Why You Should Try Zero-Waste Living

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The hardest part about zero-waste living is just getting started.
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Find practical strategies and advice on how to live trash-free in “The Zero-Waste Lifestyle.”

Author Amy Korst and her husband produce one plastic bag of trash per month, and you can too. With the help of The Zero-Waste Lifestyle (Ten Speed Press, 2012), you can find advice on how to reduce or eliminate waste in your life. In this excerpt taken from the introduction, see why you should try zero-waste living. 

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Everybody has a trash can. In fact, it’s a safe bet that we all have multiple trash cans crowding our lives—in the bathroom, in the car, under the kitchen sink, and in the garage.

Before I started living trash free with my husband, Adam, we had all of the above in our house, for a total of five trash cans at our instant disposal. One day, while out running errands I counted how many trash cans I came in contact with in public restrooms, restaurants, movie theaters, and stores: thirty-two! I couldn’t believe it. Then I heard a statistic that still troubles me: the average American produces three pounds of landfill-bound garbage each day. I started seeing trash everywhere, especially in places it doesn’t belong, like littering the sides of the road and all over the wilderness where we went hiking and camping. I watched the trash pile up in our five garbage cans, and I hauled a full 32-gallon can to the curb each week. We tried hard to be green, so I didn’t understand how we could be responsible for creating so much trash. Where did it all come from?

I decided to take a closer look at our country’s trash habits, and the more I dug, the dirtier things appeared to be. Although these piles of trash we each produce every year are stinky and unsightly, the problem is much worse than that—for our environment and our health. Trash is intimately connected to every environmental problem we face today, from climate change and habitat destruction to water pollution and chemical exposure. It’s also intensely personal and impacts every decision in our daily lives, including everything from how much money we spend to how much weight we gain.

Facing My Trash Addiction

When I first faced these facts, I couldn’t believe how something as innocuous as our garbage could be negatively connected to so many of my personal and political concerns, but the facts were undeniable—if I wanted to change the country’s trash addiction, I had to address my own trash problem first. But how?

I had heard about people in other parts of the world living “trash free,” which basically means sending nothing to the landfill—ever. I wondered if the same could be done here in the United States, in a country where people produce more trash than anywhere else in the world.

One night, after scraping dinner leftovers into the trash can, something inside me snapped. I had spent all week agonizing over every item I threw away, from tiny metal paper clips to empty deodorant containers.

Tentatively I broached the subject with Adam.

“Remember last weekend when my parents were here?”
“Yeah.” He was looking at his computer, distracted.
“We were joking about living trash free for a whole year? I think I want to do it.”

This got his attention. He looked at me, eyebrows raised. He studied my face to see whether I was serious. I was afraid I had gone too far around the environmental bend even for my liberal husband.

“Okay,” he said. And he went back to work.
“Okay? That’s the whole conversation? Just ‘okay’?”

He turned back to me. “Look, I’ve been thinking about it all week, too. It feels like it’s time we do something big for the environment, put our money where our mouths are. If you want to do it, I’m on board.”

With that, we decided to attempt trash-free living. The Green Garbage Project was born.

Getting to Zero-Waste Living

Ten years ago, if you’d told me that I would dedicate most of my free time to garbage, I would have called you crazy. Like everyone else, I find garbage to be stinky, smelly, and generally disgusting. Unlike most people, I also find it fascinating.

Today, whereas most Americans produce about three pounds of landfill-bound trash each day, over the course of our entire Green Garbage Project year, Adam and I managed to produce less than three pounds of such trash between us. We found that, although to most people this seems to be an incredible feat, garbage-free living isn’t hard at all. After that first trash-free year, we decided to make our zero-waste lifestyle a permanent way of life.

Today I spend most of my spare time thinking about trash, reading about trash, writing about trash, or sorting through my own trash. I now know more about trash than I ever really wanted to know. (For instance, did you know that bubble wrap, which was originally designed to be wallpaper, can be recycled if all the bubbles are popped?)

Mostly I’m passionate about trash because it can help anyone get involved in saving the planet. Trash is something we all make, and it’s downright easy to start reducing what goes into your garbage can.

So What Exactly Does “Trash Free” Mean? 

Trash-free living means different things to different people, as you’ll see throughout this book. For some families, a trash-less life might mean moving from filling a giant, 64-gallon garbage can a week to filling a 32-gallon garbage can once a month. To others, it might mean a small grocery sack of garbage a week. To still others, going trash free means sending absolutely nothing to the landfill at all.

I fall into this last category. For the year of our Green Garbage Project, Adam and I tried to make absolutely no garbage. We came awfully close to our goal—by the end of the year, all our trash fit inside a regular shoebox. Surprisingly, we found that once we had a system in place for purchasing goods and recycling packaging, trash-free living became second nature.

So, whether you’re interested in moderate or extreme trash reduction, whether you want to simply pare down your army of trash cans or try to produce zero garbage in a year, I can show you how to do it.

Benefits of a Trash-free Life 

Although the obvious benefits of producing no garbage are environmental, they don’t stop there. In addition to reducing your impact on the planet, here are some other benefits of your new zero-waste lifestyle:

Your life just got a whole lot simpler: We all wish we had a little more time in the day. Trash-free living helps streamline many areas of your life, from grocery shopping to cleaning the house. You’ll learn to repurpose everyday products like baking soda and lemon juice to do double duty, in the kitchen and in the cleaning bucket. You’ll spend less time at the store and more time at home with family and friends.

You will spend less money and be happier with your purchases: When I started paying attention to my purchases, I realized I was buying a lot of things I wanted but didn’t need. Going trash-free means becoming much more conscientious about your purchases. You’ll deliberately buy items that can serve dual purposes, and you’ll look for durable goods that last a long time before breaking.

You will support local businesses: Shopping locally benefits the environment, because goods are not trucked all over the country for consumption. Equally important is the impact you can have on your local community when you support family-owned establishments instead of big corporations. Studies show that “three times as much money stays in the local economy when you buy goods and services from locally owned businesses instead of large chain stores,” according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

You will eat healthier: And if you pair that with some good exercise, you’ll lose weight and feel better. Cutting out garbage means eating more whole foods that don’t come overpackaged in plastic. You’ll shop the periphery of the grocery store and frequent local farmers’ markets, buying good-for-you foods like fruits and veggies and locally sourced meat, dairy, and eggs.

You’ll be doing your part to preserve the planet for future generations: It’s no secret the earth is in trouble. Landfills are overflowing, our water systems are becoming polluted, animal species are becoming endangered and going extinct at an alarming rate, and we are finding toxic chemicals in our food and beauty products. This book will show you how trash is connected to each of these environmental problems and more. Every time you choose sustainable over throwaway, you’re doing your part to eliminate these problems.

Your efforts will help beautify natural areas and decrease littering: Have you ever been hiking in the wilderness or making a sandcastle at the beach, only to have a piece of garbage flutter across your path? Seen someone toss a cigarette butt out the car window? The less garbage we make collectively, the less litter there will be to spoil nature’s beauty.

You will reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals and artificial colors and sweeteners: A garbage-free life means you’ll choose healthier options than the prepackaged, processed foods that line the grocery store shelves. We know food-like substances like Pop-Tarts and Cheetos aren’t good for us—avoiding the garbage is just one more reason to look for healthier alternatives.

You’ll become more self-sufficient: One of the most enjoyable parts of a garbage-free life is learning some skills our culture has all but forgotten. Pretty much anything store-bought can be made at home, if you have the time and interest. This book includes simple recipes for everyday products like English muffins and all-purpose cleaning spray as well as advanced recipes for ricotta cheese and bagels, among others.

For these reasons and more, people across the country—and around the world—are already living trash free. All of us are devoted to the lifestyle because we’ve found it to be easy and rewarding. As with any new experience, Adam and I encountered some pitfalls along the way, but we have learned from our mistakes and are here to offer our stories to help you transition into this wonderful lifestyle more easily.

One thing you’ll discover is that zero-waste living has its regional variations and challenges, because each part of the country has different programs established for recycling, composting, and bulk food shopping. You’ll discover, too, that each family circumstance presents its own set of unique challenges when working toward a trash-free lifestyle. This book gives you strategies for finding and using the systems established in your area. Whatever your particular circumstances or challenges are, you will find that adopting a zero-waste lifestyle is doable—and infinitely rewarding.

Introducing the Zero-Waste Contributors

As I was writing this book, I enlisted the advice of my fellow trash-free citizens, several of whom I connected with during my first trash-free year. The zero-waste lifestyle is still new enough that it’s nice to have a community of friends with whom to share tips and troubleshoot common problems. Together we represent an array of different lifestyles. Compiled here together, we demonstrate that garbage-free living is an attainable goal no matter who you are, where you live, how much money you make, or how much (or little) effort you’d like to expend to adopt this lifestyle.

Allow me to introduce you to the book’s zero-waste contributors. Included in each bio is a list of the trashy items each family struggles to eliminate from their lives completely.

April Luebbert, Bellevue, Washington: April lives with her husband and their two young children in an upscale suburb of Seattle. April is a stay-at-home mom while her husband works for Microsoft. The Luebbert family became trash free in May 2011 after April was inspired by another trash-free family featured on an Earth Day TV news segment. She says, “I saw a video on a zero-waste home and loved the way the home looked and how healthy they were.” The Luebberts live in a small apartment, which poses a number of trash-related obstacles, including setting up a composting system that works in a confined space.

April set up the blog Trash Free Living to chronicle her family’s challenges and discoveries as they adopted this new lifestyle. Several months into their new lifestyle, the four members of the Luebbert family were producing about one 32-gallon bag of trash every two weeks, whereas previously they produced about double that amount.

A self-described shopping fanatic, April recalls that before making the garbage-free switch, she used to buy something on eBay every day. She also created a lot of trash. “I was probably the worst. I didn’t donate or recycle. I just tossed it,” she says. Now she’s saving money by cutting back on groceries and online shopping, and she’s proud of the way she’s decluttered her family’s life, allowing them to focus less on material things and more on each other.

Trash she can’t avoid: Baby diapers and pull-ups, especially for her oldest child; meat bones/scraps and packaging for other protein items that are part of her current diet.

Rose Brown, Charlottesville, Virginia: Rose Brown lives in a rented house with a dog and two cats. She works as the program manager for a nonprofit organization called Stream Watch. Rose’s interest in living without creating trash grew from her work to protect the environment, particularly the river and stream systems flowing through her own town. She made the decision to give up garbage in January 2009, and so far she has produced one small plastic bag of trash each year—an impressive feat.

“On the personal-life level, I can’t say enough about how it’s improved my life,” she says, explaining how her life has changed since she stopped making garbage. “I’m a happier person now. It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t tried it. I want everyone to feel this free and weightless and simple.”

Rose also writes a blog at The Zero Garbage Challenge, where she posts an array of tips anyone can use to reduce their trash output. Unlike April Luebbert, Rose relies on online shopping as a way to reduce her garbage, shopping in particular at Etsy, an online craft site, because she is able to request that crafters package their homemade, natural products in recyclable materials. She also buys used products on Craigslist.

Her advice to beginners: “I focus a lot on keeping it fun, like an adventure. ‘Oh, I want that, but I can’t recycle it—how do I avoid the garbage?’”

Trash she can’t avoid: Packaging for pet food and treats; little pieces of plastic.

Robert Haley, San Francisco, California: Serving as San Francisco’s Zero Waste Manager, Robert lives by himself on a sailboat in Sausalito. His interest in the zero-waste movement started as a child, when he collected cans for money. Hooked on recycling at an early age, he later helped college friends establish a recycling nonprofit. Over time, he found himself pursuing careers reducing waste and wasting less and less in his personal life until he reached the level of producing virtually no waste at all. After years of practicing this lifestyle, he creates only a literal handful of garbage a week and a small paper bag filled with recyclables.

Robert’s job focuses on the bigger picture of waste reduction, so although he’s achieved zero-waste living, he also advocates for reducing waste at a corporate or producer level. The ultimate goal is to get manufacturers to make products that, when they are no longer needed, can be deconstructed and either reused or completely recycled.

Trash he can’t avoid: Dental floss, occasional food packaging. “Sometimes I have a spike in trash,” he says, “mostly when I have to do some work on the sailboat.”

Desira Fuqua, Rutherford, Tennessee: Desira Fuqua is married with no children. She and her husband own their home in the suburbs and live with two indoor dogs and some fish. She produces roughly one curbside bin of garbage every six months. She describes herself as a hippie and says that as such, “Recycling is a no-brainer. It becomes like a game; it’s fun to get better and better.” The hardest part about zero-waste living, she says, is just getting started. And she adds, “You have to be willing to be a little weird sometimes.”

Trash she can’t avoid: Deodorant containers, occasional junk food wrappers, toothpaste tubes, safety seals, and medicine foil packets.

Chris Burger, Whitney Point, New York: Chris Burger and his wife are empty-nesters at just over sixty years old. Chris has two grown children, and he lives with his wife in a house in the country, about eighteen miles from the nearest metro area. He started deliberately reducing his trash on Earth Day in 1970. Since then, this family of four waste-busters has so drastically reduced their trash that it took them fifteen years to fill a paper bag with garbage. Today Chris writes computer software and is cochair of the Sierra Club’s Zero Waste Task Force. He is living proof of the permanence of this lifestyle and the viability of raising kids in a zero-waste household.

When his concern for the environment first began, Chris says he and his wife asked themselves, “What’s our role here? What can we do as individuals? It seemed pretty evident to us that our biggest impact on the environment is the waste that we produce and the energy we use.”

Today Chris is approaching his twentieth anniversary of the last time he visited the dump. His biggest piece of advice for those new to the lifestyle? “You make it convenient for yourself, otherwise you’re spending all your time doing this.”

Trash he can’t avoid: Medicine blister packs and broken items made from mixed materials, such as a toilet bowl brush.

Amy Korst, Pacific City, Oregon: Yours truly! My husband, Adam, and I started our garbage-free journey in Oregon’s Willamette Valley three years ago, producing only a shoebox’s volume of trash in a year. We then moved to the picturesque Oregon Coast, where we found ourselves without access to the state-of-the-art recycling facilities we had grown used to. This means we’ve had to find new, creative solutions to our garbage conundrums. Currently we produce about a plastic grocery bag’s worth of garbage a month. We rent a house on the beach, where we live with our pets but no children.

Trash we can’t avoid: Dry pet food and pet treat bags, toothpaste tubes, cheese wrappers, and the occasional bag of chips.

This team of contributors is living proof that you can lead a happy, full life and produce little to no waste. The no-garbage lifestyle is for anyone, whether you are single, married, own or rent your home, have no kids, or have young kids, teenagers, or pets. This way of life can be tweaked to fit your own circumstances—whatever they may be—by following the guidelines laid out in this book.

For more from this book check out Zero-Waste Lifestyle: The Bathroom.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Zero-Waste Lifestyle: Live Well by Throwing Away Less by Amy Korst, and published by Ten Speed Press, 2012.

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