Within moments of welcoming us into her basement apartment in Brooklyn, Stevie Van Horn apologizes for not preparing breakfast for us. She mentions this forgotten breakfast throughout the day, kicking herself as we pass a bakery stand at Union Square Farmer’s Market and again as she loads up on spices at a bulk food store. It isn’t until we greedily gobble up a few spoonfuls of her homemade sunflower and hazelnut butters that she lets go of the banana bread that could’ve been.
It is not usual or expected for our interview subjects to make us breakfast (or even to serve us snacks), but being prepared — and more specifically, having food on hand — is exactly how Stevie has managed to be waste free for the past two years. Essentially, Stevie never throws things in the trash. Instead, she composts and reuses everything she can and recycles as a last resort. She once spent a night bar hopping with a used paper plate in her purse so she could bring it home to compost.
“It’s all about breaking the habit,” explains Stevie, as she tries to dispel the myth that reducing waste is a massive undertaking. Stevie decided to ditch single-use plastics after a conversation with a friend got her thinking about the culture of convenience (plastic straws, to-go boxes, etc), which led her down a rabbit hole of waste-free research. She set a date to make the complete transition — her birthday, April 5th — and gave herself two months to prepare. Every trip to the trash can and question from a curious friend made her all the more aware of the amount of waste she created and helped her find ways to navigate around it.
Stevie also fought her initial instinct to throw out everything in her life that didn’t make the waste-free cut (plastic Tupperware, plastic makeup containers, plastic salt and pepper shakers). Instead, she vowed to keep everything she owned until it outlived its intended use — after all, throwing things out is no way to start a waste-free lifestyle. She did, however, invest in sturdy glass jars, hemp produce bags, and compostable bamboo scrub brushes. “But all it really takes to make a change is a jar and some cloth bags,” she asserts as she packs her bag for our waste-free shopping trip.
Aside from carefully planned grocery runs and a tendency to pick up litter off the street, Stevie’s waste-free life is surprisingly ordinary. Her days typically start with a morning run and end after she’s churned out a few commissioned embroidery projects (Stevie spruces up secondhand tees with intricate embroidered designs, often featuring endangered species). Once a week, she heads to the farmer’s market to stock up on groceries, which allows her to buy locally, avoid plastic packaging, and cut back on food waste. She visits the 4th Street Food Co-op, a Manhattan purveyor of bulk food, spices, and cleaning goods, on a monthly basis to restock her pantry. She requests drinks without straws, uses a compostable bamboo toothbrush, and brings her own popcorn to Knicks games — but within a few hours, she’s convinced us that living waste-free is totally manageable.
The hardest aspect of going waste-free was actually learning to give herself slack. “I used to think that every time someone handed me a receipt or gave me a drink with a plastic straw, I had failed,” says Stevie. Instead of beating herself up for every slip-up, she’s learned to focus on the fact that she’s still minimizing her impact. “The most important thing is to be aware and to try your best,” she assures us, as we sheepishly search for a trash can to toss our disposable coffee cups. That, and bring your own mason jar for next time.