My name is Lauren. I'm a 23-year-old girl living in NYC and I don't make trash. For real. No garbage bin, no landfill. Nada.
I know what you are thinking. This girl must be a total hippie. Or a liar. Or she’s not real. But I assure you, I am none of those things. Well, except for real.
I didn’t always live what some call a “zero waste” life.
But I started making a shift about three years ago, when I was an Environmental Studies major at NYU, protesting against big oil, and president of a club that hosted weekly talks on environmental topics. In my mind I was super environmental, or as my grandma called me, a real “treehugger.” Everyone thought of me as the sustainability girl, so that meant that I was totally doing my share for the earth, right?
In one of my classes, there was another student who always brought a plastic bag containing a plastic clamshell full of food, a plastic water bottle, plastic cutlery, and a bag of chips. Class after class I watched her throw it all in the garbage, and I got so angry! I scoffed and sneered, but I never actually said or did anything. I just got mad.
One day I was particularly upset after class and went home to make dinner and try to forget about it, but when I opened my refrigerator I froze. I realized that every item I had in there was wrapped or packaged, one way or another, in plastic.
This was the first time in my life that I felt like I was able to look at myself and say, “YOU HYPOCRITE.” I was the green girl, not the plastic girl! What had I been doing my entire life? It was in that moment I made the decision to eliminate all plastic from my life.
Quitting plastic meant learning to make all of my packaged products myself.
This included everything from toothpaste to cleaning products, all things I had no clue how to make and had to learn by doing a lot of online research. One day I stumbled across a blog called Zero Waste Home. It followed the life of Bea Johnson, wife and mother of two children who all live a zero-waste life in California.
By that point I had already eliminated almost all plastic from my life. I thought, “If a family of four can live a zero-waste lifestyle, I, as a (then) 21-year-old single girl in NYC, certainly can.” So I took the leap.
How did I go from zero plastic to zero waste?
First, I stopped buying packaged products and began bringing my own bags and jars to fill with bulk products at the supermarket. I stopped buying new clothing, and shopped only secondhand. I continued making all of my own personal care and cleaning products. I downsized significantly by selling, donating, or giving away superfluous things in my life, such as all but one of my six identical spatulas, 10 pairs of jeans that I hadn’t worn since high school, and a trillion decorative items that had no significance to me at all.
Most importantly, I started planning potentially wasteful situations; I began saying “NO” to things like straws in my cocktails at a bars, to plastic or paper bags at stores, and to receipts.
Of course, this transition didn’t happen overnight.
This process took more than a year and required a lot of effort. The most difficult part was taking a hard look at myself, the environmental studies major, the shining beacon of sustainability, and realizing that I didn’t live in a way that aligned with my values.
I realized that while I sincerely cared about a lot of things, I wasn’t embodying my philosophies. Once I accepted that, I allowed myself to change and since then my life has been better every day. Here are just a few of the ways life has improved since I went trash free:
1. I save money.
I now make a grocery list when I go shopping, which means being prepared and not grabbing expensive items impulsively. Additionally, buying food in bulk means not paying a premium for packaging. When it comes to my wardrobe, I don’t purchase new clothing; I shop secondhand and get my clothes at a heavily discounted price.
2. I eat better.
Since I purchase unpackaged foods, my unhealthy choices are really limited. Instead, I eat a lot of organic fruits and vegetables, bulk whole grains and legumes, as well as a lot of seasonal, local food, since farmers markets offer amazing unpackaged produce.
3. I’m happier.
Before I adopted my zero-waste lifestyle, I would find myself scrambling to the supermarket before it closed, because I didn’t shop properly, ordering in takeout because I didn’t have food, always going to the pharmacy to get this scrub and that cream, and cleaning constantly because I had so much stuff.
Now, my typical week involves one trip to the store to buy all of the ingredients I need. This trip isn’t just for food, but also for cleaning and beauty products, since all of the things I use now can be made with simple, everyday ingredients. Not only is it easier and stress free, it’s healthier (no toxic chemicals!).
I never anticipated that actively choosing not to produce waste would turn into my having a higher quality of life. I thought it would just mean not taking out the trash. But what was at first a lifestyle decision became a blog, Trash is for Tossers, which became a catalyst for chatting with interesting, like-minded people, and making friends.
Now it’s blossomed into my quitting my great post-grad job as Sustainability Manager for the NYC Department of Environmental Protection to start my own zero-waste company, The Simply Co., where I hand-make and sell the products that I learned to produce over the past two years.
I didn’t start living this lifestyle to make a statement — I began living this way because living a zero-waste life is, to me, the absolutely best way I know how to live a life that aligns with everything I believe in.
Photo courtesy of the author