The Zero Waste Challenge
How one Durham family of six managed to live trash-free
My life revolves around convenience. Instead of thinking through purchases or how our actions affect the world outside of our home, my husband and I live mostly in survival mode. As parents of four children ages 5 and younger, including a set of twins, we do whatever it takes to stay sane.
Then a friend came over and told me about her adult daughter living a “trash-free lifestyle.” She picked up a plastic food container on my counter and explained how her daughter, Annie, wouldn’t be able to buy it because of it being single-use plastic.
I nodded politely and asked myself, “Am I being judged?” Is she telling me this because she saw the heaping mound of disposable Diaper Genie bags billowing out of our trash bin? Or the closet full of paper towels that will need to be restocked next week?
I decided that, knowing my friend’s kind nature, she was simply sharing the brave journey her daughter had decided to embark on. She was understandably proud and supportive.
After her visit, I felt convicted. I kept thinking of Annie every time I threw something away. Then I endured a period of justification. “Of course, she can live a trash-free life – she doesn’t have kids!” I thought. “If I didn’t have kids, I’d save the planet too, and run an ultra-marathon, and get that doctorate degree.”
It got me thinking: “Has any parent ever tried to live a trash-free lifestyle?”
Discovering Zero Waste
I turned to Google and realized that trash-free living is a growing movement. Most people call it “Zero Waste,” a term coined by Bea Johnson, author of “Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste.” Johnson started changing her lifestyle while her boys were still young — around the ages of 6 and 8.
Even though I barely have enough time to brush my teeth, let alone read a book, I ordered Johnson’s book and skimmed through it when I had a chance. Her story was surprisingly refreshing and honest. She had transformed herself from a platinum blonde dedicated to keeping up with the Joneses, to a mother with a cause.
Thanks to her words, I became even more committed to the cause and began ignoring my justifications. She proved parents could be aware of the world at large. She also shared how her quality of life dramatically increased after she detached from material things — a natural outgrowth of the Zero Waste life. I wondered if that might happen to me.
I have twin baby boys who somehow leave everything I feed them on their trays, but manage to dirty multiple disposable diapers throughout each day. My 5-year-old daughter puts nonrecyclable princess stickers on everything and my 3-year-old son is addicted to individually wrapped fruit snacks.
The Challenge Begins
I told my husband I wanted to take the Zero Waste Challenge for one month. We would create only enough trash to stick in a jar and make up for all the mountains of garbage we’ve contributed to our local landfill.
Naturally, he was ecstatic.
“Doesn’t recycling more than we throw away count?” he asked. Johnson’s book explains that this is the biggest misconception about the Zero Waste lifestyle. Creating zero waste doesn’t mean “recycle more.” The whole idea is to appreciate what you have and resist the temptation to demand more “things” that must be created through purchases. Recycling is a process that takes energy. And every time we purchase something new, materials are used to develop that product.
The discussion with my husband continued. As I explained what I had read, I could see him processing the list of items we would live without for a month — like the Amazon Subscribe & Save shipment that takes up our entire dining room floor each month.
“What about diapers?” he asked.
With a forced smile, and not-so-convincing, perky voice, I exclaimed, “Cloth!”
With that, I thought I had lost him for good. The use of cloth diapers, along with many of the other adaptations for a Zero Waste lifestyle, was something we had never considered. So was composting, using a menstrual cup and buying bulk foods in only reusable containers. At least I wasn’t planning to go as far as Johnson and forage moss to use as toilet paper (even she admits that was a bit extreme).
After a couple of months of mentally preparing for the challenge, we officially started by using our new composting bin. We decided the most convenient and sustainable path for our family would be to use a local composting service. We chose CompostNow in Raleigh.
Honestly, I didn’t know anything about composting or its importance before this challenge. In search of answers to some embarrassingly basic questions, I spoke with Kat Nigro, community growth manager at CompostNow. She explained that according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 30-40 percent of food in the U.S. is wasted (usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/faqs.htm) and much of that food is thrown into landfills. I thought of my kids’ plates after a well-prepared meal, and how most of it usually ends up in the trash.
“When the wasted food is sent to a landfill, it gets thrown in a pile with no oxygen. Even though it’s rotting, in that anaerobic environment, it’s emitting methane gas. And methane is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide,” Nigro explained.
After our conversation, I was convinced and, thanks to our affordable and convenient composting service, I found it easy to incorporate composting into our daily routine.
The Bulk Groceries Challenge
Other Zero Waste options weren’t so easy. Take, groceries, for example. I depend on my local store’s express lane, where I pick up the food I’ve ordered online so it can be loaded into my minivan. I tried to go to Whole Foods and pretend that I had all the time in the world to seek out bulk items. But with four kids who won’t fit in a grocery cart, this just didn’t work.
We ended up with an empty pantry. After feeding them our last can of cream of mushroom soup for a snack, my kids revolted. I had to give in to the convenience of the express lane. I can’t say this was a total failure, though.
I put a special note on my order asking that they try to use as little packaging as possible and keep all my produce free-standing. When I got the call confirming my order, the store’s employee said, “I did what you asked and left all your produce out of bags. I’m a little worried about the asparagus, but you know, I’ve never thought about all that packaging before. It does seem like such a waste.”
Moments like this happened throughout our Zero Waste Challenge. I awkwardly explained what we were doing, and people would tell a story about how their grandparents would never throw things away so nonchalantly. Somehow, we’ve created a culture that ignores the fact that throwing something away doesn’t make it disappear.
Take disposable diapers. They can sit in a landfill for up to 500 years, according to Real Diaper Association, a nonprofit that encourages parents and small businesses to take the lead in creating a cultural shift to increase the use of reusable cloth diapers. If this is true, my children’s diapers will still be rotting away, emitting methane gases while my great-great-great-grandchildren are living their lives.
Learning such information during my Zero Waste month overwhelmed me at times. I started to feel an urge to go back to my regular routine — especially as we suffered two (yes, two!) rounds of a stomach bug during the challenge.
Changing Habits Takes Time
I’ll admit the “month challenge” idea put more stress on our family than I expected. It’s impossible to transform from trash-full to trash-free in a flash. Johnson warned me about this when I spoke to her for this story.
“Zero Waste isn’t something you can achieve in one month, or a year or even several years. It’s something that happens over time,” she said. “When you run out of a certain household product, consider the less wasteful alternatives and see if you can incorporate them into your life.”
My experience did teach me the value of striving for less waste, especially when I thought of my kids. I want them to value relationships and experiences more than things. I also want them to see me caring for the world around us, so they will be inspired to do the same.
And even though we produced more trash than could fit in a jar, we did better. By the last week of our Zero Waste month, our garbage bin held one half-filled trash bag and two Diaper Genie bags. That’s less than half of what we used to produce.
As a slave to convenience, I was surprised to find that many of the changes we made didn’t make things more difficult — they just took thoughtful planning. That gives me hope as we try to reduce our family’s waste further — but this time at a more leisurely pace.
Simple Ways to Start
- Cancel your junk mail.
- Bring reusable grocery bags to the store.
- Use microfiber cloths or vinegar for cleaning.
- Buy snacks in bulk and put them in reusable containers for your kids (instead of Ziploc bags).
- Buy milk in reusable glass containers.
- Join the Facebook group, “Toward Zero Waste,” for helpful tips.
- Read Bea Johnson’s book, “Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste.”
- Consider using cloth diapers while at home (I use disposable when we’re out and about).
- Take a tour of a recycling center and/or landfill. (I did, and it was very inspiring.)
Mick Schulte is a writer and photographer in Durham, where she lives with her family of six and loves finding ways to make motherhood even more challenging than it already is. Schulte won a Parenting Media Association Bronze award for this feature.