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Like many women, Lauren Singer carries her life around in her bag, and the contents of that canvas tote speak volumes. Inside you’ll find a reusable one-liter water bottle, a bamboo coffee cup, and a set of “to-go ware” that includes a bamboo fork, knife, spoon, and pair of chopsticks in a pouch no larger than a sunglasses case. Credit cards aside, these are the items the New Yorker won’t leave home without. Singer committed to living a zero-waste lifestyle five years ago by avoiding single-use disposables and eliminating what she couldn’t easily recycle to dramatically decrease the amount of trash she produces—and in turn, protect the environment and save natural resources.
Singer had her thunderclap moment while majoring in environmental studies at NYU. “After class one day, I was making dinner and realized just how much waste came out of even one meal,” she says. “I was a hypocrite. I had to start living my values.” And live them she did: After five years of recycling, composting, and making ecologically minded consumer choices, Singer’s entire trash output for a year fit into a single Mason jar. As her waste shrank, her happiness grew: “Doing this has saved me a lot of money, and helped me become healthier and take better care of myself.”
Now Singer educates others through a blog, Trash Is for Tossers, and a Brooklyn store and website offering essentials that help people lower their waste output, PackageFreeShop.com. Sound impossible? It’s actually not. Singer doesn’t expect anyone to go from 60 to 0 instantly. “It’s a process,” she says. “I suggest adopting new habits one at a time.”
Feeling inspired to start reducing your trash, too? See what Singer's top tips are for living more sustainably:
1. Embrace the Good Old Rs
The famous “reduce, reuse, recycle” slogan was introduced in the 1970s. And while we’re getting better at the recycling part (more about that next), reducing and reusing goods is st ill the best way to avoid generating garbage in the first place. As a general rule, buy only high-quality, reusable items that you truly need—and pass on single-use products that cannot be swiftly recycled or composted. If every American, for example, asked for drinks without plastic st raws for a single day, we’d keep 500 million out of landfills and oceans. Instead, buy a metal or bamboo straw. Better yet, keep a cloth napkin and set of flatware in your office desk for lunches you eat there (and ask takeout restaurants to leave out cutlery and skip the plastic bag—or curb even more waste by bringing your own lunch in a reusable container).
Follow the “reuse” rule in a broader sense, too. Be a mender; sew up holes in socks and sweaters before pitching them. And rather than grabbing paper towels for every task, enlist washable rags: Those soft old Tshirts aren’t suitable to donate but are great at cleaning and dusting.
2. Recycle Religiously
If you do end up with a single-use plastic item, don’t just toss it when you’re done. “Most people don’t realize that lids for coffee cups are usually made from number-one plastic, which is recyclable,” says Singer. Also, choose items that come in glass or aluminum containers, which can have multiple lives—nearly 75 percent of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today. What about that perforated plastic wrap around boxes and bottles? “I try to avoid it at all costs, but what I do come across, I send to TerraCycle,” Singer says. “They send you collection boxes, and you fill them up with things like thin plastics and toothbrushes and send them back. They find a way to recycle everything."
3. Consider Composting
It isn’t as hard, smelly, or time-consuming as you may think. And you can do it whether you live in the city or the country. But first, be sure what you cook and serve in your home actually gets eaten. In 2014, 36 million tons of food waste ended up in landfills, which get packed so tightly that organic waste can’t decompose properly; it gets trapped and releases methane. Food scraps, paper, even cotton—anything biodegradable!—can be composted in a small area or container outside, or stored in a freezer or countertop bin and dropped off at a local composter in cities. New York City’s residential and drop-off program, for instance, is the largest in the country.
4. Shop Smart
Stash a washable tote (or three) in your bag to hold groceries, greenmarket hauls, and other purchases. Use one made from natural fibers, like cotton, so you can compost it when it’s worn out. To buy food in bulk, Singer brings Mason jars (with their empty weight written on the lid). “A lot of stores stock bulk spices and rice, and many bakeries sell bread without wrapping,” she says. And skip those wispy plastic produce bags. “Vegetables can touch—they love each other,” she jokes. Other basics made of renewable materials that Singer recommends: bamboo toothbrushes and refillable, compostable silk dental floss. In lieu of plastic razors, she uses a nice stainless steel one.
5. Share and Share Alike
Singer funds her love for (secondhand) fashion by reselling pieces on sites like Poshmark, eBay, and Depop. Even simpler, you can arrange clothes swaps with friends, and trade gently worn kids’ stuff, too. If an item is no longer worth selling or donating, all is not lost . “Compost it if it’s a natural fabric,” she says. “Or recycle. H&M stores around the world have drop-off bins.”
And for harder-to-recycle items...
Singer hasn’t found a way to recycle or compost produce stickers or plastic clothing tags ... yet. But here are solutions to other tricky trash topics.
- Feminine Products: Instead of synthetic tampons with plastic applicators, Singer suggests the Lunette Menstrual Cup. Other eco options: Washable pads or Thinx underwear, designed to absorb liquid.
- Contact Lenses: They were Singer’s biggest challenge. Luckily, Bausch & Lomb has partnered with TerraCycle to create a take-back program that accepts any brand.
- Diapers & Wipes: Singer suggests cloth diapers, but if that isn’t realistic for you, go for unbleached disposable ones made with nontoxic gel and minimal plastic, like Eco by Naty. Choose plant-based wipes, like BumBoosa, made from bamboo, and don’t flush them.
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