I Tracked How Much Trash I Produced For A Week To Become A Better Environmentalist

I've always been environmentally friendly in a really lazy way. You know, trying my best to recycle, walking or car pooling when it was convenient, giving dirty looks to people who throw trash out of their windows on the highway — nothing too radical. But after interning at an incredible recycling company called TerraCycle last year, I started to become way more aware of how much trash people produce in a week, and how my habits impacted the environment. Suddenly, I was helpfully (and, admittedly, annoyingly) teaching my family and friends how to recycle properly, trying to use more public transportation rather than driving everywhere, and reading up on our current climate crisis (for the record, if you're interested in reading about environmental issues, The Guardian has an amazing environment section, and Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything should be required reading for all would-be environmentalists).

Knowing that I was staging my own mini-green revolution, an old professor sent me an article profiling Lauren Singer, a twentysomething living in New York who was attempting to live a zero-waste lifestyle. In her blog, Trash Is for Tossers, she gives readers advice on how to cut down on the amount of waste they produce, and live in a more sustainable way. Most impressively, she can fit all of the waste she's produced in the last two years into one mason jar. I was inspired. I decided to track my own waste for a week, and see if I could figure out enough sustainable alternatives to allow me to contain all of my trash to just one mason jar.

Like Lauren, I counted waste as anything that would go into a landfill, meaning that I did not include any recyclable material I used. Unlike Lauren, I don't compost (yet!), so I did not include food waste. This experiment focused entirely on trash from packaging, single-use items, etc. I also did not measure other factors like my water or gas use, but just assume I wasn't being sanctimonious about my trash while dumping oil into the ocean or killing and eating endangered animals. Duh.

Challenge #1: To-go coffee cup wasteSolution: Reusable thermos

I need my coffee in the morning, OK? You don't want to see me when I don't have it. But I'm usually in too much of a rush in the morning to drink a cup before I leave, and grabbing coffee at a shop means a lot of waste. So, I started using leftover coffee from the day before, sticking it in the fridge, and bringing my own iced coffee to work with me in a reusable thermos. There's no waste, and it's a lot cheaper. And, if you're craving coffee during the day, a lot of places will fill up your own container for you, sometimes with a discount!

Challenge #2: Finding mid-morning mealsSolution: Prepacked no-packaging snacks

I'm a lot like a hobbit in that I require multiple meals and snacks throughout the day. Elevensies is a real thing, and if I don't eat something between breakfast and lunch, I turn into a troll. Usually I would just grab a granola bar or some other single-serving snack to take to work with me, but that would mean a lot of waste for my jar. So instead, I started packing package-free snacks the night before. Cherries, apples with peanut butter, pretzels and hummus — I was eating healthier, and had little to no garbage after snacking. It took a little more thought, but by the end of the week I found myself avoiding anything in a single-serve package.

Challenge #3: Paper towelsSolution: Tea Towels

Between drying my hands and my dishes, I use a lot of paper towels at work. Enough so that if I continued using them at the same rate, my mason jar would be full way before the end of the week. So, to eliminate my paper towel waste, I brought in two tea towels from home: one for my hands, and one for my dishes. Sure, I had to convince my boss that I wasn't just slowly bringing in all of my laundry to hang up and dry in the office, but otherwise they worked like a charm. I only used one paper towel that week, and that was because I forgot, and felt really guilty about it afterwards.

Challenge #4: Makeup remover wipesSolution: Coconut oil

I typically use a single-use makeup remover wipe at night to take off my makeup and wash my face. But, like with my paper towel use, I was afraid that using a wipe every night would fill my jar up pretty quick. My options were either stop wearing makeup for the week (which appealed to my lazier side, though I like looking semi-presentable at work), or find a waste-free alternative. I had been reading a ton of articles praising coconut oil as god's gift to mankind, and sure enough it was the greatest makeup remover I could ask for. Not only was it waste-free, but it actually removed mascara and eyeliner way better than a wipe! I've joined the cult of coconut oil.

Challenge #5: Plastic shopping bagsSolution: Reusable bags and farmers' markets

We all know that plastic bags are pretty terrible for the environment, and that you should be using your own reusable bags. That part's easy, and we have control over that. But a lot of food, especially produce, is often already packaged in plastic bags. Berries may be in plastic containers, or things like apples and potatoes are already grouped together in a bag. To avoid this, I started shopping more at farmers' markets, where the produce tended to be loose rather than prepackaged. Everyone I talked to was thrilled to just place the produce in my reusable bag, and I rarely had to use plastic. Plus, farmers' markets are a great way to support local businesses, and the produce tends to be way better than what I could get in stores.

Challenge #6: A night on the townSolution: Plan ahead

OK, admittedly I failed this challenge. My (very wonderful and patient) boyfriend and I decided to do dinner and drinks in the city, and I knew it was going to be something of a challenge to produce little to no waste. If nothing else, the night showed me how much waste I produced without really trying: plastic cups, paper napkins, so many straws! We did manage to smuggle our plastic cups out of a beer garden and restaurant to be recycled (after checking that they were recyclable, of course), but I realize now I should have asked for my drinks without straws, or not used a bunch of cocktail napkins that I really didn't need. Being environmentally friendly on a night out is definitely possible, but probably required more forethought than I realized. (Lauren Singer actually suggests bringing around your own reusable straw, which I'm definitely looking into.)

Conclusion:

By the end of the week, I had fulfilled my goal of keeping my waste to one small mason jar. I didn't make any major changes to my lifestyle, and none of the steps I took to cut back on my waste were particularly hard or impressive. That's kind of the point: it's pretty easy to live in a more environmentally friendly way. It just means that we actually have to think about what we're doing and plan ahead, instead of taking the most convenient option possible. I would challenge anyone to track their garbage for a week, and see if they can't find some sustainable alternatives. I may not be living a zero-waste lifestyle yet, but I'm definitely more aware of my impact on the environment, and feel like I have some measure of control over helping to make the world a greener place.

Images: Shaun Fitzpatrick (8)