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!

3 thoughts on “January: I Have No Idea What I’m Doing

Add yours

  1. I’m counting on you to keep posting with your witty and informative ideas inspiring the rest of us to take action and step up to the plate, so to speak, Natalie!
    Thank you for sharing your boundless energy and passion! 😘

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am a civil engineer and I am looking into the construction industry as my specialty using geosynthetic Technology. I believe that it has a more positive impact on the community and high quality innovation through proper training. It is so nice to see articles like this to enhance my skills.


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