One such area has been in my relationship with garbage. I’m not going to candy-coat it, it’s pure, unadulterated trash. And guess what, that includes recyclables too. Did you know that most of what we set out in recycling bins gets sent to the dump and is never recycled?
Unbeknownst to most of us, for the past decade, the US shipped our recyclables to China for processing—not recycling it here, like most of us assumed. Garbage was our #1 export in 2012. From 1992 to 2017, China imported 106 million tons of plastic and paper trash, a $57.6 billion industry. But in 2017, China suddenly started refusing our trash in a policy called the China National Sword. Having no outlet for our trash created a garbage crisis in the US. Most of the garbage and recycling we set out now goes to the dump, not recycled at all, and landfills are at or over capacity!
Even when China was taking America’s garbage, it wasn’t really the answer. Only 9% of plastic sent overseas was recycled, the rest was dumped in piles, eventually winding up in our oceans. Plastic that is recycled can only be recycled once and is made into products that aren't recyclable in the future, such as plastic furniture. Paper is no longer a commodity, so waste management companies must pay the few US companies who accept trash paper for recycling. Glass, while recyclable, takes as much energy to recycle as it does to make the initial product.
Simply setting out materials for recycling is not the answer. Paul Palmer first coined the term “Zero Waste” in the mid-70s, but the term was not widely used until 2000. Zero Waste looks at other means of eliminating waste and puts recycling low on the list. Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home (https://zerowastehome.com/) is often credited with bringing Zero Waste to the home consumer with the 5 R’s of Zero Waste: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot.
Refuse to accept or bring in materials that create waste. Don’t purchase or use items in non-recyclable or non-compostable packaging, or single-use items such as plastic utensils or paper cups. Make your own cleaners from simple, natural ingredients you buy in the grocery store or in bulk.
Downsize, limit yourself to the things you really do need. Borrow books from the library or read books and newspapers online or on a personal device. Use your own containers to buy produce or items from bulk bins. Don’t buy special “zero waste” bamboo utensils for your to-go lunch bag, use metal utensils you already have or get used ones from the thrift store!
Select things that can be reused over and over for the same or different purpose. Use reusable containers for food storage and service, carry reusable beverage containers and utensils, use cloth napkins and towels instead of paper, repurpose used or worn out items.
Buy items from a secondhand store, thrift store, or a Buy Nothing group instead of buying new—and sell or donate your things rather than throwing them out. Use rechargeable batteries. Putting things in the recycling bin should be a last-ditch option.
Compost! Build a compost or worm bin to create compost for your garden and landscaping or use your community yard debris/food waste pickup. Being vegan, ALL of our food waste is compostable and should never go into the garbage! Food (vegan or not) in garbage dumps creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas, so it should never go in the garbage!
Shred paper and cardboard (yes, you can shred cardboard in your paper shredder) and add it to your compost, either commercial bin or home compost! Compost paper napkins and towels (until you replace with cloth), loofah sponges, floor sweepings, vacuum bag dust, and even hair from your hairbrush and fingernail clippings.
You’ll often see even more R’s in Zero Waste: repurpose, repair, return, refill, rethink, replace, rehome, replant, respect, recover, restore, etc. Think about how you can incorporate these R’s into your life.
The key is to take small steps—you won't make this change overnight. We're all going to start out with heaps of non-Zero Waste things, the key is to transition to better options as we use those up. Little changes can make a big difference, and many little changes make a big change.
Don’t just go through your garbage once and be done with it, do it every week or every month and see how your changes are working. You should see a decrease as you become more informed and implement changes. You may even be able to downsize your garbage bin! We’ve changed to the smallest size bin possible, saving $30 a month. Soon, we hope to stop garbage service altogether and drop off our garbage ourselves at the landfill every 6-8 months!
The journey to zero waste is challenging, rewarding, and humbling. I may not ever get to absolute zero waste, but we’re sure working to reduce our waste to the tiniest amount possible, and that's awesome. We have areas we struggle with and are working on how to accommodate the change, but we've found it satisfying, fun, and it even saves us money! Have fun and have more money?!? Sign me up!
Cindy Thompson is a Main Street Vegan Academy Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator; an American Council on Exercise certified Health Coach, Peer Fitness Trainer, and Fitness Nutrition Specialist; 5 Gyres Ambassador; Soil and Water Steward for Tilth Alliance in Seattle, WA; and Rouxbe Culinary School Plant-Based Professional. Recently retired from a 20-year firefighting career, she has a MS in Leadership, specializing in Servant Leadership. She provides health and lifestyle coaching at Trimazing! Vegan Lifestyle & Health Coaching. You can find more zero waste tips and tricks on her blog. Find her on Facebook and follow on Instagram @TrimazingVLC. Cindy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.