EcoFellows (try to) Live Zero Waste for a Week

When thinking of living a zero waste lifestyle, mainstream media pictures a mason jar with years of trash stuffed inside. This is a popular approach for bloggers who, after maximizing recycling, donation, compost, and purchasing reduction opportunities, provide a visualization of their impact by fitting the leftover waste in a jar. We wrote a blog on how this extreme zero waste lifestyle might not be the most accessible way to reduce waste as individuals. The associated cost, time, local infrastructure, and location are some of the most notable barriers. Taking this information into account, our EcoFellows – Becky (BK), Morgan (ML), Olivia (OH), Jonathan (JR), and Natasha (NN) – challenged themselves to live zero waste for a week to see what it was like! The goals were to test the feasibility of living the stereotypical zero waste mason jar lifestyle as young professionals in Western Massachusetts, as well as understand the challenges and successes for each person.

For seven days, each EcoFellow kept a list of all of the waste they produced, making note of what could theoretically be composted and recycled in our area. Throughout the challenge, they actively thought about reducing waste and made changes accordingly. Some of the areas of waste tracked included food and associated packaging, hygiene products, receipts, and cleaning materials.

The responses below to speak to each fellow’s experience. All five live in Northampton, so the physical infrastructure and location are relatively standardized. This area has multiple stores with bulk sections, a plastic bag ban, and a progressive mindset towards sustainability and environmental issues in general, which many of them found to be beneficial during their zero waste week.

How did thinking about waste impact your daily life?

OH: I realized how passive I am when it comes to throwing out things – the action of throwing something in the trash when it is no longer needed is second nature. Because I am impatient, taking the time to separate items into their proper bin was difficult. In the end, it helped me slow down a lot in my day to day life, though.

JR: I did spend quite a bit of time thinking about it day to day, but if I wasn’t actively paying attention I created waste in some form. What was really interesting is I would feel sad if I generated trash, because that was the nature of this challenge is to create zero waste. Financially, it was a little more expensive than what I would normally buy for both packaged and unpackaged items, but nothing too crazy.

Are there areas of waste you found easier to manage than others? What is your biggest takeaway?

NN: I realized how much food waste I produced in a single day, even with meal prepping. This mostly included orange peels, apple cores, and parts of food that we don’t really eat. Definitely made me re-evaluate the benefits of composting. I used A LOT of paper towels when meal prepping and in the beginning of the week, but toward the end I tried to make more use of dish towels. I realized that this was an easy switch for me to make.

BK: I found product packaging the most difficult area to manage, as it is very hard to avoid packaged goods.  Even if you find an eco-friendly product, they can be more expensive. For me, it wasn’t feasible to spend more on these items when I need to be saving money for other necessities.

What was the biggest challenge you faced?

ML: I encountered barriers in retail stores. For example, cashier software is often set up to automatically print a customer receipt, whether you say you want one or not. In a similar sense, manufacturers and product designers have intentionally created packaging that is large enough to highlight the product features or be visible on a shelf, neither of which are environmentally-friendly choices. It made me feel like I didn’t have much of a say in some of my purchasing.

NN: I don’t have mason jars or a ton of containers that I can take around, so this definitely contributed to the amount of waste I produced when grocery shopping. I also don’t have home composting because my landlord doesn’t participate in it and I rent for a short term – so although I would love to do it, it’s definitely an inhibitor that it’s not set up already.

If you had to make a few simple swaps or changes, what do you think would be the most realistic for you?

ML: I am going to put more focus on purchasing local and secondhand, or borrowing things if needed. I think our culture makes it easy to go out and buy new things and not think twice, but so often we find we don’t get the most use out of them or they become obsolete too quickly.

OH: My biggest takeaway from this challenge is that I now feel like I have the confidence to refuse disposable items – such as a straw, paper napkin, or to-go utensils – when I’m in public places. Also, since I am well versed in shopping in the bulk section, I am now confident to go into the grocery store with my bags and jars to refill.

BK: I would really like to be more conscientious about avoiding or limiting packaged items. I want to try and take that extra minute in the morning to bring my reusable mug to the coffee shop so that I avoid using one of their plastic containers, or to try and pay more attention in the grocery store about what my food comes in.

NN: The easiest swap for me to make would definitely be switching to loose-leaf tea. I drink a cup of tea every day and always use tea bags, and I think this would be a simple and worthwhile switch I could make.

JR: Definitely reducing paper towel usage and individually packaged produce. These are really easy to change in my life, but it will be interesting to see if I can make other swaps in my life as well!

The experiences of the fellows reinforces that while reducing waste is very beneficial for the environment, there are unfortunately some financial, geographic, and time barriers to living a fully zero waste life. As Olivia states, “those who have mastered the zero waste lifestyle tend to have made it their career and therefore have the time, resources, and support to transition seamlessly.” Although the fellows were able to integrate this challenge into their day, living in a way that truly creates zero waste still proved to be a difficult task. An important takeaway is that everyone had their share of successes and has learned what works best for themselves and what is most feasible for reducing waste in the future!

EcoFellows’ Top Tips on Reducing Waste

  • Look for stores with bulk food sections, which allow you to purchase the exact amount you want using reusable bags or jars instead of choosing packaged products.
  • It’s possible to participate in home composting without being smelly, messy, or complicated.
  • Refusing freebies and single-use items is a free way to reduce waste from the start!
  • Conducting a personal waste audit reveals surprising details about the kinds of things you throw away.
  • There are reusable, simple swaps for your everyday items, like water bottles, paper towels, and straws.

Below is a more in depth look at the waste each fellow produced during the challenge:

Olivia

Trash Recycle Compost
·         Produce stickers

·         Rubber bands

·         Frozen food boxes

·         Wet wipes

·         Receipts (7)

·         Takeout container (3)

·         Ziploc bag (2)

·         Iced coffee cup lid (2)

·         Straw (2)

·         Tissues

·         Coffee bags

·         Aluminum can (2)

·         Shampoo bottle

·         Face wash bottle

·         Body lotion bottle

·         Eyeliner packaging

·         Aluminum foil (2)

·         Iced coffee cup (2)

·         Plastic container (2)

·         Film plastic bag

·         Paper towels (4)

·         Herb stems

·         Wax paper

·         Banana peels

·         Produce clippings

Morgan

Trash Recycle Compost
·         Loose leaf tea bag

·         Receipts (6)

·         Butter wrappers (2)

·         Produce stickers

·         Plastic wrap

·         Tomato paste tube

·         Crinkly plastic (6)

·         Broken flip flops

·         Plastic container (2)

·         Tissues

·         Floss

·         Gym wipe (4)

·         Old credit card

·         Aluminum foil

·         Paper wrappers (2)

·         Aluminum can (4)

·         Film plastic bag

·         Conditioner bottle

·         Cardboard box (2)

·         Toothbrush container

·         Paper (4)

·         Gatorade bottle

·         Toothpicks (2)

·         Wax paper (2)

·         Bowl of food scraps

·         Paper towel

·         Bad fruit

·         Bamboo toothbrush

Jonathan

Trash Recycling Compost
·         Tissues

·         Cream cheese packet

·         Receipts (3)

·         Container lid

·         Ramen packets

·         Chip bag

·         Gatorade bottles (8)

·         Cardboard box

·         Tuna can (2)

·         Rice and beans

·         Paper towels (16)

Becky

Trash Recycle Compost
·         Black plastic box (3)

·         Grapes bag

·         Coffee cup

·         Oatmeal packet

·         Ziploc bag

·         Plastic wrap (2)

·         Chip bag (2)

·         Receipts (2)

·         Smoothie cup

·         Straw

·         Styrofoam egg carton

·         Mascara packaging

·         Yogurt cup

·         Cardboard box (2)

·         Film plastic packaging

·         Aluminum foil

·         Paper bag (2)

 

 

·         Produce clippings

·         Wax paper

·         Compostable container

Natasha

Trash Recycling Compost
·         Granola bar wrapper

·         Tissues

·         Receipts (5)

·         Produce stickers

·         Takeout container

·         Aluminum can

·         Cardboard box

·         Paper package (3)

·         Plastic container

·         Glass bottle

·         Bowl of food scraps

·         Tea bag (6)

·         Fruit scraps

·         Paper towels (4)

·         Napkins (2)

 

More photos and videos are available on our Instagram at @center.for.ecotechnology.

For more ideas on reducing waste in your life, check out some of our previous blogs:

2 comments


  • Great job! It’s great that you addressed the challenges facing expanding zero waste to the general public.
    Some questions/comments:
    1. Can you recycle receipts?
    2. Can’t used tissues can be composted and with paper towels?
    3. Can ziplock bags be recycled with clean plastic bags and then returned to the store?
    4. Produce stickers – can’t they be recycled with paper?
    5. Tea bags – can’t they be composted? Most are biodegradable.
    Keep up the good work!

    February 15, 2019
    • Olivia Horwitz

      These are some great questions! Although specifics vary by town, MassDEP’s Recycle Smart campaign has a great database to search for the proper way to dispose of different materials.
      1. Receipts are made with thermal paper, which has different fibers than traditional paper, and must go in the trash.
      2. Tissues can definitely be added to your compost! Here are some other tips on balancing your ‘browns’ and ‘greens’.
      3. If you tear off the zipper component, Ziploc bags can be recycled with other film plastics. This website has a great map of drop-off locations!
      4. Most produce stickers have a film of plastic around them which can’t be composted. However, some smaller farms use paper-based stickers (differentiated because they usually do not have a PLU bar code) to identify their produce, and those can be composted!
      5. You’re right, most tea bags are made with plant-based fibers and can be composted. The paper-looking pouch that tea bags come in are usually lined with aluminum or plastic, so those go in the trash.

      Thanks for reading!

      March 20, 2019

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