I Went Zero Waste for a Week and Here’s What Happened
Creating less trash isn’t as hard as it seems.
When I first heard about living “zero waste” I thought the same thing you’re probably thinking now: how could anyone live without creating any trash at all?
But after reading more about “zero waste” as both a lifestyle and an eco-movement, I realized thousands of people around the world (thank you, Internet!) had been living this way for years. Soon, the idea started to seem less far-fetched. These folks I read about weren’t all your stereotypical “crunchy-granola” types either; they were doctors, teachers, mothers, millennials, and vegans and meat-eaters alike. And they were all striving for one thing: to live more mindfully.
For some, this meant toting reusables around (from utensils and bags to straws) to avoid single-use waste, and buying only locally-sourced produce. For others, it involved using only all-natural cleaning and beauty products—some people even DIY’d it all! After stumbling upon stats like how Americans create an average of 4.4 pounds of trash every single day, switching to a less wasteful way of living, to any degree, seemed more and more appealing. So, I challenged myself to try zero waste living for a week. Here’s how it went:
Where to start? How do you compost? Does plastic equal toxic? Should I get rid of anything plastic? The good news is you don’t have to start at an extreme. I read that the best way to go zero waste was to start small, and start with what you know. For me, that was cooking instead of buying takeout (luckily, I already loved cooking), so my first swap was to begin bringing my own lunch to work — hello, DIY grain bowls! Not only would this help me skip single-use food packaging, but I’d also be pocketing extra dollars (nearly $50!) by the end of the week.
Another wasteful habit I noticed I had: coffee runs. Not only was I picking up expensive coffees almost daily, but all of those cups and lids were piling up in the trash. Apparently, Americans toss out an insane 120 billion disposable cups every year and, despite their paper exteriors, these cups are not recyclable because of their inner plastic lining. Instead, I opted to start brewing my own coffee at home and take it to work in a travel mug. I didn’t give up my daily coffee runs completely; I’m saving them as Friday treats.
Today, I needed to pick up a few groceries on the way home, so I decided to visit my local farmers’ market after work. But as soon as I arrived, I realized I had left my reusable shopping tote bags at home. I felt super bummed! I was trying to avoid plastic bags (which I quickly learned were some of the worst trash offenders), but I didn’t know where to put my purchases. So I compromised and tried to fit as much of my haul into a single bag--totally worked!--and still felt good about supporting local farmers. As for the plastic bag? I repurposed it as a garbage bin liner when I got home.
While meal-prepping this evening, I decided to look up easy ways to start composting. Turns out, many farmers’ markets, including mine, have weekly drop-off sites for compost collection. This was especially ideal for me as my tiny city apartment has no backyard for starting a compost pile outdoors. As for where to keep my egg shells, coffee grounds, and fruit and vegetable peels, I began storing them in an empty plastic container in my freezer. No odors, no pests! (Want to try composting yourself? Here’s what you need to know to get started.)
Four days in, bringing my own coffee, lunch, and reusables started to feel like no-brainers. I even kept an extra set of silverware to keep at my desk so I could skip the plastic ones in the office kitchen. But around 3 p.m. I was in need of a serious caffeine kick. To avoid disposable cups, I decided to try bringing my mug with me to a coffee shop. At first, I felt self-conscious. But I quickly and politely asked the barista if they could make my drink in my mug and they were more than happy to do so. I even got a BYO discount! I will definitely be bringing my own mug for Cappuccino Fridays from now on, too.
I needed to go dress shopping today for a family reunion. My first instinct? Hit the big stores I usually frequented. But after I read more about how harmful the fast fashion industry can be on both its laborers and the environment, I decided to switch things up and try thrifting. I had been to secondhand stores before, mostly to scope out cool home décor, but I had never thought to really look for clothing items—it seemed overwhelming. Turns out, it wasn’t at all. It was pretty fun, especially when I spotted some of my favorite brands at way more affordable prices. I even found the perfect dress!
Last challenge day! Looking back, I tried to think about how much trash I had saved from landfills this week. And while it was still more than what could fit in a tiny mason jar like I had seen eco-bloggers do--after an entire year--I still felt pretty proud of all the changes I had started making. I noticed I was also rethinking what constituted “trash”; for example, I even repurposed a plastic cup I ended up with as a little planter for my basil.
I also realized that avoiding trash simply called for a bit of planning ahead. Instead of grabbing bottled water and an energy bar on the go, I’d bring my reusable water bottle and pack a banana for post-workout snacks instead.
Sure, going zero waste seemed insanely overwhelming at first--hello, sudden sense of urgency to overhaul everything I had been doing in my life!--I tried to remember that, like with any other big change, small steps were key (and mistakes were definitely okay). Would I try for a second zero waste week? A third? Definitely. After all, I found that it wasn’t about being perfect, it was simply about being better.
Get more great health and wellness stories at MarthaStewart.com/Strive.