Seven guidelines for reducing your waste...

I have been asked a few times for a step by step for reducing one’s waste at home and I’ve found that it’s difficult to create such a guide because the process will be slightly different for everyone. So, instead of a “step by step” guide, here are some general things to remember/contemplate when trying to reduce your waste:

1. Evaluate your own waste generation: Take the time to do a personal trash audit (see how in a previous post) OR just pay attention to what you purchase/throw away in the landfill each day for a week. Then set aside some time to briefly research what is happening to your landfill waste, recycling, and compost waste on a local level. Is your trash being put in a landfill or is it incinerated? Is your recyclable waste actually getting recycled, where and what does the process look like? Where are your food scraps going and are they actually turning into compost? Knowing these things will help give you perspective on your waste generation and the resources that go into dealing with waste on a municipal level.

2. Make easy switches first: Bring reusable grocery bags & produce bags to the grocery store, carry a reusable water bottle, mug, utensils, etc. with you when you leave the house, OR if you're farther along in your process, try to buy items in glass jars/containers rather than plastic & then wash out jars and reuse them as cups, candle holders, food containers, gift packaging, etc.). Determine what “easy switches” are in your bandwidth.

3. Phase out of items that come packaged in plastic containers & switch to reusables where possible. Even though plastics are "recyclable" this doesn't mean they are “sustainable”. On average, only 9% of what goes into at-home recycle bins actually gets composted, and this number is slowly declining as the global plastic recycling industry collapses due to low oil prices, which makes the use of virgin plastics more economical than recycling and reusing. Plus, most plastics cannot be “recycled” but instead are “downcycled” meaning they usually only can be recycled once due to the loss in quality of plastic with mixed recycling streams. Use up what you have currently (shampoo, soap, toothpaste, etc., and in the meantime look for/research alternatives.

For example: Swap liquid hand soap that comes in plastic containers for bar soap that is often unwrapped or wrapped in paper. Ex 2: Swap paper towels for dinner napkins and hand towels/wash clothes that can be reused and washed when dirty. 

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4. Buy items in BULK! Bringing your own bags/jars when shopping in bulk is one of the biggest ways you can reduce your waste. Find local stores that have bulk items. For example: teas, spices, grains, beans, flours, snacks (nuts, granola, trail mix), olive oil, liquid soap (hand soap/dish soap/laundry detergent), toilet paper, etc. OR ask your local store if they would be willing to start carrying bulk items.

5. Evaluate your buying habits: Do you need everything you buy? Could you buy things used? Could you repair certain items? Could you start composting/recycling more at home? Do you often let food go to waste? Could you share items with your friends? If you can't completely phase something out can you reduce your usage of it?

For example, I have not yet found/made a zero-waste deodorant that I am 100% happy with so, when I know I'm going to have an active day, I use my store bought (yes- packaged with plastic) deodorant. When I am having a regular day and am not worried about getting hot/sweaty I use a homemade (by a friend) deodorant. I have had the same store-bought deodorant for almost 6 months!

Take-away: Reducing doesn't always mean reducing something to zero, cutting usage in half is a good first step!

6. Accept that you can't be 100% zero-waste (yet). There is a lot of policy work and advocacy that needs to be done so that any of us can be truly zero-waste. If you have time, get involved in advocacy efforts so that being zero-waste becomes easier, for everyone.

7. SHARE! Let your community know why this matters and what they can do to reduce their waste too! To me, talking to people about my path and how they can reduce their waste too is kind of like getting 9discounts for "signing up a friend" - if you bring them on board and they reduce their waste by 97% (compared to the average American) too than you've done more in the longterm than if you were focused solely on getting your own waste generation to zero. 

Thanks and hope this helps! Please ask questions below.

Thinking about the after-life (of what you buy)

For me, it all started with a bottle of shampoo.

Before this point, I was your average eco-friendly type of person, doing a little bit here and there to reduce waste – using my own bags, using bar soap (but this I’ve been doing since I was born), mostly because I was raised to be resourceful and not wasteful, and my culture is not as consumer-driven as the American culture.

I am from Colombia, NOT Columbia if you were wondering.

Don’t get me wrong, I was also an avid consumer, as a young adult woman, driven by fashion and overall marketing.


Where I currently live outside of Boston, MA, there’s no recycling. You read that right, NO RECYCLING.

I live in a complex with 1000+ condos, townhouses, and there is only trash pick up, so this massive complex filled with humans, literally throw tons of garbage every week, I mean, all of it, plastic, furniture, bags after bags after bags, and it hurts me.

In my country recycling is not a luxury, it is mandatory, by law.

So not being able to recycle anything, I started to get angry and frustrated, especially when I looked at my trash bag and I could see everything that is wrong with all this packaging and plastic.

So, when I ran out of shampoo, and I was looking at the endless bottles of plastic in the grocery store, I got mad. I turned to my husband and said:

“Why can’t I just refill the plastic bottle I already have? Why can't these big companies pack things differently? What is the need for all this inception of packaging? Why is the 100% recycled toilet paper wrapped in plastic?”

And then it hit me like a wall of rocks. I was reborn as a plastic hater, right there, in that specific moment. I did not buy another plastic bottle that day, I just ran out of the store, determined to find alternatives.

So my vision changed, and in this new awareness state I found myself in this path of living plastic-free, and reducing my waste.

Sabrina of @unpackedliving and Sarah of Zerology chatting about shopping zero-waste at Cambridge Naturals.

Sabrina of @unpackedliving and Sarah of Zerology chatting about shopping zero-waste at Cambridge Naturals.

WHAT IS THE AFTER-LIFE OF THE THINGS I BUY?

“Where does this go?”"

“If I buy this… is it going to contaminate x?”

“Is it “recyclable”? Do I know 100% that it is going to be recycled?”

“Is it biodegradable/compostable?”

“Or is it just trash?”

These are the questions I ask myself before I purchase anything.

So I encourage you today, to ask yourself every time you feel like having an impulse purchase: “what is the afterlife of it? Are you investing in garbage? What are you using your money for?” 

It’s not easy! I know! But is not impossible, and it’s never too late to start investing your time and your money in the right things, and in the way, helping to stop plastic, and helping to modify the way companies produce things.

Let’s be the change, together!


Sabrina Auclair is a badass plastic-free and low-waste living local guru. Upon moving to Massachusetts from Colombia, she was shocked by the amount of waste we produce in the U.S. and the inefficiencies of our consumer-driven system. So, she decided to make a change. She now shares her low-waste-living tips on her instagram @unpackedliving. Thanks, Sabrina, for sharing your story!

Know your waste: how to conduct a waste audit

After working with Cal Recycling and Refuse Services (CRRS) while in college at UC Berkeley, I became a pro at waste audits.

Yes… I spent hours (paid hours!) digging through trash to determine the amount of waste that could be diverted from the landfill by “rolling-out” composting and recycling bins in campus buildings. It was 2012 and very few buildings outside of the dining halls had composting or recycling.

Because of this time conducting waste audits, I neglected to realize that most people don’t even know where to start when I suggest conducting a waste audit as an initial step on their waste reduction path.

I have had waste on my mind long before going zero waste…

I have had waste on my mind long before going zero waste…

As you can see by these great pictures…

As you can see by these great pictures…

Just posted them here for fun :)

Just posted them here for fun :)

So, here is a guide to conducting your own waste audit.

First, if you just happened upon this post, my name is Sarah and I have been trying to reduce my waste to minimal levels since August 2019. I recommend a zero waste audit to start your process towards zero waste because to reduce your waste you must know your waste.

STEP 1: Take out your trash, recycling, compost, etc.

DONE!

STEP 2: Start fresh.

Mark the date when you begin filling up your new trash bag, recycling container, and/or compost bin. Act normal! Do as you normally would for 1-2 weeks or until your bins are full. Try to bring all of your daily waste home with you so that you can get the full spectrum of waste you produce, and designate one trash container in your home to put all your waste (from your bedroom, bathroom, etc.). I also recommend cleaning out any containers that you throw in the recycling/trash…it makes the audit process a lot cleaner!

STEP 3: Dig in!

Grab a pen and paper and make tally marks on what you find in your bins. Address each bin separately.

Photo from my most recent recycling bin audit (at-home recyclable waste produce over span of 2-weeks).

Photo from my most recent recycling bin audit (at-home recyclable waste produce over span of 2-weeks).

If you have a compost bin, I recommend weighing the bin and doing a visual check of what items you find. Are there mostly veggie scraps or fruit skins/cores? Did anything go in the bin because it went bad, like moldy bread or overripe bananas? Could any of this waste have been avoided or minimized?

For the recycling bin, tally items like plastic containers, aluminums cans, glass bottles, etc. and consider where most of these items are coming from. Are they being produced in the kitchen, the bathroom, or did you bring them home with you from eating out, etc.? These areas are where the majority of our waste comes from.

And most importantly - for the landfill bin, what is ending up in the trash? If you do not have composting in your area you will find that a lot of food ends up in the landfill bin (which can make a waste audit a lot messier!), but what else? Tally items like styrofoam containers, plastic wrapping, plastic packaging, diapers, toothpaste tubes, etc. And then, similar to the recycling bin, categorize these and organize by the frequency at which you found them in your bin. For example, when I first started I had a lot of “soft plastics” in my landfill bin like plastic wrap and plastic bags.

STEP 4: Find the low-hanging fruit.

My zero-waste produce shopping cart!

My zero-waste produce shopping cart!

What is something that makes up a large part of your landfill bin that could be easily avoided? To avoid the soft plastics that overwhelmed my landfill bin, I invested in some glass containers and used some plastic containers that I had laying around to store food. I also stopped letting people give me plastic bags in grocery stores, drugstores, or shops and committed to always carrying my own bag.

And, I stopped putting my fresh fruit in plastic bags at the grocery store and instead just let them roam free in my shopping cart. Decide where you can make an initial big impact (and get instant gratification) on your waste and make a goal of reducing that specific waste item first by finding alternatives or just making a change like bringing reusable bags to the grocery store.

Zerology founder, Claire Kaufman, having a date with these dumpling and her reusable to-go containers, and myself!

Zerology founder, Claire Kaufman, having a date with these dumpling and her reusable to-go containers, and myself!

PLEASE, don’t try to be zero-waste overnight…decide on a few manageable first steps and then build upon them as you move forward. Trying to reduce everything all at once will likely make you crazy, and maybe slightly dejected, so find a balance that feels sustainable for you. At this moment, being 100% “zero-waste” is not a possibility for most of us, whether because of availability of resources, time, money, or services (like municipal recycling and composting). With our current system, there will always be unavoidable waste (for example, contact solution, tofu packaging, medication, receipts, etc.)

I am lucky (i.e. incredibly privileged) to have access to a number of grocery stores that sell many items in bulk, to live in Cambridge, MA where composting and recycling are available, to have the time to invest in researching waste topics and cooking at home daily, and the income to support the upfront investment of buying low-waste items such as my 1-2 (costly) grocery runs a month where I fill up on all my bulk items (something that did not feel financially viable when I was living on an Americorps budget in San Francisco, CA last year).

So, don’t be hard on yourself! At Zerology, we want to support everyone’s path of waste reduction no matter what it looks like.

STEP 5: Repeat

Check in on your trash, recycling, and compost every few months to see how it has changed. What is still going to the landfill? How often are you filling a trash bag? Keep checking in with your waste as you move forward.

Note: “Zero-waste” can mean different things to different people. Many people view “zero-waste” as zero landfill waste and thus talk about diverting waste away from the landfill and towards the compost/recycling. Although this is an important aspect of waste reduction, if you feel ready, I suggest taking a comprehensive look at your landfill, recycling, and compost waste because I think it is important to remember that these still are waste streams that we should consider reducing in the long-term. Numerous natural and non-renewable resources go into producing the food we eat and creating the products that we use often in under a week (like milk cartons, yogurt containers, etc.). Understanding what is going into these streams is an important part of the bigger picture of waste reduction. More on that in a later post.

Good luck and feel free to comment and ask questions! And most importantly, don’t get bogged down by what you can’t do or change, keep looking towards what you can do!

Fast-fashion and imagining a circular textile industry

Today I spent about 5 minutes staring at an old pair of shorts I found while cleaning out my closer as I imagined the entirety of its life before it ended up at the bottom of my dresser.

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I imagined the genetically modified cotton Monsanto seeds sold to an indebted farmer, who then had to buy cancer-causing pesticides and insecticides so that the cotton will grow correctly.

I imagined factory workers creating polyester out of coal and petroleum (yup…).

I imagined these materials flown and shipped across the world; spun into thread, woven into fabric, dyed with toxic chemicals and sewn in a sweatshop.

I imagined the (mostly female) laborers working long hours in poor conditions to sew the fabric into clothing, walking away with an average of $3 a day (in Bangladesh this year).

I imagined Forever 21 and other “fast-fashion” brands justify these sweatshops as the results of the “free market” and “costs of development”, while taking no responsibility for the conditions.

I imagined these shorts then shipped to Los Angeles where they are tagged and processed by a underpaid worker in a whole different type of sweatshop.

I imagined these shorts then stacked on a shelf by a minimum wage employee, now accustomed to the fast-changing styles and ever-new collections.

I imagined an excited teenager throwing the shorts into their shopping cart, along with 4 other pairs, because they can afford 5 pairs of $10 shorts with their monthly allowance.

I imagined this person wearing the shorts for all but 3 weeks and then deciding the shorts actually make them look fat. I imagined them deciding to do the “right thing” and give the shorts away to charity instead of the landfill (pretty good, considering only 15% of textiles are donated or recycled).

Finally, I imagined me at Goodwill, finding a cheap pair of second-hand shorts that, even though they fit well, ended up sitting in my drawer for 3+ years. And I imagined how every time I wash them, the synthetic polyester breaks down a little bit more, releasing microplastics into the laundry machine and, eventually, the ocean.

Then, I imagined the whole story was different.

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I imagined these shorts were not grown from genetically modified seeds and sprayed with a ridiculous amount pesticides, endangering the lives of our farm workers.

I imagined they were woven into denim and designed with the input and creative expertise of the people actually sewing the shorts.

I imagined these workers were paid a fair wage and wouldn’t have to fear for their health and safety.

I imagined that, ideally, these shorts were made locally and sold locally.

I imagined that the shorts were good quality and actually expensive, to compensate the workers for their labor and to encourage people to only buy new when truly necessary.

I imagined that when the shorts were no longer wearable, I would upcycle them into a cool jean purse.

I imagined that instead of profiting from cheap labor & fossil fuels, global fashion brands were profiting from regeneration & respect.

I imagined that, instead of an industry that sends sends 70 pounds of completely reusalbe textiles to landfill every year per person in America; instead of an industry that is the second most polluting industry after oil; an industry that releases millions of tons of microplastics into the oceans every year; an industry where workers all along the supply chain are exposed to harmful chemicals and dangerous working conditions…. I imagined a different way.

Learn more about the negative effects of polyester by watching the Story of Stuff’s video on microplastics.

The Hankie Challenge: How to have a zero waste cold

Author: Claire Kaufman

I came down with a nasty cold this week. It’s been a lot of rest and tea and…snot.  Since I’ve been trying to reduce my waste I don’t use tissues anymore; instead, I use handkerchiefs.

Ah, the magnificent hankie. It’s actually one of the more recent zero waste swaps I made.  But over the past year I’ve come to love my handkerchief and never leave home without it. This little square of fabric can be used for wiping up spills, taking off makeup and, of course, blowing your nose.

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I love it so much that I became curious why the disposable tissue took over the snot market in the first place

As it turns out, Kleenex, the first disposable facial tissue, was created for women to wipe off makeup in 1924.  Soon after, their marketing team to advertise Kleenex as a way to avoid spreading germs: “the handkerchief you can throw away.” This elevated Kleenex from being a niche product for women to a universal product for everyone.

Today, the average American uses about two boxes of tissues per month. That means, on average, Americans all together use over 7.8 billion boxes of tissues a year (yep, billions).

All of these tissues come from trees. When trees are chopped down, we endanger plants and animals that live in forests and increase the severity of climate change.  When we process the raw tree into tissues, we use a lot of water and energy and emit a lot of pollution. Not to mention, many brands of tissues are loaded with toxic chemicals that we don’t want anywhere near our faces.  

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Once they are used, tissues end up in landfill or in our oceans. Poor fish. Ick.

Which leads me to my final thought: is the handkerchief really unsanitary?

It’s undeniable that snot does carry germs. But whether you blow your nose in a tissue and throw it away or blow your nose in a handkerchief and fold it up and wash it, you will be exposed to the same amount of germs.  

The way I see it, it’s basically like eating dinner from a fork that’s later washed and eaten from again. It wouldn’t be sanitary to pass the fork around while eating from mouth to mouth, but once it’s washed it can go back in circulation. Same for the hankie.

Finally, the good ole hankie saves money.  Even though one box of tissues is cheap, disposables will always cost more in the long run. I’ve started to cut up old t-shirts to increase my handkerchief supply.  And seriously, my nose thanks me (no more nostril chafing)!

If you made it to the end of this article I’m glad I didn’t gross you out too much. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go back to my tea and take a nap. yay.

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Let's Talk About Plastics

Author: Claire Kaufman

When I started to become aware of what I was throwing away, I realized a huge chunk of it was plastics, specifically, plastic packaging. Which makes sense, because it’s everywhere (especially grocery stores, where I spend quite a lot of time and money). How had we become so reliant on this material that practically did not exist before the 1950s? I wanted to learn more. And what I found was both frightening and empowering. 

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First and for most, I learned I probably have microplastics in my poop. Yup you read that right. Last year, a study across multiple countries showed EVERY SINGLE PARTICIPANT had microplastics in their 💩. More than 95% of the plastic particles came from food packaging and storage.

Plastics do not biodegrade (break down, like organic material). They photodegrade (weaken in sunlight) and so become brittle and break up into smaller and smaller pieces that end up in our oceans, our soil, and our bodies.

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Plastics, especially when heated, have a tendency to release chemicals. The main ones to know are BPA and phthalates, but there are many others, and many behave somewhat similarly... as hormone disrupters.

Get ready for this: studies have proven that plastic exposure is linked to reduced fertility, reduced male sexual function and sperm quality, blunted immune function, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, miscarriage, and low birthweight, disrupted neurodevelopment, and asthma in children 😳

But as it turns out, when we limit our plastic exposure, the levels of many of these chemicals drop almost immediately. It’s hard to avoid plastics all the time, but we have a lot more control than we realize. And that control comes from how we buy food (no plastic packaging), store food (no plastic Tupperware) and prepare food (no Teflon or other plastic-coated pans/heating food in plastic in the microwave).

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This information can be a little scary, but it can also be hella empowering. Because doing good for the planet is also doing good for our bodies, our minds, and our fellow humans. And it can inspire change at the business and political level.

I hope this little nugget of information will to inspire you to make the changes that your body and our planet deserve. You don’t have to go completely plastic-free today, but now that you know this information, you have to START today ;).

If you’re in Tucson, I’m leading a Zero Waste Grocery Shopping event on Sunday Jan 27, where I will teach you exactly how you can ditch plastics and instead opt for package-free, toxin-free, real food each and every day. I promise it’s not nearly as hard as it sounds, and I also promise you’ll still be able to eat super tasty complete meals. Sending much love & bulk plantain chip vibes <3

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Sarah's path toward zero waste

Author: Sarah Atkinson (Head of Boston Outreach – Zerology)

What does “zero waste” mean? How do you attain it? Where do you start?

I have always been conscious of the waste I produce whether it be water, energy, money, time, landfill waste, food waste, plastic waste (recyclable & non-recyclable), etc. Seeing earth’s (/our) natural and limited resources go to waste has always made me cringe, and I still struggle to understand why more people don’t seem as distraught...

 As Adrian Monk always said, “it’s a blessing and a curse.”

Hiking in Iceland with my reusable waterbottle!

Hiking in Iceland with my reusable waterbottle!

I am not radical. Is it radical to carry a waterbottle or reusable mug with you? Is it radical to bring your own bag to the store and decline plastic or paper bags? Is it radical to wash out old jars and reuse them? Is it radical to clean your countertops with washcloths instead of paper towels? No. Yet somehow the world and our society has made it feel that way, has made it feel like the act of consuming and producing less is something that makes you an outsider.  A number of my friends and family, who consider themselves liberal and progressive, think that my effort to be zero waste is “cute”.

It’s not cute. It’s a fucking statement. It’s an active break from the status quo because the status quo does not work for me and it is not and will not work in a world of 7+ billion people supported by a finite number of resources much of which we have already consumed, burned, buried, and forgotten. I will not continue to passively consume resources that do not belong to me. 

A single-use coffee cup that I had to throw away in Berlin when I forgot my reusable mug :(

A single-use coffee cup that I had to throw away in Berlin when I forgot my reusable mug :(

I am not zero waste. I may never reach 100% “zero waste”. At this point on my path, six months into transitioning to be zero waste, I am producing a little less than 2 lbs. of trash per month, which comes out to about 24 lbs. of trash a year. Compared to zero wasters who can fit a year’s worth of trash into an 8 oz jar, I am nowhere. But compared to the average American who produces nearly three pounds of landfill waste per day (~90 lbs. of trash per month and 1,000 lbs. of trash per year) according to the EPA, I am producing around 97% less waste a year than the normal American.  Wow.

My partner and I fill up about one trash bag per month, which is just one of the many amazing benefits of being zero waste because we both HATE taking out the trash!

Unfortunately, we do still have to take out our recycling and compost bins about every other week.

Even though the act of recycling and composting reduces the amount of waste that goes to the landfill, we need to remember that this is still waste! Energy and resources went in to producing the food that ends up in the compost bin, and energy and resources went in to producing the cardboard and plastic that are often used once and then recycled.  Check out my previous post about how “recycling is not the answer” to our waste problem. And stay tuned for another post on the things most people don’t realize about recycling plastics (like how most plastics cannot be recycled indefinitely and quickly end up in the landfill).

I love the push towards paper straws and away from plastic single-use straws at cafes.

I love the push towards paper straws and away from plastic single-use straws at cafes.

Again, my year’s trash does not fit into a jar. My process is not perfect.  I have not made all the sacrifices it would take to reach such a minimal level of waste.  However, I am inspired by and commend those that can do it! We need more people to care about waste and to push us as individuals and as a society to make changes that could make it easier for everyone to start reducing their daily waste. 

Just remember, recycling was once "radical" too. 

So what does zero waste mean to me? It means empowering myself with knowledge, making some easy and difficult changes to reduce my waste, sharing what I've learned, and most of all accepting that reaching zero waste is about the road, not the destination.

Follow me on Instagram @sarahrosebeara to learn more ways to reduce your waste, and for now follow zerology’s zero waste hierarchy:

Rethink/Reimagine the way you consume and produce

Refuse that which you do not need

Reduce waste you cannot refuse

Reuse and refurbish

Redistribute items you no longer need

Recycle what you can

Rot (compost) the rest

Check back for more tips on reducing your waste!

the truth about recycling #1: recycling is not the answer

Author: Sarah Atkinson

In 2011, plastic trash was America’s primary export to China.

In 2013, after years of accepting much of the world’s recyclable waste, China made its first move to dissuade the U.S. and other countries from continuing this practice by strictly enforcing inspection standards for all recyclables entering China, in an effort to reduce the amount of contaminated waste.

Contamination: anything that ends up in the recycling that cannot actually be recycled, including: dirty peanut jars, pizza boxes, old clothes, envelopes with plastic windows, plastic bags, brightly-colored paper; the list goes on and on.

Chinese manufacturers, who purchase recyclables to process for raw materials, had for years chastised the U.S. and other countries for the amount of contamination present in their exports.

Managing recycling contamination comes at a high-cost as separating non-recyclable waste from recyclable waste is rarely economically efficient. Recyclables are bought and sold internationally, meaning that the value a recycling collector can fetch per ton fluctuates greatly depending on global trade.

Sadly, the value for most types of recyclables has dropped dramatically in recent years. For example, one year ago a recycling collector could fetch $100/ton for paper recycling, today that value has fallen to $5/ton.  

To protect these manufacturers from the high costs of managing this waste, the Chinese government placed financial burdens back on shippers and recyclers that were delivering contaminated waste.

In the first year, China rejected nearly 22,000 containers of contaminated recycling.

Where did that rejected recycling end up? The landfill.

The result: American and European recyclers entered the 21st century with upgraded facilities fashioning new equipment and increased manpower to curb the percentage of contaminated materials sent to China by separating out most non-recyclable materials domestically.  

With these advancements, China continued to process at least half of the world’s exports of waste paper, plastic and metals. Unfortunately, with the falling global price of recyclables, China is currently enforcing even stricter contamination standards, rejecting recycling imports found to have more than 0.05% contamination, a percentage that few recyclers can reach.  

Following these new standards, China has proposed a total ban on solid waste imports to be implemented by 2020. Studies predict that 120 million tons of plastic waste will be displaced (and likely not recycled) worldwide by 2030 with this policy change, due to the world’s dependence on China to recycle these materials.

What now? Without China to process our waste, many U.S. recyclers have begun stockpiling thousands of pounds of recyclable materials in the hopes of finding a new market, and fast. Others have been forced to send recycling straight to the landfill.  

And still others have started sending this waste to India and Vietnam.

But none of these pathways are a solution. We cannot afford to stockpile recycling, we do not have the space to send more materials to landfills, and India and Vietnam will never be able to accept as much of our waste as China once did, nor will they want to if the value of recyclable materials continues to drop.

And, is it even environmentally sustainable or ethical to be shipping this waste around the world?

So, what can we do? As producers of waste, we must begin to re-examine our consumption habits and acknowledge that we must do more than just recycle. Reaching zero waste is not just about reducing the waste you send to landfill, it’s about reducing your consumption and production of waste across the board, whether that be landfill waste, recyclable waste, compostable waste, energy, etc.

If moving towards a circular economy is the end goal, most recyclable products, especially plastics that can only be recycled a finite number of times (more on that in another post), need to be phased out just like the use of products that must be sent to the landfill.

Follow @zerologywaste on Instagram for tips on how to jump start your path towards zero waste.

“Just because you’re recycling doesn’t mean you’re absolved of your environmental footprint on the Earth.”
— Dominique Mosbergen

IS ZERO WASTE A REALITY?

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Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, maybe you’ve seen the hashtags, maybe you’ve even tried to fit all your waste for the year into one mason jar like the Instafamous zero-wasters do. But for the life of you you cannot understand how one could possibly be ‘zero waste’ and still be a normal human being living in America.

I feel you.

Just last year I made it my New Year’s Resolution to produce zero waste. I was inspired by knowledge of our world’s trash problem, a deep concern for all living things, and YouTube video about another girl who made the switch. I could do that!

But as hard as I tried and as much as I cared, I could not fit all my trash for the year in one mason jar. I realized that while going completely zero waste might be possible (and awesome!) for some, it’s like going from 0 to 100 push-ups on New Year’s Day. It’s just not sustainable for most.

Eventually, I found a happy medium: producing no more than a mason jar’s worth of trash each week, drastically lowering my waste footprint and bringing awareness of my consumption to the forefront of my attention.

I also found that it was more powerful to teach and encourage friends and family to make simple switches towards a less wasteful lifestyle, instead of a drastic switch to zip/zilch/nada zero waste.

That’s why Zerology is not hyper focused on the zero. Our name, Zerology, means “The Study of Reaching Zero Waste” because we know it’s all in the process.  Getting to zero is an ever-changing process and that will look different for each and every one of us. Wherever you are today is a good place to start.  And together, we can create a more sustainable and less wasteful planet.

what’s in a landfill?

MPCA Photos - minnesota landfil.jpg

Last month, Zerology was a finalist for the Social Impact Pitch Competition at Ten West in Tucson, Arizona. In the weeks leading up to the competition, I did lots and lots of research into one thing that most Americans would prefer to ignore: landfills.

One statistic in particular caught my attention: as a country we are throwing a whopping 262 million tons into landfill every single year (EPA, 2015). As I did more research, I found all sorts of fascinating statistics about what exactly was in our trash and where it was coming from. But for the 5 minute pitch competition, all I could do was mention the number and move on.

Now that that’s over (and though I didn’t win, it was a great experience to continue developing Zerology!) I want to delve into that juicy statistic a little more.  

262 million tons.

That’s the equivalent of 44 million elephants.

That’s just the waste we are personally responsible for.  If we include recycling and composting (green and blue bin waste) that gets us up to 389 million tons (Biocycle 2011). And then there’s that whole other category of waste that doesn’t even make it to landfill: waste transported, extracted, flushed, emitted, and in the ocean, that number skyrockets to an estimated 10 billion (Humes 2012). 262 million tons is just what we put everyday into the black bin and leave out on our curb.

Within the 262 million tons, the top three culprits are paper, food, and plastic waste.

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Hoooold up just one second. Aren’t these all things that could either be composted and recycled?!

When you think about it, barely anything we throw away actually needs to be thrown away.

The rest of the trash includes metal (recyclable), glass (recyclable), wood (compostable), yard trimmings (compostable), rubber and leather (largely recyclable), textiles (largely compostable), electronic and hazardous waste, and general debris/soil.

That exact sentiment is what has kept me inspired to pursue this zero waste lifestyle even when it seems difficult. Because it’s just not normal or natural to throw things in the trash. Life on earth was meant for regeneration: when living things die they decompose, propagating new life on earth. It’s a beautiful cycle that our model of production must move towards.

The good news is that we can eliminate practically all contributors to landfill waste by refusing, reducing, reusing, recycling and composting. The bad news is we have become so dependent on our model of production that it will be a difficult cycle to break out of. But we live on a circular planet and we are meant to live a circular existence. And it is within our full control to eliminate our trash and empower ourselves through our consumption and our health.

Now that’s what I wish I could have said in the 5 minute pitch competition :).