The Trials and Tribulations (Mostly Tribulations) of Going Zero Waste

Michelle Jackson

It seems like ancient history, but there was a time when we were all just naturally minimalist. We darned our socks, had shoes resoled, and patched the torn pockets of our jeans. We repaired before we even thought of replacing. Fast forward to today and it’s pretty safe to say that we’re not mostly known for our thrift. In fact, we’re practically drowning in one-use cast-offs, discarded fast fashion, and more shipping boxes than we could reuse in a lifetime. Our oceans are becoming swirling masses of plastic waste, our beaches are a haven for discarded beer bottles and snack wrappers, and the side of most roads seem to be the final resting place for fast food containers.

Seeing images of our biggest waste problems like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch gives me more than a twinge of personal guilt. Knowing how bad the problem is, it pains me to admit how much I order online or buy for single-use convenience simply to make my life easier. As random boxes from Amazon were placed at my front door, meal kits arrived, and other items ordered in an effort to make my life more efficient piled up in my trash, I started to question my role in creating this mess. Even though my search for efficiency saved me time, it came at a cost both to my wallet and to the environment.

Something had to change.

According to a report by SaveOnEnergy, the average American generates around 4.4 pounds of trash a day. Looking around at the all the packaging, single-serve wrappers, toss-able toothbrushes, plastic containers, and Keurig pods filling up my own home, I don’t doubt I generate 4.4 pounds of trash myself—and that’s on a good day.

That realization led me to the zero waste movement, which is basically the practice of aggressively eliminating the amount of trash that a person produces on a daily basis.

On the surface, a zero waste mindset seemed like the solution for me. By focusing on my shopping and living habits, my own one-woman trash pile would shrink, and with it, the growing pains of guilt. But as a financial writer, I’m also always a bit weary of anything that sounds like a philosophy, a simple life change, or a new way of thinking. I wonder if this is just the next fad, another gimmick. And I wonder how much it is going to cost me.

Where I live in Denver there are actually two retail stores dedicated to facilitating this lifestyle: Zero Market and Homefill. To decide how feasible (and real) zero waste was, I headed straight to both. After an afternoon pouring over products in person and days following zero waste gurus on Instagram, I came to three conclusions: One, zero waste is definitely a movement gaining steam. Many people have been able to free their lives from the plastic, clamshell death grip of our one-use world. Two, to pull it off myself, every purchasing decision I made had to be evaluated. Three, I would need to buy new things.

While I’ll readily admit it seems counterintuitive to buy more things when you’re trying to have less waste, as I use up my one-use products I have at home, I’ve been replacing them with long-lasting alternatives. For example, bamboo toothbrushes. These compostable (and super cute) alternatives to the $1 cheap-o plastics I’ve bought for years at the local dollar store are $4 a piece more expensive, but I’ve also found they hold up better and last longer in my toothbrush holder. A win-win for me and the planet. At the grocery store, I’ve always used the free plastic bags provided by the store to put your veggies and fruit in, mostly because the alternative mesh reusable produce bags ran about $17 for a small set at my local store. But storing my produce at home in the mesh bags helped it last longer, so I’m ultimately spending less on wasted fruit.

As I went on, I started to realize that my waste wasn’t generated simply by my day-to-day shopping, and if I was going to commit to this new lifestyle, a lot of my everyday items weren’t great for me either. The plastic storage containers I’d buy on sale, use a few times until they became so tinted with the ghosts of pasta sauce past that I tossed them to slowly break down in a landfill? It was time to suck it up and switch to the more sustainable—and longer-lasting—glass. A set of Thinx feminine hygiene panties cut down on some insane packaging waste (seriously, hygiene product makers, why so much plastic?). Even swapping my plastic utensils for stainless steel kept me from replacing serving spoons every few months.

Some of these switches were very easy for me to make, especially if it meant I got to shop for something new and cute. And overall, as the weeks went on, I realized my spending was tapering off. While I’d spent more in the beginning to stock up on better supplies, everything was lasting longer and longer. I was buying less—and possibly more importantly—making less trips to the drugstore for toothpaste at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday.

But in other ways the struggle was real. The Zero Waste life meant operating at a level of mindfulness that I just wasn’t prepared for. Some of my habits stretch all the way back to my childhood. My mother re-used plastic grocery bags as trash liners. When I moved out, I did the same. My family repurposed every plastic container they had. In my house growing up, it wasn’t unusual to pull out a butter container and find soup in it. Knowing that I’d come from a place of at least basic repurposing, I felt like I’d have a leg up in this movement.

But true zero waste was different. I’ve always been a run to the nearest supermarket and buy what you need person, but many zero waste practitioners purchase their groceries from places that require the purchaser to bring their own containers. In practice, finding the time—and the patience—to drive to a bulk store and fill up my own containers was grueling. And while I’m in love with my reusable straw, remembering the nice covered coffee mug gifted to me by my favorite barista was hard. Some days, it felt like no matter how hard I tried, my trash can still got full.

Finally, I came to terms with the fact that I personally probably wouldn’t achieve a true zero waste life. But, I would be able to minimize the amount of trash I was creating on a daily basis—and that’s a very good thing. So far, I’ve managed to cut out about 1 pound of waste per day and I’m hoping to increase that number over time.

And I decided to approach the process from a financial perspective first, then ecological. My goal is to save money and the earth. As I use up items that I purchased before, I slowly switch to a much more earth friendly alternative.  The process has been pretty manageable so far: slow and steady wins the race.

Overall, my habits have been changing slowly and my lifestyle (and checking account) have been improving. And I’ve found the key to success in this movement is this: Don’t overthink it. Any day you can say no to a single-use plastic or a piece of cheap fast fashion is a good day for the ocean, the beaches, and you.