitalism. My macro-level thinking led to research on the history of trash and how white supremacy, capitalism, and the patriarchy have facilitated trash production and climate change. As my perspective shifted, I knew that I had to work to reshape what leading a zero-waste life looks like, not only for myself but also for others who had similar experiences. This inspired me in turn to launch Representation Matters in Sustainability.
Anmei: I believe people are becoming more aware of our effect on this world. Zero waste seems to be catching on, because I believe people actually want to do something that they feel is beneficial. But I don’t think many people even know that some of these lifestyle changes even exist. I had never thought to bring my own container for leftovers at a restaurant. I do it all the time now. I did not even know that was allowed. We never see people doing things like that, so we’ve become accustomed to this way of living that is hurting our earth. I think that if people just knew all that they could do, they would see how easy it really is.
Celia Ristow, Litterless.co: I’ve met so many friends in Chicago, where I live, through zero waste. When we get together, we set food scraps aside to compost, compare our favorite bamboo toothbrush brands, swap tips for finding bulk ingredients, and swap items we no longer need.
Eating as a zero-waste aficionado requires getting real friendly with your local bulk food seller and making sure you always have some sort of steel tin/glass jar/reusable tote rattling around in your bag. Meal prep is a plus, but not a requirement.
Ariana Schwarz, Paris-to-Go.com: I love savory foods for breakfast, like mung bean pancakes (pulse soaked mung beans in a food processor, add sour kimchi or green onion if you like, and fry in a pan). Lately I’ve been getting a weekly box of produce from Perfectly Imperfect Produce — they save fresh produce that vendors would normally send to landfills, and they donate a portion of their proceeds to families in food deserts or to local food banks. On weekends I make a big batch of quinoa or tomato sauce or beans or hummus, then freeze the leftovers to use throughout the month.
Celia: Cooking as a zero waster means I don’t have the benefit of prepackaged foods that can make cooking less onerous, like precut vegetables bought in plastic tubs, beans from a can, or precooked frozen rice. I’ve learned to always think a day ahead so I can make sure to soak beans if I want to eat them the following day, to plan enough time to cook dried grains, and to just make sure I have the right things on hand. I keep a well-stocked pantry full of dried goods like beans, grains, spices, nuts, and popcorn kernels, so my grocery runs every few days are just to pick up fruits and vegetables and anything I might have run out of. I try to buy food for about half a week each time I go shopping to ensure that I’m able to eat it all before it goes bad and so I don’t end up with a surplus if I deviate from the loose meal plan I keep in my head.
Olivia: I no longer do one grocery haul and cook all of my meals for the week because my busy life doesn’t allow that to be comfortable and affordable. I always have bulk foods like legumes, rice, and oatmeal stocked up, but I buy my produce as needed. I cook when I have the time, which means I usually make lots of lentils, rice, and salads. I also advocate for culturally appropriate foods as a part of sustainability. I am Ethiopian, and so having access to Ethiopian ingredients is an important part of my cultural and spiritual identity.
Lisa Bahn, @zerowastebunny: I always have a stainless-steel water bottle in my work bag to keep me hydrated throughout the day, and there is usually a little container of almonds rolling around the bottom of my bag.
Hajar Moujib, HajarMoujib.com: Once I find a bulk section or somewhere I can bring my jars, I become a frequent customer. It saves me time because the staff know me, and if they’re friendly enough, they give me a little more than I asked for. And I use these two phrases to refuse plastic, and they have never failed me: “I’m allergic to plastic.” (People avoid making fun of you when you tell them it’s a health issue.) To refuse straws, tissue, plastic cutlery: “Just keep it. I probably won’t use it.”
Raewyn Pearce, @littlebitdaily: For dinners, I have a two-week set menu to keep things simple. When we get sick of a certain meal or produce goes out of season, I replace it with something else. Being organized is the key. Having a set day for bulk food shopping is really helpful. Keeping a grocery list. Having lots of clean jars and cloth bags.
Heather White, @intentionalism: We grow a variety of produce, including strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, leaf lettuces, kale, green beans, broccoli, and snap peas. Growing herbs saves us a lot of money. Currently in our garden are parsley, cilantro, rosemary, thyme, sage, French tarragon, mint, chives, and lavender. To reduce our waste and eat healthy year-round, we occasionally can food, such as tomatoes, applesauce, peaches, and jams. We also forage for blackberries and glean our neighbors’ fruit trees when they have surplus.
While not running to Target or ordering off Amazon Prime every time you need a household item might seem panic-inducing, zero wasters say their lifestyles are surprisingly hassle-free. When buying things wrapped in plastic is no longer an option, the world suddenly looks a lot less complicated.
Ariana: Getting dressed and ready for the morning is so simple. I used to spend so much time applying makeup, doing my hair, or picking out clothes. I haven’t used anything except water and coconut oil on my hair and skin in three years, and I no longer need foundation or a ton of products, because the texture of my hair and skin improved. All my clothes match, and I feel good in all of them, so I can practically pick an outfit blindfolded and not worry. My work uniform this winter is usually a ribbed top, Levi’s, and sneakers or ankle boots, though I do need business attire a couple times a week. I rotate three dresses and one wool skirt with heels (all secondhand) and Swedish Stockings for that.
Anmei: I don’t really find myself shopping much now that I’ve transitioned to zero waste. When I shop now, I love going to the thrift and antique stores to see what’s available. When I go to retail stores, I find myself evaluating the packaging, seeing whether it’s sustainable and all the resources it took to get here. After all that, I generally realize I don’t really need whatever is in my hand.
Lisa: I can get ready in under 10 minutes. I either wash my face with water only or scrub with a Konjac sponge, which is compostable (too much soap wrecks the pH of your skin); brush my teeth with a bamboo toothbrush; and use my metal tongue scraper. It sounds almost counterintuitive, but my life is much simpler now than it used to be.
Hajar: This lifestyle makes my day (week, month, year) easier simply because I don’t need to go through the supermarket shelves that are a sea of plastic packaged products. I scan through and walk away, which keeps the pennies in the pocket. Also, you would be surprised by the amount of time people waste window-shopping. When you know you’re not buying anyway (because of the packaging), you simply don’t bother looking.
Raewyn: I used to get so overwhelmed with how many options there were when buying pretty much anything. I’d struggle to make a decision. Things like food, clothing, makeup, furniture, gifts. The zero-waste lifestyle narrows down my options to buying only things that are plastic-free, ethically produced, secondhand, or made of natural materials.
On Why They Keep Going
Let’s not be coy: Sometimes it would be easier to order your entire life off Amazon Prime, packaging and emissions be damned. Sometimes it would be easier to buy dish soap in a plastic bottle from the nearest Target instead of trekking to the one store in town that sells it in bulk. So why stick with it?
Olivia: The dope Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPoC) environmentalists’ community I have connected with inspire me to hustle every day. Black and Brown people are disproportionately affected by climate change, even though we have been engaged in sustainability practices forever. BIPoC deserve to be written into the future, we deserve to be represented, and we deserve clean water, air, and soil.
Heather: I feel compelled to take responsibility for the impact I’m having on our environment. Once I became aware of the far-reaching implications of our waste, especially plastic pollution, I couldn’t look the other way. I want my kids to see that I’m trying, that I’m doing the best I can to protect this earth for them, for their children, and their grandchildren.
Anmei: There are definitely times when it would be easier to not be zero waste and go on living like I used to. But then I realize that I would just feel guilty all the time. When I transitioned to zero waste, it’s like a whole new person inside of me was awakened, as crazy as that may sound. But I see things differently. It’s like people say: Ignorance is bliss. I’m no longer able to ignore what I know.
Celia: I can’t imagine ever going back. Now that I know how easy it is to live without making much trash, there’s no reason to stop. Because I’ve incorporated zero waste into my daily routines, it has become an easy, normal way of living for me. Of course, there are certain scenarios when it isn’t possible, but I just try to learn from those situations without feeling guilty, and then get right back to my normal zero-waste routine.
Hajar: A precious thing that this lifestyle has personally taught me is to focus on what actually matters. I now see things as objects, materials that must serve me a purpose and add value to my life, or otherwise I won’t get it. My energy and time are devoted to living ethically and creating experiences and memories rather than owning “stuff” that ends up in landfills.
Lisa: I take a trip every year that often takes me to extreme environments where the beauty is humbling beyond words. I always return with a renewed vigor and energy to keep working at living zero waste. Some days it truly is hard to live zero waste, and I shut my eyes and dream of the melting glaciers of New Zealand, seas of ancient moss in Iceland, the desolate beauty of the Atacama Desert, a lake filled with flamingos. I think of a world without these wonderful things, and my soul can’t bear it. And so I’ll bring my coffee cup, I’ll refuse your straw, I’ll pick up the rubbish you’ve left behind on the beach. To me, it’s still worth it.