An introduction to a semester-long attempt to reduce waste and consume less.
Since the time I was 8 and my mom gave me a book about global warming, I’ve always been at least peripherally interested in environmentalism. Between then and now, my motivation toward it has waxed and waned, but as most members of my generation would agree, the climate crisis and other environmental issues are becoming increasingly dire. Since coming to the University of Connecticut three years ago, I’ve become increasingly aware of the immediacy of the issue, but at the same time, the more I learn, the more I feel powerless to do anything about it.
For some reason over the summer, my Pinterest account decided I should get into zero waste. Seemingly out of nowhere, pins would show up on my feed advertising “5 Simple Tips to Transition to a Paperless Kitchen” or “DIY Zero Waste Dishwasher Powder.” As I’ve said, I’ve always been concerned about the planet, and in the last few years this began to translate into ethical consumerism — but on a pretty minuscule level. Yeah, I bring reusable bags to the grocery store. Sure, when my older environmentalist sister slips a bamboo toothbrush into my stocking at Christmas time, I’ll use it. Perhaps the only intentional change I’ve made to my lifestyle in the past year was to finally go vegetarian — something I had whined about for years before finally committing. Zero waste though, that had always sounded out-of-reach.
That is, until this summer. With the forces of both Pinterest and my sister suggesting minor changes — a shampoo bar instead of a bottle, a compost bucket instead of the trash, a cloth napkin instead of a paper towel — I started to really notice all the non-zero-waste items I use up and throw out. Every time I threw out an empty bag of chips, a granola bar wrapper or a broken hair tie I would picture it ending up in one of the Willimantic Waste Paper Co. incinerators. I would then picture the hundreds of thousands of chip bags, wrappers and hair-ties I’d be throwing out for the rest of my life. The more I started to think about it, the more I understood all the ways my life is unsustainable.
Before I get ahead of myself, what actually is zero waste? It’s mainly a buzzword. To some, it means living a lifestyle where a single mason jar is big enough to fit all your trash for five years. To others, it means totally reworking communities to follow resources through natural cycles of use and reuse. To me, it’s not only the idea of reigning in on overconsumption to reduce trash and waste, but also reducing the energy and resources wasted through manufacturing and disposal processes.
At its most basic level, zero waste is the idea of less trash. And so for some environmentalists, it’s not their top priority because trash and pollution may not be their top priority. At the end of the day, preventing climate change seems more important than saving the life of the turtle that a plastic straw could kill. Plus the emphasis on waste itself can feel misleading. Why focus on the trash instead of the manufacturing processes that produce that trash?
However, to me and many others, the spirit of zero waste DOES go beyond just the idea of trash and pollution. Zero waste means eliminating the use of products that go from the store, to your home, to the landfill (or incinerator). It’s not just about how much trash you have in your trashcan (or mason jar); it’s also about how much energy is used to produce 500 single-use coffee cups as opposed to one reusable travel mug. It’s about the water wasted to produce the plastic packaging around every individually-wrapped slice of cheese in your fridge. It’s about the methane released from landfills.
Sustainability blogger Meri explained zero waste in really easy-to-understand terms, and addressed a lot of misconceptions in her article, “Does Zero Waste Make a Difference?”
In the more intellectual jargon of an internationally accepted definition by the Zero Waste International Alliance, “Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.”
Obviously, the Zero Waste International Alliance is operating on a bigger scale than buying bamboo toothbrushes and refusing plastic straws. Even here at UConn, there are student action groups who feel that working on larger-scale change is more effective. ConnPIRG has a Save the Earth campaign, which is a combination of its previous Zero Waste and 100% Renewable Energy campaigns.
This year PIRG’s Save the Earth campaign will be pressuring UConn to break their contract with Coca Cola when it goes up for renewal this year. Instead of purchasing all beverages on campus from Coca Cola, a company known for bad environmental practices, PIRG wants UConn to buy from smaller, local and ethical vendors.
Many activists prefer this kind of large-scale action and question how much difference one person’s lifestyle can make. However, I don’t think the “large-scale” argument should be used to disparage small-scale efforts, or to remove a sense of personal accountability. We’re all consumers, and it’s because we consume things that companies keep selling us things. Obviously in a capitalist society we can’t just stop consuming everything. But that doesn’t mean we can’t all at least work toward minimizing the damage we personally contribute.
Which is exactly what I’m going to do throughout the course of this semester.
Although it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of environmental catastrophe, as of right now, I know I can make a lot of changes to live a more zero waste lifestyle which I believe will have an impact.
From now until finals, I’m going to make one change each week to reduce waste and consume less. In the articles that fill this column in the coming weeks you might see product reviews of zero waste items, how-tos for making zero waste replacements, anecdotes about things I try and fail at. My goal with this column is to document the reality of working toward zero waste, specifically as a college student in rural Connecticut. I don’t have limitless financial resources, or bulk stores on every corner or a house with a backyard where I can start a compost. What does that mean for living sustainably?
A big deterrent for those looking at zero waste is practicality — as the YouTube channel Our Changing Climate explains in their video “Why We Should Rethink Zero Waste,” zero waste just simply isn’t possible for everyone. It requires a lot of time, energy and money. As a college student, all three of these things are often in short supply. Sometimes methods I try won’t be a 100% perfect solution, but if it’s at least a little better for the planet, I consider it a success.
It’s also important to note that zero waste never really means zero. Not only is it literally impossible to remove every kind of waste from your life, but it’s also okay to prioritize. If you’ve spent the last five years looking for the perfect product to make your hair feel healthy and beautiful, keep buying that product even if it’s packaged in plastic. If you’re addicted to Hershey’s chocolate bars, it’s okay to keep buying those. If you love the scent of your laundry detergent because it reminds you of your childhood home, don’t give that up. It’s okay to make concessions sometimes and not feel guilty about it.
I don’t plan on being a perfect environmentalist, ethical-consumer, zero-waste guru this semester and I won’t pretend to be one as I write these columns. I’m just learning and practicing at how to be a better environmentalist, ethical-consumer, zero-waste college student. If you’d like to work toward the same goal, I invite you to follow along as I embark on a zero waste project.