I tried living waste-free, and it was so much harder than I thought it would be — but so worth it

I was driving home from the grocery store, the back of my car filled with plastic bags of packaged food, when I first got the idea to try living waste free. I was listening to NPR’s game show, Ask Me Another, when mystery guest and Trash is for Tossers blogger Lauren Singer came on air to talk about her journey learning how to live a zero-waste lifestyle. Within minutes, I realized this was something I needed to work toward.

There are a lot of things out of my immediate control, a lot of battles I’m fighting that are far from over — but by trying to live waste-free, I knew I could make a direct, positive impact on the planet.

It was an idea too irresistible to pass up.

Since the current administration took office, I’ve been feeling helpless, if not completely useless. No matter how many phone calls I made to representatives, no matter how many marches I showed up to, no matter how much money I donated to important nonprofits and political campaigns, I couldn’t shake this feeling that there was something more I could be doing. When it was announced in March that Trump signed an executive order effectively dismantling environmental protections, it was devastating news for the entire planet. But it was also a clear sign: I could make a difference by reducing my own impact on the planet, and it all starts with trash.

The only problem: How exactly do I live waste-free?

According to Lauren Singer’s blog, which became my personal guidebook for my week-turned-month long experiment of living waste-free, a zero waste lifestyle means not producing any garbage. “No sending anything to a landfill, no throwing anything in a trash can, nothing.” When you’re living a waste-free lifestyle, you can you can recycle and compost, but to get rid of anything that will be bagged and dumped in a landfill is a major no no.

Sounds simple, right? That’s what I thought at first, too.

The first few days of living waste-free were a challenge and an adjustment, but I found it a lot easier than I thought it would be. When it came to shopping, I bought package-free items, took reusable shopping bags to the store, and brought my own containers to fill in the bulk produce section (which is where I ended up buying the majority of my groceries). I even bought milk from a local market that came in a reusable glass bottle, something I didn’t realize still existed in modern-day America.

By day three of my experiment, my trash can was still empty, and my pride level was soaring.

I thought, maybe I could make this more than an experiment, maybe living waste-free could be my new lifestyle. But then, quickly, modern living got in the way.

Confession: I am a shopping addict. I work from home, and mostly in the same few comfy cotton dresses and no shoes — but it doesn’t stop me from buying new clothes on a nearly weekly basis. During the first week of my waste-free lifestyle, I found myself at the store looking at outfits for an upcoming trip of mine, when I realized, isn’t this creating waste? Although I wasn’t buying the clothes to throw away, I started thinking about how many clothing items are made, worn once, and tossed every year. I was immediately overcome with guilt.

How many of the outfits in my closet still had tags on them? How much of my wardrobe did I get rid of every season to make room for more clothes I would just hang up and possibly never wear? I left my shopping cart where I was, and left the store to go find out.

Back at my apartment, I found piles and piles of clothes waste, including dresses I’ve never worn, shoes still in their boxes, and accessories I couldn’t even remember buying. Not only did I think about the money I wasted on them, but the energy and materials that were wasted to create, package, and ship them. And now there they sat, useless in my closet.

The whole week, I thought I’d conquered living waste-free by grocery shopping smarter — but really, I had only scratched the surface.

There was a lot more to go.

After realizing how much waste I produced with my shopping habits, I began to look at the other, less obvious ways I was creating trash.

I was part of several subscription services that sent me monthly packages filled with non-recyclable packaging that needed to be thrown away. I used disposable tampons when I got my period. I relied on paper notebooks to do all of my brainstorming, and often, crumpled and tossed papers into the trash and not the recycling bin (because of the irrational fear that someone would pick through the recycling and read my words). I bought makeup and toiletries in plastic containers that got tossed every month. I went out to eat regularly at restaurants that used paper napkins or tray liners that most certainly got tossed out. I switched out my dish sponges every other week, and threw the old ones into the trash.

I knew I couldn’t truly live waste-free until I addressed these issues head-on. So I did.

When I committed to restarting my experiment, I committed to changing my lifestyle — not just my grocery shopping. I took my old clothes and sold or donated them. When I wanted a new dress for vacation, I hit up the consignment shops. When I got my period, I *finally* switched to a Diva cup, and it changed my life. I even started using biodegradable toilet paper. I cancelled my subscription services. I limited the amount I went out to eat, and when I did, I chose the restaurant carefully and consciously. I bought a dish brush I could wash and sanitize rather than disposable sponges. I purchased things that did come with disposable containers — shampoo, conditioner, toothbrushes, my dog’s food — in bulk, and committed to sticking with those products that could be recycled or composted. I even buy my to-go coffee from a local shop that serves it in compost-friendly cups.

If I’m being perfectly honest, I still haven’t figured out how to live a 100% waste-free lifestyle, but I’m getting closer to it. When my experiment (which I stretched out for over a month) came to an end, I decided that it wasn’t just an experiment anymore. It was going to be how I lived my life.

Because to me, living waste-free means living a life that matters. It means living a life that is happy, and living a life that makes a difference.

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