A few weeks ago, a handful of members from the Ethical Writers Coalition tasked ourselves with two weeks of zero waste living. The premise was simple: generate no personal waste. Much harder to put into practice, as Holly and I (Leah) soon discovered. Though the challenges were steep, both of us found new ways to reduce our footprint and learned more about ourselves and the waste-happy world we live in simply by being motivated to pay more attention to what—and how—we consume. Read on to hear about our personal experiences.
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What I Learned: Be Prepared and Learn to Say No
I was traveling for the duration of the two-week ‘Ethical Writer’s Zero Waste Challenge’ which made the whole experience a bit of a topsy turvy thing. I can assume it would have been easier had I been at home in Paris, where I work from my apartment and have (mostly) edited my home bound habits to #GoneGreen2016 approved things. Traveling through three countries over the entirety of the challenge taught me a few new tricks of the trade, granting me sprinkles of newfound knowledge.
The first lesson I learned was to be prepared for the unexpected, which means carrying a kit of sustainable stuff like a Klean Kanteen for water, a Keep Cup for tea, a handkerchief for messes, and a Light My Fire Spork for any on the go eating. (Sporks also come in handy at sand pits when your three-year-old nephew is on the way to a melt down because you forgot his shovel.) I had recently added reusable produce bags to my growing zero waste gear, to help me avoid packaging from to-go baked goods and unplanned things from the market.
For travel days during the challenge I also brought along a Tupperware, which I filled with food when I could and also used for takeaway and leftovers (most café’s and restaurants will serve you food in it if you smile and ask nicely). A few times I ended up out (without Tupperware and pre-prepped food) longer than planned, and to avoid any unnecessary waste found the best solution was to sit and stay where the food was found (i.e. at the restaurant or café).
The hardest thing about the challenge was learning to refuse, and it took a while to get the hang of saying “no napkins, no cutlery, no bag, no straw, no receipt” in the same breath as my order. All in all, it reminded me how much more mindful I can be and how much room there is for personal growth when you pay attention to your actions, thoughts, and habits.
I wrote a daily diary of my journey on my blog, which chronicles each day’s landfill tally, what I did good, and what I did wrong:
I also have a YouTube video on the zero waste products I use, explaining why I made the sustainable switch and the reason why I chose each brand.
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What I Learned: Small Steps and Paying Attention
I have to be honest with you: I had never even tried to go zero waste before this challenge, even though I was a big part of the initial conversation that spurred us to take a hard look at the waste we generate every day. While I’ve mastered “ethical” consumption as it concerns labor rights and materials sourcing, I was still frequently buying produce wrapped in plastic and simply not paying attention to the number of paper towels, disposable cups, and plastic utensils I used while going about my day. This challenge was a real eye opener.
Unlike Holly, I was at home for the duration of the challenge, but I do work outside my house, so that limits how much control I have over my daily environment.
During the first week, I realized that I could easily reduce waste by changing out everyday disposables for reusable things. Instead of cotton balls, I’m now using cotton crochet rounds my mom made for me. I’m slowly replacing paper towels with rags and old wash cloths and I’m being more conscientious about what I wrap in plastic wrap, and even focusing in on the packaging on frozen meals and other convenience items I grab during hectic weeks.
Though it’s no excuse, I realized that most of my bad habits stem from stress. Balancing freelance work with a day job is no joke, and I’ve let myself take advantage of over-packaged items just so I wouldn’t have to juggle one more thing throughout my day.
But here’s the thing: it’s about small steps that lead to new, healthier habits. I came to terms with that by week two of the challenge and began to frame the experience around long term goals rather than short term choices. Yes, it is easy enough to say no to straws at restaurants and to carry around a thermos for tea, but what about packaging on food I consume every week? What about the parcels I get in the mail? What about my moisturizer, which comes in a plastic container? Breathe in, breathe out. It’s about the long view.
After the challenge ended, I bought a reusable coffee filter to cut out coffee filters entirely, I opted to prepare more of my own food for lunches at work, and I started using reusable produce bags and being extra careful about what types of packaged items I buy at the grocery store. As I go along, I’ll get better about noticing my waste and work to curb it. Ultimately, we need local and global efforts to curb our reliance on non-biodegradable packaging, but paying attention is a start.
For more on my experience, check out my blog.
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Have you ever tried a zero waste challenge? Please share your experience and learnings!