Why And How I'm Trying To Live A Zero Waste Lifestyle

We often forget that the ability to live in a home free from the smell of rotting garbage is a privilege.
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I want you all to take a moment to imagine a world in which weekly trash collection service does not exist. Imagine that no one will come to pick up your garbage for you, and there are no dumpsters or public trash cans where you can take it yourself.

I want you to further imagine that all of your water comes out of the ground or from a nearby river. If anyone dumps their garbage in the river or tries to bury it in a ditch, your drinking water will turn brown, taste vile, or a combination of both. Bottled water does not exist. There is no technology that you can use to filter or distill your water.

How would we humans behave in a world like this? Well, we would probably make a point of not producing any trash.

We often forget that the ability to live in a home free from the smell of rotting garbage is a privilege. We give little thought to what happens to our trash when it’s carried away.

Here’s the answer: It goes to landfills that are much more likely to be located in poor communities than in affluent ones. This is because people who live in poverty lack the political power necessary to prevent landfills and other toxic dump sites from being created in their neighborhoods.

Landfills aren’t just gross; they’re harmful to our health. Landfills emit toxic gasses, such as ammonia and sulfides, that residents of these impoverished areas are forced to inhale. Exposure to these gasses causes multiple short-term health effects—including headaches, nausea, sleeping difficulties, weight loss, chest pain and lung irritation—and could cause long term health problems that we are unaware of due to lack of research.

Landfills also contaminate groundwater, the primary water source for an entire 50 percent of the United States population. Access to clean water is also a privilege. When poor people don’t have it, politicians don’t care much (re: Flint, Michigan).

The final consequence of producing trash is global warming. Landfills emit both methane and carbon dioxide, which trap heat in the atmosphere. You know the rest.

Armed with this information, I’ve begun a quest towards producing zero waste. If your reaction is to say that producing zero waste is completely impractical, I would refer you back to the exposition of this column. Those who say it’s impractical to produce no waste are not the ones physically suffering because of the waste we produce. It’s not enough to “check” our privilege; we must stop abusing it.

The good news is: Reducing your waste is easy. On my journey towards a zero waste lifestyle, I have learned that only a few simple changes can eliminate about 90 percent of your waste. For your convenience, I’ve compiled those changes into a checklist:

1. Compost.

Open up Google right now and search for “compost collection [insert city/town where you live].” I guarantee that you can find at least one location near you that is collecting food scraps on a weekly basis. Stick a box in your freezer and throw your food scraps in there instead of throwing them in the trash can, and take the box to the collection site every week.

2. Get some reusable grocery bags.

Let’s get real: If you’re not already doing this, you have to be the laziest person on the entire planet. Reusable bags are sold in every grocery store, they only cost one dollar, and they’re placed right near the checkout. Buying them literally could not get any easier.

3. Replace paper towels and tissues with rags.

The main reason we produce so much trash is that we manufacture so many products that are designed to be thrown away. Two of the biggest offenders are paper towels and tissues. Replace them with dish rags and handkerchiefs and you’ll produce significantly less trash.

I’ll admit that it’s difficult to overcome the grossness of cleaning things up with cloth rags. There are some messes that I still feel the need to resort to paper towels for. But like I said, this is a journey, not an overnight transformation. Small changes lead to big changes.

4. Invest in an electric razor.

The disposable razor is another example of a product which is designed to become garbage. Not only will an electric razor reduce your trash, it will save you money on razors in the long run.

5. Invest in reusable menstrual products.

The average menstruating person uses about 240 tampons a year. You can cut that down to zero with the purchase of one product: a menstrual cup. You can also purchase cloth pads, underwear like Thinx, or sea sponge tampons, depending on what you feel most comfortable with.

6. Stop purchasing packaged food.

First, let me explain why you need to do this: Most food packaging is not recyclable. Those plastic bags and trays end up either in landfills or in the ocean. I dramatically reduced my waste when I stopped buying packaged foods.

I’ll admit that this is probably the most difficult step on this list—I still haven’t managed to completely eliminate packaged food from my life. But I’ve gotten about 90 percent of the way there by buying items in bulk. I bring my own bags to the store and fill them up with grains, nuts, or legumes from the bulk bins. I also shop at the farmer’s market, where most venders sell their fruit in compostable cartons, not plastic. Finally, I make as much as my food from scratch as possible.

I’ve eliminated about 90 percent of my waste by making those six changes, and I know that every one of you can do the same. If every one of us privileged people eliminated 90 percent of our waste, we’d be living in a different world. We can obtain a world with clean rivers and clean air, where no one has to breathe the toxic fumes from the excrement of a society that lives in excess.

That world does not have to be imaginary. We can get there—easily.