To reduce personal waste, Tippi Thole suggests making these swaps.
• Instead of a disposable coffee cup: Bring your own reusable to-go cup, or dine in • Instead of bottled drinks, plastic cups: Skip them or bring a water bottle • Instead of plastic straws: Skip them or use reusable stainless-steel or silicone straws • Instead of takeout containers: Bring your own containers for leftovers or takeout
• Instead of plastic shopping bags: Reusable tote bags • Instead of produce bags: Skip them or use reusable mesh bags • Instead of packaged food: Bring your own containers to bulk-food stores and farmers markets (check zerowastehome.com/app for package-free stores near you) • Instead of packaged snacks: Make your own • Instead of new clothes, furniture, sports gear, etc.: Buy secondhand whenever possible
• Instead of household cleaner: Make your own with vinegar, water and lemon juice • Instead of paper towels: Cloth rags • Instead of plastic sandwich bags: Reusable cloth bags or food storage containers • Instead of paper napkins: Cloth napkins • Instead of paper bills and statements: Electronic bills and statements • Instead of catalogs: Cancel them
• Instead of liquid soap: Bar soap • Instead of bottled shampoo: Bar shampoo • Instead of disposable razor: Stainless-steel safety razor (blades can be recycled) • Instead of shaving cream: Shaving bar • Instead of tissues: Handkerchiefs • Instead of cotton rounds: Reusable fabric rounds • Instead of plastic toothbrush: Bamboo toothbrush • Instead of mouthwash: Make your own • Instead of toothpaste: Make your own • Instead of tampons: Silicone menstrual cup • Instead of sanitary pads: Reusable cotton pads
Tippi Thole recycled. She composted. She thought she was doing a pretty good job environmentally. Then she heard a talk on plastics, and the container of trash she and her 8-year-old son emptied out every week began to look irresponsible.
Thole replaced her 10-gallon can with a small wastebasket that had been under her bathroom sink and started to change the way she shopped and lived. Within 14 weeks, the family's weekly trash fit into a 21/2-inch-tall Mason jar. With room to spare.
These days, a typical week's worth of trash might contain a receipt or two, fruit stickers, a wine bottle cap, a bottle label, a Band-Aid and packing tape.
Thole and her son, Eames, are newly minted members of the Zero Waste movement, a worldwide group that aims to eliminate as much waste as possible. Zero Wasters avoid plastics and disposable products, bring their own containers when shopping, make things that most of us buy packaged, and buy clothing and furniture only when necessary and only secondhand.
When Thole, a 41-year-old freelance graphic designer who lives near Montreal, examined her trash, she discovered that most of it was food packaging. Now she buys her edibles at farmers markets and bulk-food stores, and she belongs to a farm cooperative – all places that provide unpackaged food.
Cutting way back on trash doesn't require time, she says, but you do have to be prepared. Thole has a shopping kit that includes cloth bags and glass jars to collect dried food, liquids, meats and cheeses. She uses a wine tote to keep the jars upright and prevent them from banging against each other. She keeps everything in a wicker basket, stored in the back of her car.
“By shopping for package-free food,” Thole says, “we're able to eliminate this category of waste entirely. You can buy just about anything in bulk, from pantry staples to beer and wine.”
She also makes many items that other people buy as finished products and has been describing her efforts at tinytrashcan.com as well as on Instagram at @tiny.trash.can.
“I keep sharing (on Instagram) because it keeps us accountable,” Thole says, “and the conversations are so interesting. Yesterday, I had a butter wrapper. Someone suggested I could make my own (butter). It's just a matter of raising the question. Can I make this? How hard is it? Sometimes it just never occurred to me to learn how to make it.” (Making butter is simply a matter of agitating – churning – heavy cream.)
Her resolve to stop producing so much trash was sparked when she heard a TEDx talk last fall about plastic debris in the Arctic. Thole says she was dumbstruck to learn “just how pervasive plastic is – it's in our water, in our food and in our bodies. And plastic doesn't biodegrade like other materials. It just breaks into smaller pieces, microparticles, which then poison the environment and animals, especially marine life and, ultimately, us.”
After that, she says, “I couldn't in good conscience use plastic anymore.”
Every year, the United States creates 258 million tons of trash, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Every year, the world creates 78 million metric tons of plastic packaging, and a third of that flows into our oceans, according to a report from the World Economic Forum. By 2050, the total plastic in the ocean may weigh more than all the fish.
Such predictions have galvanized the Zero Waste movement, which a Northern California resident named Bea Johnson is often credited with founding in 2008.
She advocates “living simply and taking a stance against needless waste,” an effort organized around what she calls her “5Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot (and only in that order).” Refuse things you don't need, reduce things you have, reuse everything, recycle what can't be used and put the rest in the compost bin. (Her Zero Waste Home website has a searchable list of places to buy food in bulk.)
Johnson and her family of four fit an entire year's worth of trash into a pint jar.
Johnson makes her own makeup, lip balm, blush (from cocoa powder), mascara and shampoo. Her efforts to replace toilet paper were not so smooth. “Moss was fine at first but dried out quickly and was like wiping with a scouring pad,” she laughs. Now they use toilet paper that comes wrapped in compostable paper.
Thole recently installed a bidet attachment on her toilet. “But we keep a roll of toilet paper for guests.”
At home, Thole and her son are discovering unexpected benefits. “We are eating healthier,” she says. “I like to call what I'm on the 'Zero Waste diet.' By making a conscious decision to buy less packaging, you end up buying less processed food. No fast food, more fruits and vegetables. Clean eating in every sense of the word.”
Zero Waste enthusiasts say eliminating packaging does not require excessive time and effort.
“I know what people are thinking,” Johnson says. “Not so long ago, I was that person. We thought it would be super extreme – you know, 'I don't have time for this' – but it's the opposite. We have more time.
“People think living this sort of lifestyle is so hard. But it leads to an easier existence. With more stuff, you have to dust it, clean it, maintain it, repair it, dispose of it and replace it. With less stuff, there's less to clean,” she says. “It now takes me five minutes to clean my house every day. It improves life on so many levels.”
Thole has shared her philosophy with others, which helps them understand why she pulls a reusable “doggie bag” out of her purse at the end of a meal.
For Johnson, Zero Waste comes down to “a life based on experiences, instead of things. A life based on being instead of having.”