In the days leading up to my own waste-free challenge, every trip to the trash can would send me into a panic. For whatever reason, the “disposable” aspect of my disposable daily contacts had never really registered with me — nor did the fact that my carefully sorted recycling bin still counted as waste. In fact, I didn’t really understand what waste was until I decided to live without it.
To be clear: Anything that can’t be reused, repurposed, or composted constitutes as waste — yes, even stuff you can recycle. When I took on this challenge, I was shocked to learn that recycling is only a slightly better option than tossing things in the trash: Recycling does require energy to process (also, not everything that’s recycled winds up being reused). If I wanted to do this right, I had to prioritize refusing, reducing, and reusing potential waste instead of throwing it away.
The Ground Rules
What’s Fair Game
I went back and forth a bunch about whether I should avoid using all things plastic — including reusable Tupperware containers — during my waste-free week. In the end, I decided that it would be way more wasteful to replace paper and plastic stuff that I owned and that could still be used with compostable and waste-free versions. I continued to use Tupperware, beauty and hygiene products that came in plastic packaging, and yes, toilet paper that I already had throughout the challenge.
That being said, I learned a ton about how wasteful a lot of the products that we use every day can be. Even though I’m not 100% waste-free right now, I’ve continued to find ways to replace disposable goods with sustainable options. For instance, I’ve substituted my worn-out, disposable plastic toothbrush with a compostable bamboo version and bought reusable silicone food bags when I ran out of Ziplocs.
The Really Hard Stuff
Far and away the most challenging thing I took on was grocery shopping. I’ve always been a bring-your-own-bag type of girl (I even bring my own cloth produce bags), but I had never once considered how much plastic packaging I was going through at the store. I’m incredibly lucky that my nearby Whole Foods has a bulk foods section (hello waste-free oatmeal, pasta, and popcorn kernels), but meat and dairy items presented a real problem. Both come wrapped in tons of plastic — for good reason — but since I do eat meat a couple times a week, I didn’t want to avoid it.
I went grocery shopping on the very first day of the challenge, partially out of curiosity and partially to get it out of the way. After procrastinating in the bulk foods section and carefully selecting produce with minimal twist ties and tags, I meekly approached the meat counter and asked the butcher if he’d serve me a cut in my own Tupperware. Without missing a beat, he tared my container and weighed out a few links of sausage. Yes, he did wrap it in wax paper — and hand me a sticker with the weight and price — all of which I couldn’t compost. But it was still significantly less waste than the plastic wrap, styrofoam, and wax paper that typically accompany meat purchases.
I honestly did not expect that my waste-free week would also be one spent making odd requests of other people, from my Tupperware of meat to refusing paper napkins at bars to requesting that my drink be served without a plastic straw. I really hated being difficult, but in the long run it wasn’t that much harder to bring my own take-out container and cloth napkin to a restaurant (even though it was slightly more awkward).
Going waste-free forced me to get out of my comfort zone, and it also made me rethink and break old habits. I never realized how wired I was to reach for a paper towel after I washed my hands (luckily I stashed an extra hand towel in both my office bathroom and backpack). I also never considered how wasteful it was to look beyond the draft list at a bar — since I always recycled beer cans and wine bottles, I never thought of them as trash. Suffice it to say I put my growler to good use throughout the week.
The Surprisingly Easy Stuff
Going without waste did require an initial investment: I stocked up on more cloth produce bags and mason jars, and I invested in a few reusable options (like those silicone food bags) instead of spending less on disposable versions. But in the long run, I started saving money. Instead of buying more paper towels, I cut up old T-shirts into rags. I swapped out packaged oatmeal and microwave popcorn for cheaper versions sold in bulk. Waste-free living does require a little more time and planning, but it was really rewarding to see a difference in the amount of waste I created and amount of money I spent. I wouldn’t say it was easy to make my own pizza dough instead of simply ordering a pie off of Seamless, but damn if it didn’t taste good (and help me avoid a few trips to the trash can).
What I Threw Out
By the end of my waste-free week, I accumulated less than an ounce of waste (the average American accumulates 4.4 pounds of waste a day).
And yes, it took a lot of energy to Instagram-stalk restaurants to ensure that they use cloth napkins, and it took a lot of nerve to implore a butcher to serve me meat in my own container. But even though my waste-free week is over, I still feel that gut check when I walk to a trash can or a recycling bin — so I’ve been trying to do it a little less often.
Interested in giving waste-free living a try? Learn more about United By Blue's 24 Hour No Trash Challenge.