When I started writing about Tippi Thole and her journey to zero waste, my family of three adults created enough trash and recycling each week to fill a
96-gallon rolling trash can. I had been bringing my own bags to the grocery store. Now, I realized, I could do more.

Start by examining your trash, Thole advised. We make most of our meals, so there is a great deal of food packaging and food scraps. I started a compost pile, funneling a good portion of our trash (food waste, dryer lint, dust, coffee grounds, newspaper and yard waste) into our backyard.

I also became aware of how much trash I could avoid. Zero Waste guidelines suggest refusing such things as business cards, pens, free stuff at concerts and sporting events, fliers, catalogues, food samples in grocery stores, keychains, commemorative plastic anythings, junk mail, hard copies of bills. The list is endless, and it’s all junk that we take because we don’t make the effort to say no or maybe even realize that we can do so.

At the Nationals’ home opener this spring, I said, “No, thanks,” to the free T-shirts at the gate. At Wegmans, I refused samples of fresh-squeezed orange juice with blueberries served in tiny plastic cups. (Just minutes later, without thinking, I took a cheese sample on a tiny plastic spork.) A man in a food truck put my lunch in the container I provided. At Starbucks I brought my own travel mug. (I got a “good job!” and a 10-cent discount.)

I found a decent supply of bulk dry food, liquids and spices at Earth Fare in Fairfax. I took a few glass jars (that once held salsa, jam and olives) to the manager and asked him to weigh them empty and write the weight on the lids. (This is called the tare weight.) The salsa jar was one pound exactly. The olive jar was 0.76 of a pound and the jam jar was 0.48 of a pound. The manager was happy to do that, and the cashier was unfazed.

I put olive oil in the salsa jar, rice in the olive jar and cinnamon in the jam jar. I wrote the PLU numbers on my shopping list and then read them to the cashier. (Thole recommends having an erasable marker so you can write the PLU number on the container.)

Tippi Thole and her son Eames filled a shopping cart with trash and recyclables on a "litter walk" near their home. (Tippi Thole)

My second visit there was not as easy. The manager that day did not understand why I wanted to weigh the containers. And the cashier had trouble figuring out how to subtract the tare weight. I was glad it wasn’t a busy time.

In the meantime, I emailed the administrative office of my local grocery store asking whether there were plans to add a bulk food section. The reply was no.

Attempting to go an entire day without creating waste, I refused a cup of Keurig coffee from a friend, but back home, moments later I mindlessly grabbed a paper towel to wipe my kitchen counter. I could have used a dish cloth.

I went out to lunch and had no visible waste, but I had no idea how much waste the restaurant created on my behalf. The waiter brought water and did not offer a straw.

Before a baseball game, I brought a lidded bowl to a fast-casual restaurant. The woman behind the counter initially resisted but finally made my salad in a disposable bowl, poured the contents into my container and threw the restaurant’s bowl away. My companion asked for dressing on the side, so he got a tiny plastic cup with a lid. They gave us bread in a paper sleeve with a plastic window. On the way to the game, we bought peanuts in a plastic bag. At the game, I ordered a beer, and there I was with a plastic cup.

Zero Wasters would say that those are teachable moments: When you want to buy something, you can decide whether you want it enough to deal with its packaging. You could bring a tiny reusable container for dressing and your own small towel to carry the bread. A bag of peanuts and a beer at the game? Bring your own bulk-bought peanuts in a reusable bag and drink water from the fountain. Cheaper, they would say, and better for you.

— V.A.F.