This whole blog was inspired by Beth Terry and her book Plastic Free, in which she challenges her readers to save their plastic trash and analyze it. We started tracking our own plastic trash in October of 2017. We had been reducing our trash for about 3 months and wanted to share our journey, as well as share the resources we had found in Chattanooga. I have found saving and analyzing our trash to be a huge help in understanding what changes will have the biggest impact.
This will be my last Plastic Waste Journal post–21 months of posting our trash is probably enough 🙂 Instead, we are going to continue focusing our efforts on doing real life Zero Waste workshops (follow me on Instagram to be notified about the most recent events!), hosting educational booths, and writing blog posts on the how-to’s of what we have learned. If you’ve been following us for a while, you have seen the amazing effects of small-step efforts compounding over time, and our trash has reduced significantly over the past 2 years!
So, for the last time (at least for a while), here is our trash 🙂
As you can see, I have it sorted into 3 different sections according to how the trash came to be. From left to right the categories are:
- Things given to us that we didn’t ask for.
- Things being used up from our pre-zero-waste-days for which we have found solutions.
- Things I have come to accept will be a part of our trash footprint (at least for now).
Things given to us that we didn’t ask for
Trash happens. About 1/3 of the trash we now create is *almost* out of our control. This is why focusing on education and changing our system is so attractive!
- Gifts: Some of the things in this pile were gifts, like a birthday card with glitter, a wrap around a pot, the wrap to a yoga mat, the wrapping on a candle, stickers given to the kids. All of our family and friends have been soooooo kind and considerate in gift giving to us. Things like the the pot wrapping and candle wrapper were given because the gifts themselves were requested, and I am 100% sure the giver just didn’t consider the wrapping.
- Random stuff that I have no idea how to avoid: Zach came in 2nd place in a race and the prize was a picture we don’t really want and was wrapped in plastic. The plastic cutlery is from a conference Zach attended. He had brought his own fork/knife/spoon/plate as always, but he opened up the provided lunch and, surprise, there was plastic cutlery already in the box! In the top right corner is the sticker the oil change place sticks to your car to remind you when to get your next change–shouldn’t there be an app for that instead of a sticker!?!
- Things we could have said no to, but didn’t: The CD was pushed on me by a street evangelist–I was caught so off guard that I couldn’t come out with my well rehearsed “no, thank-you!” There are also containers from food samples at a cooking event where passing up on the sample would have been really rude.
Trash from our pre-zero-waste-days for which we have found solutions, but are still using up our previous supplies
- Light bulbs: LED lightbulbs are sold in cardboard packaging that is recyclable.
- Batteries: We’ve reduced the items in our house that need batteries, like clocks and noise making toys. The above package is actually also part of the solution–rechargeable batteries. They are more expensive at first, but earn their keep over time.
- Plastic tupperware: We try not to use these for food anyway to avoid the chemicals that leak into stored food. Glassware with snap-on lids or metal tiftons are good replacements. Often you can find these at thrift stores.
- Plastic hangers: There are literally 2 million for sale at thrift stores. Or put out a call to your neighbors for unwanted ones. Please don’t buy these new!
- Cheap earrings and toys for kids: Ask yourself “what will I do with this when it breaks?” If the answer is throw it away, buy a quality item that will last for generations. Sadly, store bought Play Doh won’t last generations….The good news is you can DIY Play Doh easily, Google it. And I would rather have a few good pieces of jewelry than many cheap ones.
- Balloons: This is where we have gone with “reduce” in the Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot mantra of zero waste. Did you know latex balloons are NOT actually biodegradable?!? We still blow up 2-3 balloons for our kids on their birthdays, much less than the 5-10 we used to use. And balloons are saved as a special birthday treat. One thing I have loved about our zero waste journey is that our girls (ages 2 and 5) have learned to love and appreciate the things they own. The balloon pictured here was loved and played with for several months before it finally became completely deflated. At this rate, our balloon stash should last until the girls are teenagers.
- Pens/pencils: First of all, I haven’t bought a new pen or pencil in 2 years and we still haven’t run out! Knowing I can’t just buy a cheap replacement has prevented me from losing them! When they do finally all give up the ghost, I’ll buy 1 pen for each person that has a refillable core. As far as pencils go, we probably won’t run out for another 10 years. But when we do, there are pencils without the plastic coating so the shavings are compostable.
- Bandaids: This is one of my most frequently asked questions, surprisingly. First of all, putting a bandaid on a cut is not always needed. In fact, it can retain too much moisture and delay healing while increasing the chance for infection!!! Most cuts should be left open to the air unless they have to be covered to be kept clean. This has greatly reduced our need for bandaids and we still have quite a supply from our pre-zero-waste days. But the other day our 2 year old stepped on a tack–ouch! Since the wound was on the bottom of her foot, a bandage was needed. When we eventually run out, wrapping a cut in a clean cotton cloth will work. The cotton can be composted or washed and sterilized with an iron for reuse.
- Bath salts package: DIY or buy in refillable containers from Good Fortune Soap or in bulk from EarthFare or WholeFoods.
Trash which I’ve come to accept will be in our life as long as the systems we live in remain unchanged
This trash can be subdivided into more specific categories
- Food packaging: We buy 95% of our food without plastic packaging, but we still buy pasta in cardboard boxes with the little plastic window, plant-based butter, frozen cherries in the winter, and various glass containers with a plastic safety seal (mostly condiments and wine). Also, there are all the produce stickers! Compostable produce stickers already exist, but they are not widely used.
- Parking ticket: I’ve just come to accept them as a part of my life 🙂
- Receipts: Most receipts are coated in either BPA or BPS plastic–the chemical responsible for so many health problems. And yes, it does absorb through your skin! Many places still do not have email receipts. I predict this will eventually change, more for the convenience of not having to save your receipt than for the health of people and the planet. One note on receipts: NEVER recycle them. The BPA or BPS gets into the next product made with the recycled paper. How do you know if paper has BPA or BPS? If you can draw a line on it by pressing it with your fingernail, then it does–and go wash your hands!
- Mail: While I have actively reduced our mail by signing up for paperless billing and being removed from mailing lists, there will still be some things that have to be mailed. I don’t mind cards and letters from friends–those are made from paper and can be recycled anyway. But our bank and mortgage company insist that they have to send some things in envelopes with plastic windows, like new cards.
- Credit and debit cards: Speaking of cards, our credit and debit cards are plastic. Not quite ready to get rid of those yet, although Apple Pay is a great alternative.
- Packing tape: Ordering things from LifeWithoutPlastic or on eBay where you can talk to the seller directly helps reduce packaging for online orders. But still, I don’t think it’s realistic to say I will never order anything online. Sometimes Amazon Marketplace is the only place to find a secondhand item.
- The car hubcap: There are going to be times when a car, a bike, or the plumbing/electrical/etc. systems of a house need parts replaced.
- Treats: Several of the things pictured within the hubcap are “treats”, meaning things we knew were wrapped in plastic and didn’t particularly have to have, but chose to buy anyway. Things like flowers I really wanted but were in plastic pots, or popsicle wrappers for our girls while at a festival on a hot day. One zero waster I know allows herself one plastic wrapped “pass” per month. We have not felt deprived by our zero waste lifestyle–quite the opposite! It has been a joy! But still there are a few occasions where breaking the rules is appropriate 🙂
I’m ending this post with a challenge:
Try saving your trash for one week and analyze it at the end of the week. Put biodegradable stuff like veggie peels in a separate container to keep it from getting gross. Knowing where the majority of your trash comes from is the first step in reducing it. You may already say no to plastic straws (which is great!), but is that where the majority of your trash is coming from? By understanding the trash you create, you can better aim your energy at the low hanging fruit and see a bigger impact quicker. Start with one change, and slowly add others over time. One of my favorite quotes in the zero waste world is by the Zero Waste Chef (aka Anne-Marie Bonneau):
“We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”