These days, a typical week’s worth of trash might contain a receipt or two, fruit stickers, a wine-bottle cap, a label, an adhesive bandage and some packing tape.
Thole and her son, Eames, are newly minted members of the Zero Waste movement, a worldwide group that aims to eliminate as much waste as possible. Zero Wasters avoid plastics and disposable products, bring their own containers when shopping, make things that most of us buy packaged and buy clothing and furniture only when necessary and only secondhand
When Thole, a 41-year-old freelance graphic designer who lives near Montreal and formerly worked as a designer at The Washington Post , examined her trash, she discovered that most of it was food packaging. Now she buys her edibles at farmers markets and bulk-food stores, and she belongs to a farm cooperative — all places that provide unpackaged food.
Cutting way back on trash doesn’t require time, she says, but you do have to be prepared. Thole has a shopping kit that includes cloth bags and glass jars to collect dried food, liquids, meats and cheeses. She uses a wine tote to keep the jars upright and prevent them from banging against each other. She keeps everything in a wicker basket, stored in the back of her car.
“By shopping for package-free food,” Thole says, “we’re able to eliminate this category of waste entirely. You can buy just about anything in bulk, from pantry staples to beer and wine.”
She also makes many items that other people buy as finished products and has been describing her efforts at tinytrashcan.com as well as on Instagram at @tiny.trash.can.
“I keep sharing [on Instagram] because it keeps us accountable,” Thole says, “and the conversations are so interesting. Yesterday I had a butter wrapper. Someone suggested I could make my own [butter]. It’s just a matter of raising the question. Can I make this? How hard is it? Sometimes it just never occurred to me to learn how to make it.” (Making butter is simply a matter of agitating — churning — heavy cream.)
Since February, Thole has posted about making butter, marshmallows, granola, cleaning supplies, dish sponges (out of orphaned socks), tortillas, goat cheese, kale chips, linguine, toothpaste, cotton rounds and washcloths (from her son’s stained cotton pajama top), and produce bags (from old T-shirts). “All the stuff is just from recipes I’m finding online,” she says.
Her resolve to stop producing so much trash was sparked when she heard a TEDx talk last fall about plastic debris in the Arctic. Thole says she was dumbstruck to learn “just how pervasive plastic is — it’s in our water, in our food and in our bodies. And plastic doesn’t biodegrade like other materials. It just breaks into smaller pieces, microparticles, which then poison the environment and animals, especially marine life and, ultimately, us.”
After that, she says, “I couldn’t in good conscience use plastic anymore.”
Every year, the United States creates 258 million tons of trash, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Every year, the world creates 78 million metric tons of plastic packaging, and a third of that flows into our oceans, according to a report from the World Economic Forum. By 2050, the total plastic in the ocean may weigh more than all the fish .
Such predictions have galvanized the Zero Waste movement, which a Northern California resident named Bea Johnson is often credited with founding in 2008.
She advocates “living simply and taking a stance against needless waste,” an effort organized around what she calls her “5Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot (and only in that order).” Refuse things you don’t need, reduce things you have, reuse everything, recycle what can’t be used and put the rest in the compost bin. (Her Zero Waste Home website has a searchable list of places to buy food in bulk.)
Johnson and her family of four fit an entire year’s worth of trash into a pint jar.
Johnson makes her own makeup, lip balm, blush (from cocoa powder), mascara and shampoo. Her efforts to replace toilet paper were not so smooth. “Moss was fine at first but dried out quickly and was like wiping with a scouring pad,” she laughs. Now they use toilet paper that comes wrapped in compostable paper.
Thole recently installed a bidet attachment on her toilet. “But we keep a roll of toilet paper for guests.”
Thole first heard the term “zero waste” at her son’s elementary school, where the Green Club was holding Zero Waste lunches with varying degrees of success during the 2016-17 school year. After reading up on Zero Waste, Thole and another parent and a teacher decided to try to raise the level of participation. They asked the custodian to keep one day’s garbage. Students and adults divided the trash into categories: Disposable plastic, papers, wrappers, milk and juice boxes. Food waste. Recyclables. Non-lunch items (by far the smallest category).
At a school assembly, they brought the separated bags of trash to the stage. Thole asked the students to guess how long it had taken the school to produce all that trash. They guessed “a month!” and “all year!” When told it was the trash from one day, there was a collective gasp.
The Green Club students talked about how they could refuse juice boxes, reduce packaging of just about everything, bring reusable containers for sandwiches and salads, recycle some packaging, and compost food scraps. The 5Rs, in the right order.
At home, Thole and her son are discovering unexpected benefits. “We are eating healthier,” she says. “I like to call what I’m on the ‘Zero Waste diet.’ By making a conscious decision to buy less packaging, you end up buying less processed food. No fast food, more fruits and vegetables. Clean eating in every sense of the word.”
Refusing and reducing means her home has become more efficient, functional and spare. And because she keeps her food in label-free glass containers, “it’s such a joy to be in the kitchen. I can see everything. I have all this extra space in my cupboards. You really see all the food and not the advertising.”
She is often asked whether she is recycling more than she did before going Zero Waste, but in her blog she writes that she’s actually recycling “less, a LOT less,” because she tries not to buy items with any packaging at all. “Recycling is still an energy-intensive process,” she writes, “that’s best avoided by following the first two Rs: Reduce and Reuse.”
It’s a forward-looking attitude, given that China — which for decades has accepted much of the world’s recyclables to fuel its manufacturing industries — is in the process of banning or reducing its solid waste imports, including household plastics, mixed paper and metals.
Zero Waste enthusiasts say eliminating packaging does not require excessive time and effort.
“I know what people are thinking,” Johnson says. “Not so long ago, I was that person. We thought it would be super extreme — you know, ‘I don’t have time for this’ — but it’s the opposite. We have more time.
“People think living this sort of lifestyle is so hard. But it leads to an easier existence. With more stuff, you have to dust it, clean it, maintain it, repair it, dispose of it and replace it. With less stuff, there’s less to clean,” she says. “It now takes me five minutes to clean my house every day. It improves life on so many levels.”
Thole has shared her philosophy with others, which helps them understand why she pulls a reusable “doggie bag” out of her purse at the end of a meal.
“My friend asked me to join them for noodles and ice cream, which sounds easy, but I have to think ahead to make sure I have the right arsenal in my purse. We might want to bring our own silverware [to avoid using disposable utensils].
“They tried to give me chopsticks: I refused them. They tried to give me paper napkins: I said no. They had so many questions: ‘Don’t you want these nuts in plastic bags?’ It was basically a fast-food Chinese place, but it was a Zero Waste minefield.”
She knew they’d be getting milkshakes, so she brought a thermos. At restaurants, Thole and her son say, “No thank you” to straws.
“Maybe the waitress will go through the rest of her shift thinking about it,” Thole says. “Maybe the next time, she’ll ask if people need them rather than just giving them out.”
For Johnson, Zero Waste comes down to “a life based on experiences, instead of things. A life based on being instead of having.”