What Happened When I Tried Living Zero-Waste

I came to the idea of living waste-free somewhat accidentally — and with a fair dose of reluctance. I love the convenience of a delivery dinner, of popping into the supermarket on my way home unprepared, or ordering new running shoes online. I like happily stomping on bubble wrap, or wandering through drug store aisles to pick out new mascara. I live a consumerist lifestyle, and it brings me small pockets of fleeting consumerist joy.

That joy was dampened, however, after watching the documentary Plastic Paradise . In case you haven’t seen it, let me catch you up on this misnomer of a documentary: it details how plastic is made, just how much of it we use, and reminds you that plastic never dies. Any piece of plastic ever created remains on this earth — and it has made its way into oceans, rivers, rainforests, and overflowed landfills. Even recycling consumes its own shameful amount of energy without actually stopping plastic production, which is still alive and well.

Up until I watched Plastic Paradise, I thought I was a pretty good environmentalist (hey, I’m vegan, I recycle, I compost … I can’t be that bad, right?). But becoming aware of how much waste we produce made me more cognizant of my personal contribution to all that trash — and I produce a lot of it. Coffee cups, take-out Styrofoam containers, shampoo bottles, supermarket packaging, makeup, over-packaged headphones. Once I started noticing it, it seemed like every single thing I bought came with a heaping serving of waste.

I didn’t really want to become a more difficult person (I’m already mostly vegan and gluten intolerant — it’s amazing that I even have friends, really), but I needed to find out if I could live a less wasteful life. I decided to try a couple of weeks of waste-free living to see if I could cut my waste and recycling down to zero. Plenty of people do it: both Lauren Singer from Trash is for Tossers and Bea Johnson from Waste Free Home produce virtually no waste. Why not me?

Here’s how my temporary waste-free lifestyle went, along with a few lessons I learned in case you decide to try it out for yourself.

1. Food

The biggest area in my life where I produce trash (and recycling) is undoubtedly in the kitchen. Bring on those clamshell fruit containers, soymilk tetrapaks, and packaged crackers — I love it all. Clearly, I had my work cut out for me.

I began by getting a few essentials. I already had a few reusable tote bags, but I picked up some mason jars and reusable produce bags before beginning, then set out to Canada’s largest bulk-food store, Bulk Barn. This was where I first encountered defeat: As it turns out, Bulk Barn doesn’t allow people to shop using their own containers. I decided to purchase a few staple items anyway, since I was about 110 percent hangry at this point and the thought of heading home only to research a new bulk grocery store and bike off into the distance again was making me crave all sorts of pre-packaged foods.

Overall, even my Bulk Barn mistake produced far less waste than a trip to the supermarket would have. Still, I was aiming for zero waste, not “just a little” waste, during this experiment — so I decided to try again once I’d gone through my Bulk Barn staples. After more thorough research online (perhaps more than I’d engaged in previously), I found Strictly Bulk, a local bulk shop in Toronto that allows customers to bring in and use their own containers. Success!

As for produce, a quick Google search revealed that a farmer’s market comes to my neighborhood every Sunday. I made sure to grab some cash, pick up my reusable bags, and head to the market on Sunday to pick up organic, cheap, locally-sourced vegetables and fruit. On less-holy days of the week, I took the streetcar to St. Lawrence Market, a permanent market here in the city, and stocked up on more veggies for $30 than I’ve ever bought at a supermarket for that price.

If I didn’t want to leave the neighborhood (hey, we all have those days), I just walked over to my local grocery store and threw veggies in my reusable produce bags. No one batted an eye.

Overall, keeping a zero-waste kitchen (or one that produces minimal waste) wasn’t as difficult as I expected. The most cumbersome part of it was the planning: researching where to go shopping, ensuring I had waste-free containers, and actually remembering to take that stuff with me. Once I had that down, it was a fairly seamless system — and my cupboards now look minimally beautiful.

2. Beauty Products

My bathroom is stacked with plastic bottles, from shampoo and conditioner to face scrubs and makeup. I’ve never been a huge product junkie, but somehow, over the years, I ended up with an impressive amount of stuff cluttering up my cabinet. I've tried most moisturizers or mascaras only once or twice before quickly losing interest in them, my excitement to try this or that fading once I realized it made my lashes clump or my hair oily.

So I wasn’t sure exactly how to tackle waste-free beauty supplies. Are there really plastic-free toothbrushes? Would I be trying to make my own shampoo? Did I really want to soak in the smell of apple cider vinegar in the shower? (The answer was no, clearly; I am not crafty and the extent of my handiness is making my own toothpaste.)

So I found a hybrid shampoo-conditioner bar at my local health food shop, and gave that a try. It made my hair limp and greasy. I tried coconut oil as a facial moisturizer, but quickly quit when I realized I felt like an oily meal rather than a professional woman who’s got her shit together. I tried foregoing makeup, but didn’t feel like displaying my baggy eyes and acne to the world. I was quickly losing faith in the zero-waste beauty department.

But through some (OK, lots of) trial and error, I found most of the products I needed at different, ethical companies. I used that horrid shampoo/conditioner bar as soap, and luckily found separate shampoo and conditioner bars at Lush that worked beautifully (and came without packaging, thanks to their “Naked” line). I decided I’d try a few more things and bought their awesome moringa moisturizer. I also purchased a compostable bamboo toothbrush and made my own toothpaste and deodorant (you can buy Naked deodorant bars as well, but the Lush one I tried made me feel like I was sandpapering my armpits. Not a pleasant feeling). I used coconut oil as body moisturizer, and it sunk in quicker and made me sweat less than my usual moisturizer.

I haven’t replaced all of my makeup, since it seems incredibly wasteful to throw out perfectly good products (instead, I just skipped make-up during my zero-waste week). I’m not exactly sure where I’ll buy my makeup going forward, but there are options out there. Lush will recycle and reuse all containers brought back to their stores, although paying $19 for mascara seems rough; same goes for MAC. RMS Beauty is known for using only metal and glass in most of their packaging. Several Etsy stores sell awesome beauty products in little jars or tins, and making your own makeup is an option as well.

An unexpected plus side to eliminating trash from my bathroom? By the end of the two weeks, I found that with my beauty routine simplified, I felt the need to use beauty products even less. By putting natural products on my skin and using less make-up every day, I broke out less, cleared junk out of my beauty cabinet, spent less money, and focused less on looks. Overall, it was a huge upgrade.

My Conclusions

Even though it was a tough experiment, I'll be reducing as much waste as I can from here on out. (Considering that the hardest part of living zero waste is the initial preparation, it’d be a shame not to.) Once you have all of your reusable items and you’ve found the grocery stores, markets, and beauty supplies that work well for you, it becomes pretty easy and sustainable. It’s a cheaper way to live that supports local businesses, rather than massive chains, and it respects the environment we live in.

If you decide to conduct an experiment of your own, I’d suggest doing your research beforehand to avoid being overwhelmed. Find out where you can buy bulk products using your own containers. Experiment with different beauty suppliers that use eco-friendly packaging, or try your hand at making your own products. It’s just like trying to hunt down that perfect mascara in a pharmacy’s beauty aisle — but without the guilt. I’ve met friendly market vendors, started conversations about my plastic-free attempts, and become a lot more conscious about how my habits affect my surroundings.

I’d recommend easing into it, too. Tackle your kitchen first, and learn where and how to shop for zero-waste groceries effectively before giving your bathroom routine an eco-friendly make-over. Use your current products’ lives as a buffer of time to find where their replacements will come from. It shouldn't need saying, but don't chuck your Tupperware just because you're eager to get on with your zero-wasting.

Lastly, be kind to yourself. I’m still going to wear contact lenses, take my packaged medicine, and use a LunaCup (because crocheted tampons sound like actual hell). It’s all about finding livable ways to change your habits and support the practices you agree with. After all, with every attempt you make to live a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle, you’re making a difference.

Images: Kenza Moller/Bustle