The zero-waste movement is having a moment.
No longer the province of your compost-loving, hippie neighbor who eschews razors and brings her own mug to the coffee shop, “zero waste” is, in simplest terms, a conscious attempt to produce as little garbage or waste as possible. Lately, though, it’s piggybacked on the green and wellness movements to become something of a lifestyle, with Facebook groups and scads of bloggers posting photographic evidence of having fit a month’s worth — or in some cases, multiple years’ worth — of trash into a single pint jar. Even Goop is selling a $115 “Zero Waste starter kit,” consisting largely of linen napkins and a bamboo-lidded sandwich box.
However, given that — according to the Environmental Protection Agency — the average American produces nearly 4.5 pounds of garbage a day, any attempt to reduce waste has the potential to make a significant impact.
There is something largely absent, though, from much of the millennial-dominant, mostly urban zero waste blogs: kids. Although examples of zero waste families do exist (Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man book and film, to name the most visible example), a quick search of the blogosphere shows they are the minority. And it makes sense. Qualities of utmost importance to families — convenience, sanitation — are inherently non-zero-waste friendly. Even the most well-meaning, cloth-diapering, home-cooking family likely uses some store-bought cleaning products, plastic containers of toddler cereal puffs, tube yogurts for lunches, and so on. How difficult, then, would it be for a typical Portland family — in this case, two working parents and a picky-eating 5-year-old — to suddenly live zero-waste for a week?
For guidance, I contacted one of Portland’s most preeminent zero-waste gurus, Jenica Barrett, author of the Zero Waste Wisdom website and facilitator of frequent local workshops on the subject. My first question was a big one. Am I really expected to produce zero waste? What about bandages? Light bulbs? Batteries? Water from showering?
“Really the name ‘zero waste’ isn’t accurate, because in our modern society it is impossible to be ‘zero’ waste,” Barrett assured me. “Instead of focusing on absolute zero and being disappointed, it’s better to take a more holistic approach and look at all the ways to reduce your environmental impact.”
So, with this in mind, I formed my ground rules: Anything that isn’t legitimately recyclable or compostable needs to fit in a clear quart jar. (Given that were just starting out and still had a lot of non-zero-waste-friendly items in the house, I wasn’t even going to attempt the pint jar.) So, for one week, the jar was our communal trash can for work, home and school. No salad boxes, no broken toys, no snack bags, no granola-bar wrappers, no takeout containers from nights when dinner plans went sideways.
6:30 am on Day 1 and I’ve already produced an unexpected item of waste: A butter wrapper. I dutifully fold it up and put it in the fridge to use for greasing pans.
6:45 am: It’s time for breakfast, and despite being nearly 40 years old, I do not own cloth napkins, so I have to break out a stash of cloth diaper wipes I had sewn when I was pregnant. My son is apoplectic when he sees them. “I am NOT using those. They have germs on them!” he whines. I reassure him they’ve been washed in hot water and haven’t been used in a very long time, but he defiantly wipes his berry-stained mouth on his sleeve. It’s too early in the morning for a battle, so I hand him a paper napkin.
10 am: Weekly meals have been planned using mostly bulk ingredients and produce, and it’s time to go shopping at WinCo. I bring old plastic bags from previous trips, and leave the produce bag-free in the cart. When I get home, however, I go to throw my receipt in the recycling bin and remember something I had read about BPA contaminating the recycling supply. One sure way to tell if a receipt contains BPA is to scratch it with a paperclip — if it darkens, it can’t be recycled. My test is inconclusive, so I set it aside to use for scratch paper.
3 pm: We have a birthday party to attend. One of the few zero-waste blogs with a family focus, Zero Waste Kids, suggests that in these situations, guests “talk to the host parent and request no party favor for your child. You can talk to them about your zero waste efforts.” I briefly imagine how this would go over with my son. He most definitely will be getting a favor bag. Mercifully, the contents are only cookies and a latex balloon. The cookie bag and balloon end up in the jar, but I figure I’ve saved my son at least one adult therapy session.
6 pm: We get home later than expected, and my plans of cooking a healthy, virtuously zero-waste dinner from scratch are weighed against the prospect of a late bedtime and disrupted schedule. We are now having Trader Ming’s Kung Pao Chicken, which I found buried in the bottom of our deep freezer. It comes in a seemingly endless series of non-recyclable plastic bags, all of which go into the trash jar. I think about Colin Beavan of No-Impact Man fame and how he didn’t even use toilet paper for a year, and I feel like a horrible person.
Noon: We were ambivalent composters before this week, and it’s only taken three days for me to remember why. We have a tiny kitchen, and despite emptying the compost container every evening, it smells like a particularly odious small animal has crawled under the sink and died. I begin to have flashbacks to months’ worth of slime, and fruit flies, and the moldy fruit peels that always seemed to be stuck to the inside of the lid, and suddenly I want this container out of my kitchen immediately. I email Jenica. “Does it have a charcoal filter at the top?” she asks. It doesn’t. “I don’t have much advice,” she admits. “I make sure to rinse out my compost bin every time I dump it out.” I try this, and it does help a little.
7 am: First back-to-school day for my son. My husband and I are already inveterate users of reusable containers, but my son’s lunchbox is small and so is his cubby at school. Before this whole experiment I had used plastic bags, assuming multiple reusable containers wouldn’t fit, but wouldn’t you know it? They do. Thankfully I hear no guff about the included cloth napkin.
3 pm: A light bulb burned out. It wasn’t an LED, either, which can be recycled at many hardware stores; just a plain old earth-unfriendly incandescent bulb that has to go in the trash. Why do none of the zero waste bloggers have pictures of light bulbs in their pint jars? No one’s had a light bulb burn out? I ask Jenica. “Actually, I do put recycling bulbs in my trash jars!” she replies. “Or at least, I ‘count’ them by settling them on top.” I do the same. My quart jar is now very full.
7 am: Today is trash day, and for the first time in the nine years I’ve lived in a house with trash pickup, we only have one bag of trash (from the previous week). I admit I’m genuinely shocked — I had no idea how many things I mindlessly tossed throughout the day. Plastic wrap, lids, twist ties, empty containers of bubbles, broken shoes. With just a few tweaks to our routine — using cloth napkins and reusable containers, bringing our own bags to the store and shopping in bulk — we were actually able to eliminate half of our trash export. According to Jenica, that’s exactly the point.
“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” she explained when I spoke with her on the phone at the end of the week. “You can pick one thing: Refusing a straw at a restaurant. Anyone can do that. That makes a difference over time. So, you know, you don’t have to totally give up your life to be zero waste, it’s just sometimes shifting a few things around.”
Perhaps the second biggest surprise, however, was how many things I had been incorrectly recycling. I knew about plastic bags and lids, but plastic bottles without threaded necks? Any container smaller than 6 ounces? Information on what goes into the recycling and what goes into the garbage is, strangely, not easily available to the average household. (See below.)
According to Jenica, this is actually a significant problem in the Portland area —to the point where nearly 40 percent of our recycling is contaminated and goes straight to the landfill.
“If a batch gets contaminated too much, it just has to be sent to the landfill anyways and effectively defeats the purpose of recycling,” she explained. “A lot of people are ‘wishful recyclers.’ Portland actually has a very strict plastic-recycling program with a lot of rules restricting sizes and openings, and there’s no feedback — they don’t leave a note or a warning, so there’s no way to know if you’re contaminating the supply. When in doubt, put it in the trash. Recycling improperly does more damage than good.”
The futility of my previous recycling efforts brought up another — albeit darker — feeling I had at the beginning of my week. According to a Gallup Poll, 57 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 eat fast food “at least weekly.” Pair that with the amount of industrial and commercial waste being tossed off by every factory and chain store in every city in the United States, and the picture is bleak. All the self-abnegating cloth-napkin laundering and reusable shopping bag-toting in the world won’t prevent our great-grandchildren from living in a wasteland dystopia atop mountains of Keurig coffee pods and inflatable Amazon packaging cushions.
“That’s a question I get a lot; probably at every single workshop: Why do you do this?” Jenica said. “I really truly believe that every step counts. It makes me think of that meme on Facebook right now, ‘“What does one straw matter?” said 7 billion people.’ Unless we start somewhere, who’s going to start demanding that change? If everyone did it, it would make a difference.”
An item’s shape — not the number in the little triangle on the bottom — is what you should be paying attention to in terms of what can be recycled. According to Metro and the City of Portland, the only shapes that go in the bin should be paper, clean cardboard and “bottles, tubs, buckets and jugs,”
all larger than 6 ounces and with threaded necks only. That means under no circumstances should you toss:
• Plastic bags
• Plastic cutlery
• Cups of any sort — plastic or paper
• Grease-soaked takeout pizza boxes
• Plastic platters
• Refrigerated food boxes — boxes from waffles, butter, pizza, etc. (Milk cartons, however, are OK)
• ANY sort of hinged container — salad boxes, deli trays, toy packaging, etc.
• Items labeled “compostable” or “biodegradable”
• CDs or VHS tapes
Have questions about a specific item? Call the Metro Recycling Information Hotline at 503-234-3000.
For more information about local recycling rules, as well as a list of workshops and a guide for where to recycle unusual items like chip bags and the bladders from box wine, visit Zero Waste Wisdom, zerowastewisdom.com.
Zero waste tips for families
1. Bulk bins aren’t just the domain of dried beans and spices. Stores with large bulk sections, like WinCo, stock many packaging-free convenience products popular with families — powdered cheese sauce for mac ’n cheese, fun pasta shapes, breakfast cereal, and pancake mix, to name a few.
2. You’d be surprised how many items that the typical family throws away are worth holding onto for crafts. Plastic containers smaller than 3 ounces can’t be recycled locally, and are perfect for organizing beads and tiny treasures. Plastic lids make great paint palettes, and Pinterest is bursting with uses for plastic K-cup pods, from miniature planters to string light shades, wreaths and advent calendars.
3. Reusable lunch containers and water bottles, non-disposable straws, and cloth napkins aren’t difficult to get used to, and will eventually pay for themselves. If you don’t have a bag or lunch box large enough to hold them all, try wrapping them in a large piece of fabric or dish towel à la Japanese furoshiki — the cloth can then double as a napkin.
4. For new parents, reusable diapers and cloth wipes save money and aren’t as complicated as they seem. In the metro area, Tidee Didee offers laundering services for those who don’t want to wash their own, and used prefolds and covers can be found through moms’ groups or consignment shops.
5. If you don’t have time to familiarize yourself with Portland’s elaborate recycling rules, deputize one of your older kids as the household recycling “police” — they’ll love memorizing the rules and holding grown-ups accountable.
6. Whenever possible, resist the urge to purchase new toys. Younger kids don’t notice if a toy is used or not, and as most parents know, very young kids would rather have a cardboard box or paper towel tube than the latest gadget from Big Box “R” Us.