In the spring of 2010, on an episode of the radio show “The Story,” I heard the tale of a British couple who lived trash-free. I walked home from my laboratory at the University of Michigan and told my roommate Tim that I thought I could do better — I’d live trash- and recycling-free — and that I’d start soon. “No,” he said. “If you care about this, then you start today.” And just like that, I began an experiment in individual activism in the face of large environmental problems.
The average American produces more than four pounds of trash and recyclables per day, about 1,500 pounds per year. In my first year of living trash- and recycling-free, I produced a little more than seven and a half pounds of waste, including receipts and miscellaneous paper, a couple of Ruffles chips bags and a few straws, stickers off fruit, glass milk-bottle caps, a broken Pyrex dish, a broken milk bottle, one beer bottle and one plastic bottle. In year two, I made it down to six pounds — about 0.4 percent of the American average.
To get there, I needed to change the way I lived, and I needed some parameters. Everything apart from food scraps (which I’d compost), toothpaste and soap (which were too difficult to recover), and toilet paper counted as trash or recycling. I collected my refuse — concert tickets, stickers, plastic tags, packaging, glass, you name it — and didn’t throw it away.
I made a few exceptions. I couldn’t always control other people’s behavior, so junk mail wouldn’t count as my own recycling. I wasn’t going to be a boor and instruct a dinner-party host on how to reduce his or her trash. And if someone gave me a gift — a token offered from the heart — I accepted it. Also, I was working on my aerospace engineering Ph.D. in an experimental combustion lab, and my research required many single-use materials: Mylar, latex gloves, ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (milk carton material), optical cleaning wipes and so on. If I wanted to conduct quality research and finish my dissertation, I’d have to separate requirements inside the lab from my habits outside it.
I knew this experiment wouldn’t make a profound difference for conservation, but I felt I should do it because I had no excuse not to. Others don’t have the flexibility or the means for this kind of activism. Or they may simply have more immediate concerns. Consumption is so convenient that it is truly invisible and routine. I tried my best not be sanctimonious to people less committed than I.
I had to get creative. When a restaurant furnished a napkin-wrapped fork and knife, I asked the server to exchange them for cutlery without the napkin. I’d remember to say “No straw!” after asking for water and to make sure the veggie burger I ordered didn’t come with a wooden pick holding it together. I tried to think ahead. I carried a fork, a spoon, a plate and a bowl everywhere I went, just in case a student event served food but provided only plastic to eat with. I did what I had to, and sometimes it was awkward. At a house party (where the red Solo cup is king), I’d saunter into the kitchen, use a glass from the cupboard, and then rinse it and put it back when I was done. Five months into the experiment, after some initial reservations, I gave up toilet paper. Now I do things the way hundreds of millions (including my extended family) in India do — with water and my left hand.
In many ways, though, my life didn’t change much. I had grown up in a humble setting in India, where I was accustomed to consuming as little as possible. I was a member of the People’s Food Co-op in Ann Arbor, where I bought my produce unpackaged. Most of my waste came from food packaging, so anything I could do to limit it reduced my trash and recycling significantly. I bought bread from the bakery, gave up most cheeses and drank milk only when it came in reusable bottles. Even though I seldom bought new gizmos or clothes, I stopped buying them entirely for this project, because I knew creating them, transporting them and selling them at retailers generated plenty of upstream waste. If I thought I really needed something, like a new mug or hoodie, I’d wait a week before buying it. And then I’d wait another week. Turns out I never bought those things, which means I never needed them. I had enough already. Compared with the way so many others live, it wasn’t much of a hardship.
But sometimes even the best intentions couldn’t eliminate waste. Once, as I was opening a can of mango pulp that predated the experiment, the lid popped off and landed behind the fridge. When I reached blindly for it, I cut a smooth, deep gash in my finger and used Band-Aids to stanch the blood. Even more painful was the moment during Christmas break in 2010 when my parents, who live in Pennsylvania, decided to change the cellphone plan they shared with me. A new plan meant a new phone. After two hours spent trying to persuade Verizon to let me keep my old flip phone or trade it for a used one, I gave up. I got a new phone that winter, the flip phone I still use. But the old one would probably still function fine.
Then there were the times I gladly indulged. During the summer of 2010, a chain-smoking Romanian man sponsored some experiments in our lab. He’d come around to help run them every now and then. A great World Cup match was about to start one day, and, learning that all of us in the lab were going to watch it, he asked us where he could find a vending machine. A few minutes later, he came back with 12 bags of potato chips, a couple for each of us. “Screw the experiments this afternoon,” he told us. “Let’s eat some junk and watch some football.” I enjoyed those chips.
The hardest part was figuring out the best way to talk about what I was doing. It is important to speak to people in a language they understand — a language that respects where they come from, their motivations, their upbringings. This was crucial because I was constantly asked to explain myself at restaurants, in social gatherings, with friends and colleagues and strangers. Also, big issues such as trash and recycling are intimately tied to other big issues such as economic growth, globalization and climate change. So, as I wrote about the experiment on my blog, what began as a discussion of trash and consumption quickly became a discussion of governance, economy, peace and pillage of the Earth, poverty, the limits of human knowledge, complexity and simplicity. It was much harder to explain all that than it would have been simply to announce myself as a vegetarian, for instance.
Sometimes I failed, and a few skeptics wrote me off as a tree-hugger. But I think such remarks are an easy way to deflect tough questions about how to live more gently on Earth. To reduce our environmental footprint, we need to know how to make full use of the investments we have already made in material objects. We need to know how to take the most advantage of our ever-increasing body of scientific, technological and social knowledge to create an economy based on reduced consumption. We need to talk more about how collective change is possible by experimentation in our individual lives.
More often, though, people gave me their support. The experiment inspired others to undertake similar experiments on their own for a week or a month. A couple of friends — one in China and her brother in Ann Arbor — are now doing it for a year. Admittedly, my effort found both a receptive audience and a useful infrastructure in Ann Arbor, one of America’s most environmentally conscious cites. I could get pretty much all of my food unpackaged, and there were several great secondhand stores if I really needed something — shops where the shoes didn’t come in boxes and the tools weren’t wrapped in protective plastic casing. I recognize that not everybody has the level of control over their lives that I do, enjoys the privileges I do or lives in the kinds of places I have. I know that I am a bit of an outlier.
But anyone can reduce their consumption. What are the social and economic infrastructures available to you that you aren’t using. What waste is so ingrained in your routine that it is invisible? In focusing on my choices through trash, I was able to highlight things beyond my immediate control. While the experiment was in small part about saying no to something because of the packaging or materials, it was more broadly about saying no to what was inside that packaging — and all the environmental destruction, sweatshop labor and other harmful practices that go into things.
Humans have caused daunting problems: The polar ice caps are melting, a manmade mass extinction is underway, the oceans are full of trash, surface mines are tearing up the countryside and indigenous people’s cultures are eroding thanks to global commerce. My project did not reshape those trends. Its effect on the trash and recycling produced in the United States was insignificant. But those conversations I had about materialism, consumerism and social change had an impact, albeit a hard-to-measure one. It also ameliorated my sense of complicity; it allowed me to attempt to answer the question of how we — as privileged individuals — stand up in the face of large problems to create examples and communities of change.
I didn’t even have to become a recluse. Rather, my quality of life improved. I learned to be more present in my choices, and I learned what is important to me, regardless of what others think. We don’t have to go back in time to heed environmental boundaries. We just have to be creative. What began as a one-year experiment ultimately lasted two and a half years, the rest of my time in Ann Arbor. I still have with me the single bag for all 30 months’ worth of trash and recycling.
Standing in my kitchen in Washington, I think about the waste I generate now, in a city that doesn’t have the same infrastructure that Ann Arbor has. While many great facilities exist in this city, it is much larger and less dense, and so rounding up all the ingredients for a trash- and recycling-free life requires longer trips by foot or bike. I’ve fallen short of my Michigan strictures: It has been more than six weeks since I moved here, but my one-and-a-half-gallon trash and recycling bins are both full already. It’s time for me to go to the chute to send these materials to a landfill and a reprocessing facility. It’s not like I’m a profligate consumer today, but I can’t say it doesn’t hurt.