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I consider myself an environmentally friendly person. I compost my food waste, recycle everything and always bring reusable bags to the grocery store.
But one online shopping spree made me want to step my up my game. Last Black Friday, I ordered two tops from Madewell. They were delivered separately, requiring double the amount of gas to get to my house, and each came in their own plastic bags inside larger plastic packaging with individual paper receipts.
This one purchase generated so much unnecessary waste that I felt compelled to minimize the trash I generated. So I challenged myself to go zero waste for a week.
What Is Zero Waste?
The zero-waste movement is a consumer-led initiative that aims to eliminate all kinds of waste, such as plastic packaging, single-use containers, cardboard boxes and trash in general, in order to reduce our carbon footprint and keep waste out of landfills and the ocean.
I’d read a few articles on the topic (only 9% of all the plastic ever created has been recycled) and follow people on Instagram who live zero waste. I wanted to see if I could do it, too, as an act of environmental solidarity. As someone who works from home and is sustainability minded, I thought my lifestyle was perfectly setup for a zero-waste week. I jumped in without much research, figuring I’d learn as I went.
Saturday started out strong with breakfast and coffee made at home. No waste when you’re using your own dishes!
I taught a budgeting workshop in the early afternoon, which had 12 tickets sold. Only nine people attended, so I had three notebooks and worksheets left over. Instead of tossing them, I asked the event sponsor if I could take them home with me and do an Instagram giveaway. She agreed, and I was able to maintain my waste-free day.
Sunday is my grocery shopping and cleaning day. I walked to the grocery store to minimize gas emissions. Once inside, though, I was confronted by a serious road block: metal packaging.
I usually buy canned beans for a soup or chili that I eat throughout the week. Sure, cans are recyclable, but a true zero-waste move would be to bring cloth bags and buy dried beans in bulk. I didn’t have cloth bags, and the ones sold at the store were too big for my needs.
I went with the cans, feeling guilty in the checkout line. I did avoid using plastic produce bags by simply grabbing veggies by hand.
This shopping trip showed me that being zero waste full-time comes with upfront costs: reusable jars or bags for bulk food, and more dishes and cutlery if you want to host guests without resorting to disposables.
Monday is a day I dedicate to work. I don’t take meetings and usually don’t even leave my house, so it was an easy day to stick to my zero-waste mission. I ate vegetarian chili I made the night before and spent the evening reading.
Tuesdays are the exact opposite of my Mondays. I schedule all my meetings on this day rather than spread them throughout the week. That meant two walking trips to coffee shops and driving to a bar downtown. Luckily, the coffee shops I chose serve coffee in ceramic mugs if you’re going to stay. At the bar, I asked the server to forgo the usual plastic straw and cocktail napkin with my drink.
At the end of the day, though, I was waylaid by a parking sticker. In order to park downtown, I had to print a small sticker (not recyclable) and place it on my windshield.
On Wednesday I walked to a coffee shop to co-work with a friend, where again I was able to drink out of a mug instead of a to-go cup. I walked home for lunch; more vegetarian chili.
Wednesday was also a belated Christmas party with friends visiting from out of town. We were doing Secret Santa, so I wanted to make sure my gift was zero-waste-conscious. I ordered a movie theater gift card and had it delivered by email, eliminating packaging and postage. It felt awkward being the only person without a physical gift to give, but that subsided quickly.
By this point in the challenge I was feeling pretty good. I wasn’t doing perfectly, but I was much more mindful of my decisions and tweaking my behavior to avoid waste — including buying less stuff than usual. For example, I chose not to get French Onion dip in a plastic container at the grocery store (a snack I love but definitely don’t need in my life), which was a healthier and financially friendly choice. I also found myself walking more than usual, saving me $15 on gas and parking throughout the week.
On Thursday, I realized just how hard a truly zero-waste lifestyle is.
My boyfriend and I left town to visit Dallas for the weekend. The snacks we packed were each individually wrapped: granola bars, bags of salted almonds and candy. We already had the granola bars at home, so it made financial sense to use them up. I would have bought our other snacks from the bulk aisle but, again, I was thwarted by not having my own bags to put them in.
Before we left, we went to a birthday lunch with his family. The server brought out our drinks with plastic straws and cocktail napkins before we could say anything. Plus, we were at a Japanese restaurant and used disposable wooden chopsticks. By the end of the meal, we'd gone through a stack of paper plates for a homemade birthday cake, a plastic knife and gift wrap.
When we got to Dallas, we met friends for dinner and the waste continued: paper napkins, tacos in wax paper, drinks in paper cups. I also had to use paper towels in the restroom, as there was no air dryer.
It dawned on me that fast-casual dining can be affordable but also more wasteful than sit-down dining. My current budget, though, wouldn’t support me upgrading my restaurant options to save waste. I realized what my biggest question was: Do I save money and generate waste, or avoid waste and spend more money?
My last day of the challenge was also my first full day on vacation. I brought my water bottle with me while we explored Dallas — a win for the environment *and* my wallet since I didn’t have to buy drinks throughout the day. We parked at a coin-operated meter — so no need to print a parking receipt — and walked as much as possible. For lunch we opted for veggie burgers at a sit-down restaurant, where once again we passed on napkins and plastic straws.
I declined a paper map at a museum and opted out of buying anything from the gift shop. (As a notorious gift-shop buyer, this move saved me money!)
We had a home-cooked dinner with the friends hosting us, so we had control of where our food came from, its packaging and how it was disposed of. It was also significantly cheaper than dining out.
What I Thought After My Zero-Waste Week
Most waste feels small in the moment — a straw here, a few paper towels there — but once you start paying attention, you see how quickly it adds up. It’s similar to how unplanned spending can get out of control and break a budget.
The simplest way to go zero waste is to DIY as much as possible, which is a very cheap lifestyle but requires a time tradeoff. Also key: simply asking people to not give you things. I told several waiters I didn’t need straws or napkins, and not a single one was upset or offended.
I could see how a sustained zero-waste lifestyle could save me a lot of money in the long term through eliminating expensive pre-packaged grocery items and shopping less in general. Last year I spent about $150 on clothes and $2,300 on groceries and restaurants. Going zero waste completely would mean entirely avoiding certain food items, restaurants and stores, which could mean spending less overall.
As I get better at recognizing where waste generates, I can get better at choosing to opt out. And as more people become more waste-conscious, it will get easier to live that way in the world at large.