Josie Sianez talked trash at Triangle Vegfest recently, sharing her family’s journey towards zero waste. We’re on that journey too, but she’s much farther along. For the last two years, her family of four threw out just one small jar’s worth of trash! And that jar had already been used for collecting trash the year before. (See it on her website Zero Waste Vegan Living.) Read on for her top tips on reducing your waste and my thoughts on making sure you are getting the results you want. The zero-waste journey is good for your budget, your community, and the planet. On the other hand, it can drive you crazy. Keep an eye on the big picture.
Zero Waste Tips from Josie Sianez
- Be prepared. Josie keeps meal kits in her car so they always have reusable cups, plates, cutlery, and napkins available when they eat out. Straws for the kids, too! I keep a cloth grocery bag in the glove compartment and a plastic grocery bag in my purse.
- Be willing to pause. Before you acquire something, ask yourself if you really need it and how you will eventually get rid of it. I’d add: ask yourself if you’ve really used it up. This is how I discovered that unpeeled broccoli stems, cut crosswise a few times, can sub for kale in a green smoothie. A pause led to many of my thriftiest recipes.
- Invest in durability. It’s worth spending more for something you will use many times. I like to think in terms of the cost per use instead of the purchase cost.
- Research before you act. She’s tracked down compostable, bamboo-based dental floss from Lucky Teeth. It comes in a tiny glass jar with refills in petite cardboard boxes.
- Change your language. Instead of take-out container or paper napkin, say single-use plastic container and single-use napkin.
Make the Best Use of What You Have
Josie recommends staying as close to the top of her zero-waste list as possible. Refuse if possible, then reduce, etc.
- Refuse. She lets servers know in advance that they don’t need straws, paper napkins, or plastic cutlery. She warned us to say no to freebies.
- Reduce. She shops at farmers’ markets and in the bulk aisle to avoid packaging. Borrow or swap instead of buying.
- Reuse. Her husband switched to a straight razor with blades that can be sent back to the company for recycling. No more plastic razor handles! Josie also uses apple-sauce jars as canisters for bulk goods.
- Recycle. Not only does she recycle what she no longer needs, but she shops thrift stores for clothing and more. She sends snack bags and more to Terracycle for recycling.
- Rot. She composts food scraps which can be reused as fertilizer. She puts compostable cat litter outside in a separate area.
I’d add reciprocate to her Five Rs above. It’s the take part of the give-and-take for successful recycling. Buy recycled and low-packaging items when you do make purchases to help create a market. For example, choose toilet paper made from recycled materials to avoid flushing the Canadian boreal forest. Note that Koch Industries owns Georgia-Pacific, which makes Quilted Northern and Angel Soft bath tissue. The Koch Industries’ profits fund climate-change denialism and a host of other anti-science, unjust policies. Check out recycled tissue from Seventh Generation or Target’s Everspring instead.
Support the good guys and gals. For example, you can buy high-quality, pre-owned garments from Patagonia through their Worn Wear program. If you don’t need them anymore, you can send them back for credit and so your clothing can be used by someone else.
Know Your Local Rules. Don’t Wishcycle!
And yet, as you strive for zero waste, keep in mind a key phrase:
When in doubt, throw it out!
I heard this over and over as part of Raleigh’s Environmental Advisory Board. We’ve been studying recycling and organic-waste handling this year. The people who actually deal with what we throw out want us to know that not everything that claims to be recyclable can actually be recycled in your community—or at all. When you do recycle, put items in the correct bins. For example, here in Raleigh we can put cans, paper, and some plastic in bins for curbside pickup; fabric in orange bags for curbside pickup; and take plastic bags and wrap to the grocery store for recycling. The list of acceptable items may change based on market forces and your community’s processing capabilities, so check for updates every six months or so.
Wishcyclers puts whatever they hope can be processed into the closest recycling bin. Styrofoam that can’t be recycled. Plastic bags, Christmas lights, and hoses that jam the sorting machinery. Food-encrusted cans and pizza boxes that attract vermin. Thin plastic cups and panes of glass that shatter under the weight of it all. Store receipts loaded with BPA, which then works its way into recycled paper. On a tour of Raleigh’s recycling center, we heard that the sorters have found motor oil, cinder blocks, and dead animals. No, no, no! Wishcycling may feel good, but putting unwanted items in the collection bins can slow down, disgust, or injure workers.
Wishcycling can also ruin the good efforts of hundreds of other people. Even low levels of contamination can cause whole loads to be refused. Ironically, contamination can happen if you put something recyclable in the wrong bin, like bubble wrap in with the paper. Eventually, the material being recycled will be used in a recipe for new plastic, paper, or other material. Those “cooks” don’t want plastic bottles mixed with glass any more than I want garlic in my chocolate cake. China raised the standards to a “nearly impossible” 0.5% contamination ceiling in 2018. Around the US, cities are burning what they used to recycle because they can’t find a processor.
Are You Really Making a Difference?
As you follow Josie’s advice to pause and research, consider whether your action actually reduces waste. You don’t to support the factory that cranks out sustain-a-trend trash cans. Beware of buying a bunch of Instagram-ready zero-waste supplies can make the problem worse. My friend Camille wraps cutlery from home in a cloth napkin to take to restaurants. She didn’t buy a special traveling set the way I did. So smart!
Researching this post made me start to question the effectiveness of my own good intentions. Does buying used items reduce waste only if I actually use them? And keep using them? Further, does that use have to replace something I would have needed otherwise?
Because of this, I’m about to donate some clothes that I bought at thrift stores or consignment shops because I haven’t worn them lately. It’s a waste of sorts that they are hanging in my closet when someone else might actually wear them. I’m selling my bicycle because I’m afraid to ride it. (My doctor said no more blows to the head.)
Hanging a teacup in a tree might count as reuse, especially if you would otherwise have purchased an ornament. But forcing the kid next door to draw on the other side of a manuscript draft doesn’t mean that a tree wasn’t cut down to make the paper. I’m not convinced that sewing 50 decorative buttons on a tee shirt or lining a path with wine bottles means there was no waste involved.
On the other hand, doing retail therapy at a thrift shop is better than doing it at the mall, a big box store, or online. You may be helping a good cause financially and you can always donate your purchases back.
Keep Your Eye on the Whole Picture
We should choose our battles, as Mike Berners-Lee notes in his book How Bad are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everything He writes:
A friend recently asked me how he should best dry his hands to reduce his carbon footprint–with a paper towel or with an electric hand drier. The same person literally flies across the Atlantic dozens of times a year. A sense of scale is required here.
Berners-Lee later writes that you’d produce 3 grams of CO2 using a Dyson Airblade, 10 grams with one paper towel, and 20 grams with a standard electric drier. The Carbon Footprint Calculator reports that flying round-trip from New York to London burns 0.88 metric tons of carbon. That’s about 80,000 times more CO2 for the flight than for a paper towel.
Do the best you can on all fronts without driving yourself crazy. Right after Josie’s talk, I stopped at the Peace of Soul food truck for lunch. They wouldn’t use the plate I’d brought and they stuck a plastic fork into the curried potatoes before I could stop them. Food safety rules and the rush of serving a hungry horde can make it tough. But my lunch of bbq “wings,” curried potatoes, and collards had about 10% of the carbon footprint of a burger, with much less water and land use. Filling and tasty, too!
The climate crisis calls for us to move towards zero waste and a plant-based diet, to make personal changes and systems changes, to fly less and vote more. Together, we can make a difference.