January: I Have No Idea What I’m Doing

I love making resolutions for the New Year. Read more books, run more miles, do more yoga, eat more vegetables. I like the clean slate of a new year to start big projects. I visualize the upcoming months as a road unfolding in front of me, and I look forward to the journey.

This year I may have bitten off more than I can chew. Besides setting a goal to read a total of 52 books and run a marathon in July, I have decided to put my environmental values front and center in my lifestyle.

 

I have decided to keep all of my trash for 2020 in a single jar.

 

Zero Wasters keeping their trash in jars is central to the aesthetic of the environmental lifestyle and has been a common visual practice for years. Bea Johnson, Lauren Singer, and many others have famously displayed their tiny environmental footprints in mason jars. The transparency of the jar not only allows their audience to see the contents, but also metaphorically opens these people up to questions: they become ambassadors and educators in the field. Besides the performative component of the “jar of trash”, I find the practice enticing because it enforces personal accountability. When I have to see that jar every day, I have a strong incentive not to add to it.

So why become a jar person? First, want to learn more about my waste habits and how to improve my Zero Waste lifestyle. You can’t change what you can’t measure, so by measuring my trash I can know how to improve. Second, I want to challenge my reliance on plastic, single use packaging, and convenience culture. Even though I’ve been in the Zero Waste space for over five years, I still have a lot to learn and even more to put into practice in my life. Third, I love a challenge. Go big or go home: a yearlong extreme trash challenge is right up my alley.

 

The Rules

 

Living in San Francisco gives me many options for composting and recycling most of my materials. I have access to curbside compost for all my food scraps, wet/soiled paper, and plants/landscaping waste. The Recology recycling system accepts a huge variety of items including metals, dry paper, clean dry plastics, and aseptic packaging and combined quantities of film plastic (a plastic bag full of other plastic bags). With all these options, it seems like there shouldn’t be much else to put in the trash anyway.

 

In my rules, I am allowed to utilize my local compost and recycling systems to their fullest.

 

Nobody is perfect, especially me, so I am going to screw up. There is no way I’m going to have an empty jar at the end of this year. One type of trash I am going to accept should I need it is medical materials. Whatever my doctor says I need I am going to do, even if there is trash associated. Similarly, feminine care products are not going into the jar. Choices related to taking care of my body are private to me and are not a part of this challenge. Yes, there are Zero Waste and reusable options for periods, and luckily there are hundreds of other writers and reviewers of these products- I do not plan on making my thoughts public.

 

In my rules these items are not going into my jar, and will I feel bad about using them.

 

Beyond just food, I have set a Zero Waste goal not to buy new products. Clothes, houseware, electronics, and anything else I need to purchase for the year I will avoid new items as much as possible. While it may be gratifying to fill the “want – have” cycle as quickly as possible with two-day shipping, a little patience gives me the opportunity to find what I need secondhand. In this area, I am especially lucky because of the Bay Area’s many reuse locations including Goodwill, Salvation Army, and Urban Ore.

 

In my rules, I am not allowed to buy new consumer goods.

 

Third, as I have been reading and learning about the Zero Waste lifestyle, I see two tracks: as little to landfill as possible AND/OR use as few materials as possible. In the first system, I could buy plastic water bottles and recycling them guilt free. In the second, I would invest in a durable, reusable water bottle. If my ultimate goal is zero waste (no burn, no bury, no toxics), then by utilizing my local recycling program I can actually consume a lot of materials. On the other hand, by following the rules of Plastic Free July I would attempt to avoid as much plastic as possible- recyclable or not. With the global recycling market in flux, and resource extraction of fossil fuels to produce plastics causing ongoing trauma to the planet, I don’t want to invite more plastic into my life.

 

We can’t recycle our way out of this problem, so in my rules I will aim to reduce plastic even if it’s recyclable.

 

In Summary

  1. Utilize local compost and recycling systems to the fullest, including bulky item pickup, e-waste and household hazardous waste facilities.
  2. Medical waste and feminine hygiene items are exempt from this challenge.
  3. No new products: secondhand, borrowed, or used only.
  4. Reduce plastic use overall.

I’ll update monthly with how the project is going, how full the jar is getting, and challenges/successes. Wish me luck!

PLANning for the Future

The first environmental conference I ever attended was the inaugural Post Landfill Action Network (PLAN) Students for Zero Waste conference in October of 2014. I was a student in college, took the train from school to Durham, New Hampshire, and was able to identify other conference attendees by their overnight packs and sleeping bags; part of the budget-friendly nature of the conference included a sleepover at a local church. 

I learned a lot, met hundreds of amazing people, practiced networking with industry professionals, and experienced that positive and energizing feeling of wanting to change the world while leaping over tall buildings. The organizers—college students themselves—did an outstanding job of balancing many different types of speakers, including scientists, activists, corporations, non-profit organizations, authors, student groups, and thought leaders. 

This October, I again attended the PLAN Students for Zero Waste Conference—this time at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA. This time, I attended not as a student (even though I am currently in graduate school), but as an industry professional with four years of work experience in the environmental field. Perhaps I had changed, perhaps PLAN had changed (probably both), but somehow I did not leave this conference with the same energized aura that I associate with environmental conferences. Instead, I took away an updated understanding of the Zero Waste movement, especially among the youth and student sector. 

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Zero Waste in the Beauty Industry

A few weeks ago I got into a conversation with a friend about plastics in the beauty industry.  “There are just plastic containers everywhere, and there are no good alternatives. There are shampoo bars, which are more expensive and you can only get in a few places. Also do tooth tabs even work? Plus they come in plastic containers!” Her closing comment, “Internet, I’m not washing my hair and teeth with baking soda.”

Based on this Refinery 29 article, my friend isn’t alone in her search for environmentally friendly and package free alternatives. I thought I had the solution: do with fewer products, use that extra money to splurge on boutique package free products (looking at you, Lush), or spend $75 on a “small” beauty products and packaging shipping box from Terracycle. If people want to use 20 products in their beauty routine, then they should be able to do so with zero waste options.

If you think that 20 products is a lot…

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Plastic Free July Challenge

As much as I’ve resisted this, I’m a jar person now. Like Bea Johnson and Lauren Singer before me, I’m now one of those people who keeps their trash in a jar. This jar.

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Plastic Free July is a great reason to try tacking my garbage for the first time, and here are the rules.

Rule 1: Priorities

I’m going to prioritize reduction, refusing, and reusing this month. Recyclable and compostable items are nice, but single-use is not going to fly. It’s about more than just reducing plastic, it’s about reducing everything.

Rule 2: Plastics

Some of my reusable items are made of plastic. My cold drinks tumbler and my to-go containers for example. Since those items are reusable I’m not going to count them as trash. Now, if I bought bottled water I’d have to put that plastic item in the trash jar. Even though it’s recyclable? Yes, even though it’s recyclable the point of Plastic Free July is to avoid single-use plastic items and a plastic water is absolutely a single-use plastic item.

Rule 3: The Jar

Here’s what goes in the jar: single-use plastic items, plastic film, plastic bags, small plastics like bottle caps and twist ties, multi material items like shelf stable packaging and tea bag wrappers, other trash items. I have access to compost where I live so no compostable items or food items will go in the jar.

Ok! Here I go! A whole month! I can’t wait to see what the challenges are, what small and big actions I’ll be taking to avoid trash and single-use items outside of my normal behavior, and if this is viable for longer than a month.

I’ve got an empty jar and a lot of enthusiasm. Happy Plastic Free July everyone!

GogoBags: Review

Reducing waste can be as easy as replacing single-use items in your life with reusable ones. The ubiquitous plastic bag can be hard to avoid but their negative impact on the environment cannot be ignored. Bringing a cloth tote the grocery store is a good way to replace shopping bags, but what about snack sized baggies or produce bags? Problem, meet solution.

Photo courtesy of GogoBags

GogoBags makes several different styles of zero waste reusable bags, perfect for storing snacks, going on a hike, travel, and grocery shopping. They’re also handmade in Canada! One of their founders, Anahita, was kind enough to send me two types of their bags and they 100% exceeded expectations.

Reusable Snack and Sandwich Bags

I went on a lunch & hike to Bravo Lake near Sequoia National park to test how well the bags stayed closed in my backpack. The snack sized bag held onto my roasted almonds without leaking at all. I was convinced that I would open my backpack to find it full of loose almonds, but the fold-over snack bag held its own and worked perfectly.

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I didn’t have a sandwich to put into the sandwich sized bag, but I did have half of a burrito. I carried this veggie burrito in my backpack for at least another three hours before making it back to civilization, and my burrito stayed delicious. I don’t recommend putting anything too wet or soggy into these bags (they’re lined with cotton, so they’re not waterproof), but if your food is between slices of bread or wrapped in a tortilla you’ll be fine.

 

Reusable Mesh Produce Bags

Don’t tell my mom, but she is getting these for Christmas this year. The mesh bags are plenty big enough to carry loose produce and come in BRIGHT pink and white. These bags are laundry friendly and durable. My chef friend cautioned me against using them to carry meat products because of possible cross-contamination with your fruits and vegetables, but luckily I’m a vegetarian.

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Oh, and they come with a drawstring prevent your food from spilling all over the place. I use so many produce bags at the grocery store because I eat a plant-based diet, so these will definitely come in handy. As you can see, I loaded these up with heavy items (oranges, potatoes), and they did great with all that weight- I definitely got a workout taking this photo.

These are on Sale RIGHT NOW!

GogoBags is having a 12 Days of Christmas sale starting TODAY, December 1st through December 12th. Each day, one of their products is on sale. Did I mention that they also sell cloth toothbrush cases, bread bags, and fridge friendly bags among others? Get some for yourself, get some for your friends, and enjoy a Zero Waste holiday 🙂

GogoBags Website: https://www.gogobags.ca/shop/

Amazon Links to products that I reviewed:

Reusable Mesh Produce Bags
Reusable Sandwich and Snack Bags

Grapefruit Candy: A Zero Waste Recipe

How much do you like grapefruit? Picture taking a bite of perfectly sweet and
delicious grapefruit, maybe with a little sugar sprinkled on top. Ok, now imagine a
grapefruit gummy worm. Still interested? Then let’s make Grapefruit Candy.

This zero-waste recipe comes from my wonderful grandmother who used to make
this special treat as a way to turn food waste into dessert. I like to think of it as
turning straw into gold (or day old bagels into vodka).

You will need
3-4 grapefruits (as many as you want)
~2 Cups of Cane Sugar (or other sweetener, but come on we’re making candy use
sugar)

Step 1
Cut the grapefruits in half and eat out the middle edible part. It does not matter how
much pith is left over. This can be done days in advance, just keep the empty
grapefruit halves stored in the fridge for up to one week.

Inline image 1

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Zero Waste Spirits Company Uses Food Waste to make Vodka

A California distillery is using food waste to make vodka.

These people might be geniuses.

Meet Misadventure Vodka. The sugary source material for their alcoholic product comes from discarded sugary baked goods including cake. CAKE! They’re making vodka from cake! They’re reducing food waste and creating a product at the same time. Somebody get them a medal. As their website says, “Finally you can have your cake and drink it too.”

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Photo from Misadventure Co

Hedonistic Sustainability

“Precious resources are used to grow, package, transport, and sell food, but a large portion of it never reaches human mouths and is, instead, thrown away. At your local store unsold baked goods are often donated to food banks by mindful shop owners. This normally would be the food’s last stop before it was taken to the landfill.

Misadventure Vodka extends the useful life of these foods. Right now, we specifically save all manner of baked goods. This is possible because they can still contain usable starches that can be converted to sugars that are then eaten by microscopic yeast and turned into marvelous alcohol.”-Misadventure Vodka

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Photo from Misadventure Co

The amount of food waste at all stages of production is staggering. From food left unpicked due to labor shortages, food not sent to market because it doesn’t meet aesthetic standards, food unsold and rotting which goes un-donated, to food expiring in our refrigerators. Misadventure Co steps in to save food from going to the landfill. While reducing food waste is better, finding a way to re-purpose food waste is pretty cool too.

For more reporting, check out this article on NPR.

Interested in giving distilling your own try? How about a Gin Kit! Too much work? Then Spirit Infusing might be more up your alley. Whatever you do, enjoy responsibly.