The Zero Waste Challenge (that I'm not actually doing)

I applaud the bloggers over at the Ethical Writers Coalition for taking on the Zero Waste Challenge and diligently tracking and writing about their experiences. I've tried to do plastic-free challenges and waste challenges before and boy howdy, are they eye-opening! You go about your everyday life and realize that 90% of everything you touch produces waste and you feel like you're doing everything wrong. The idea of "zero waste" seems like a Herculean - nay, 1,000% impossible - effort. No? Just me?

While I said nope to the open invitation that the coalition had extended for everyone to participate in the Zero Waste Challenge, I thought it would be a good opportunity to just be mindful about waste again. I logged the waste associated with my actions or purchases for a few days (quickly becoming head-spinningly frustrated, as expected) and just tried to be mindful for a few more. 

clockwise from top left:
- my post-it note notes from each day (themselves, recyclable)
- homemade soy yogurt smoothie (semi-minimal waste for a homemade food)
- hand wipe from Ethiopian restaurant brunch, unexpected
- veggie scraps soup stock, used and then composted

Here is where I need some work in the effort to go "zero waste":

  • Packaged food. I still buy a lot of stuff in packages, even though I also buy a lot in bulk and use bulk bags at the food co-op. Stuff like salad greens, soy milk, pasta, mock meat, frozen veggies, coconut and other oils, lip balm, herb tea pellets, chocolate bars.
  • Convenience food. Vending machine at work. Forgetting to ask for no straws as a restaurant. Not realizing I'm getting a handwipe and then using it. Buying an iced coffee or iced tea out when I don't have my travel mason jar with me. Also, ordering food for delivery at home (or work, if I forgot to bring lunch). Look, I don't have ESP to tell me when I'll get junk in a restaurant but I can at least try to reduce the takeout and anticipate that I'll be getting a straw if I order something iced. 
  • Too much. I don't buy only what I need and I make a lot of impulse purchases, which I justify as "ethical" if they are vegan and cruelty-free, often not thinking of the cradle-to-grave concept, especially with packaging and actual ingredients/components and manufacturing waste. I don't care how much "ethical" stuff I buy - it's very possible to buy wastefully even if that's all you're buying. 

Here is where I'm already doing well - a lot of try/fail and sometimes I still forget:
  • Non-packaged foods. I try to get a lot of fruits and vegetables in my diet so stuff like bananas, apples, cooking greens, squashes, cauliflower, broccoli, (most) tomatoes, etc are all not packaged.
  • Bulk bags for bulk foods. While I sometimes forget and use a plastic bag for them, I try to buy bulk at our food co-op for stuff like brown rice, dry beans, loose fruit and veggies and we re-use the same coffee bags for our Ethiopian Equal Exchange bulk coffee beans. 
  • Composting. We aren't in the area of NYC where we have public composting bins yet but we do save our compost and bring it to a drop-off location. We save anything that might get fruit flies (basically, fruit) in a bag in the freezer and everything else in an old bucket near our kitchen window to avoid fruit flies. Our coffee grounds and non-usable food scraps go in there. We've started saving the some of the "usable" veggie scraps in our freezer for soup stock (and once used, that stuff goes into the compost pile as well). If I bring something for lunch that can be composted (banana peel, apple core), I'll shove it in my lunch container or the mason jar I used for coffee that morning and bring it home to compost it. 
  • Travel dishes and flatware for everyday life. I have a 16oz and 20oz mason jar I use with my Cuppow lid for water and coffee. I also have an REI insulated stainless steel mug I use for both. I have a stainless steel silicone-ring sealing lunch bowl in small and large. I have metal flatware and bowls at my desk at work. I have a titanium Snow Peak spork (2 supposedly) that I try to bring when I'm traveling or think I might need it. And I have a plastic water cup with straw at my desk at work in addition to a glass water glass. I have metal straws at home. I use the travel cups, water glass and lunch bowls almost every weekday. The rest is hit or miss in terms of how prepared I am for my daily activities. 

It's hard to think about every single day and feel like a real victor. There are weeks where I don't have it together enough to make coffee and prep lunches and I get takeout coffee and lunches (and sometimes dinners) all week, where I am basically surfing a pile of trash right into turtles' faces and birds' bellies and it feels like crap and I don't like to think about it much. But I try to make myself right the ship and try, try, try again. 

I think the easiest way for me to improve towards zero waste overall is to pick one or two things I can change as habit and work on those. While I don't always stick to them forever, once they're a habit I've had, I can easily return to them. For instance, I am used to bringing my own coffee in a travel vessel and bringing my own lunch in a metal container. I am used to buying beans and rice in bulk in canvas bags. I'm used to re-using the same bag for coffee beans. All of those things are easy to hop back into now, if I am straying. I'm reminding myself again that bringing coffee and bringing my lunch daily saves a lot of container waste. 

What's next? 

  • I will work on my Straw Problem. (I have metal straws at home but don't carry them around so I just need to anticipate and refuse straws when I'm out.) 

  • I will see what else I can buy in bulk. Our food co-op has bulk pasta and I never buy it. I will check out the bulk aisle again and see what I can purchase from those bins that I'm buying packaged anyway. Same thing with the produce - I buy packaged romaine hearts for salad greens but maybe I can go back to the mixed greens I like less, but that come in bulk. 

Anyway, thanks to the bloggers over at the Ethical Writers Coalition - who I think still have another week to go! I was glad to get the kick in the pants to think about this more critically again, and at a time when I can hear others' experiences as they really throw themselves into the challenge. I'm looking forward to reading their experiences and seeing what changes they've thought to make in their routines! 


  1. You get a gold star for heightened awareness!

    I really appreciate all the zero waste bloggers out there, but some of them REALLY downplay how many new skills and habits living less wastefully requires. It's a worthwhile cause, of course, but it involves a whole lot of little tweaks and a few bigger skill sets. Not sure what to change next.

    1. Oh yeah, when I read those I feel like I'm being gaslit, honestly. "Wait, this isn't hard? Is it me?!"

  2. I've been feeling more and more painfully aware of the amount of waste I produce on a daily basis - it's horrible, really. I could eliminate some of it if I just cooked wiser (ie. buy the types of ingredients I could buy in bulk) and stopped buying crappy ready meals for lunch at work, which I do way too much. (Ugh, all those horrid plastic containers!) I might have to look at bulk buying more carefully than I already have... which might require me to shop for groceries somewhere else than our nearby grocery store, though.


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