Monday, December 12, 2011

Whittled Down to Zero

Our first attempt at zero waste shopping. We cheated twice: the tofu and the sherry.

I am on a quest to eliminate as much packaging as possible from my life. As with most lifestyle changes I undertake, I'm doing this gradually--that's why the blog is called Whittled Down, after all. This is just the first post of many, I hope, documenting our experiment in zero waste living.* We've already been working at it for a few weeks, and this week we saw a dramatic reduction in our trash. We filled just a single bathroom-sized trash can with household garbage.

Now, we're not starting from scratch here. We have had a low-waste ethic for several years. Our commitment to the practice has ebbed and flowed. Recently, we've lapsed pretty badly. That said, here are some practices we already had in place which have made the transition easier:

Compost. We have a worm bin in our kitchen and a compost pile out in the yard. Most of our kitchen scraps end up here, though sometimes I get lazy when the compost container is full and food waste ends up in the trash.
Recycling. We regularly recycle, though I sometimes get lazy with the paper. Bonus: our recycling is picked up by a bicycle-powered trash removal service!
Buying in bulk. We buy many things in bulk, but sometimes bring it home in bags rather than in the jars we use to store the food. Sometimes we get lazy and forget to look for something in the bulk section, buying a similar item that comes in packaging.
CSA and a backyard garden. Self-explanatory. This food is never packaged. Once or twice I have used a plastic bag to weigh items at the CSA shed. Never again (I hope).

It's astonishing to me how much waste I still produce. Even though I shop around the outer aisles of the grocery store. Even though I have a CSA and go to the farmer's market. So where does this trash come from? Let me count the ways:

Oops! I forgot my reusable shopping bags. Forgetting my reusable shopping bags doesn't stop me from filling up my cart. Even though paper bags are recyclable and compostable, I'd rather not use them at all. 
Oops! I forgot my jars for bulk goods. Our co-op has paper bags for bulk as well--if I arrived at the store unprepared, I used to just grab one of these instead. 
Plastic produce bags of doom. Even if I don't need the plastic produce bags to get the food home, I would need them to keep the food fresh in my refrigerator. So I usually ended up taking a plastic bag when purchasing refrigerated produce. I ended up with so many of these. And I don't have a dog. 
Local meat. Wrapped in plastic. Cheese too. This is one of the toughest sources of waste for me. Meat and cheese comes wrapped in plastic, or plastic lined paper. Not only do I feel badly about the waste generated, it grosses me out. I hate having meaty garbage hanging out in my trash can. Ew. And the cheese? Plastic is actually bad for cheese--cheese connoisseurs (and Europeans) will keep their cheese wrapped in paper. But here in the US, cheese comes  wrapped in plastic as a sales tactic--it gives the consumer a visual preview of the cheese in all its gooey, textured glory.
Plastic-lined milk cartons. Where we live, we can either buy local, organic milk in a carton, or local, non-organic milk in glass. We have usually opted for the organic version. But milk cartons, even though they're recyclable, are lined with plastic. 
Too shy to say no. When shopping at more traditional stores, if I miss that golden opportunity to pre-empt the clerk's bagging of my purchase, I'm usually too shy to tell them I don't need a bag.

So what's our strategy for eliminating waste in our household? Here are some of the solutions we've employed so far:

Eliminating spontaneous trips to the store. Not only does a weekly shopping trip up my odds of remembering my reusable shopping bags and containers, turns out it saves me money by preventing impulse buys. I go with a list, and I buy only what's on the list. Anything I find myself tempted to buy spontaneously usually comes in packaging, making it easier to pass up. 
Menu planning. Planning our meals helps us make a shopping list that does not require us to buy anything in packaging. It has the added benefit of encouraging us to cook more meals at home and to use what's already in the pantry.
Making use of my scrap pile. I'm not much of a sewer, but I do know how to crank out a simple bag. I saw this video of a woman making a variety of reusable shopping bags out of old shirts, and I finally had the inspiration I needed to cut my scrap pile of old clothing down to size. I use these bags for bulk items and produce, and the larger ones for grocery bags.
Reusable containers for the meat and cheese counters. This has been the biggest challenge for me so far. The solution seems simple--bring reusable containers to the store and ask the butcher to put your purchase in the container rather than in a wrapper. Unfortunately, making this request is extremely awkward, and gets you lots of weird stares. I'm not gonna lie. Half the time, they can't figure out how to tare the scale to account for the weight of the container, or they wrap the purchase and then plop it into the container. Bea from Zero Waste Home has some tips for overcoming this challenge, and I'm going to keep at it. 
Compromising on milk. We've switched from the local organic milk in cartons to the non-organic local milk in glass. This way the only waste is the plastic lid.
Finding a friend with chickens. Or an art teacher. We give our egg cartons to a co-worker of mine who has chickens, or to my mother, who is an art teacher and uses them for paint palettes and sculpture projects. This doesn't eliminate the packaging, but at least it gets reused. 
Creative refrigeration. We are still learning how to properly refrigerate produce without plastic. We've turned our sauerkraut crock into a root vegetable refrigeration unit, tucking them all in with a damp cloth. Our most enlightening discovery so far? The salad sack. I made a bag with a drawstring of an old terry cloth towel. We keep it damp, and fill it with lettuce, fresh herbs, and other delicate green things. They keep longer in this towel bag than they ever kept imprisoned in plastic. We had a head of lettuce in there, fresh as can be, for over two weeks.
Make More from Scratch. We love to cook, but often our busy schedules get the better of us. Our zero waste project encourages us to make more of our staples from scratch. Since we started this experiment we've made our own gravlax, yogurt and seitan, for example.

Honestly, I could go on and on. It's pretty tricky business avoiding packaging, and we have a lot to learn. If you've been experimenting with zero waste in your home, I'd love to hear about your trials and tribulations.

*Disclaimer: This blog is a judgment-free zone. I am not judging you for the trash in your garbage can--promise. Everything I share on this blog I share out of genuine enthusiasm. These crazy projects bring me great joy and personal satisfaction, and I hope to spread some of that to others. I couldn't care less what you buy or what it comes wrapped in.

1 comment:

Kayleigh Garner said...

Opportunity shops and thrift stores love donated grocery bags and dog walking parks love donated produce bags (normally they have a bag container near the trash can)