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!