Zero-Waste Living

Happy Earth Month everyone! The Campus Environmental Center, Engineers for a Sustainable World, and various other student organizations are banding together throughout April to host a wealth of event centered on environmental issues, and you should make sure to attend at least one! Check out the CEC Facebook page to stay updated about upcoming events.

On another completely related note, I’m the Development Director for the UT Microfarm, and recently I’ve been attempting to reduce the waste I produce on a daily basis and eventually lead a zero-waste life. Boasting such an accomplishment is much easier said than done. There are a few inspiring blogs and books floating around that do give me hope and encourage me to continue to pursue my goal. I urge you all to embrace some of these waste-reducing tips and implement the wisdom of these pioneers in your daily lives!

We’ve all heard the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” countless times, but I think we disproportionately focus on the “recycle” part of this sustainable trio. Recycling initiatives don’t necessarily encourage decreased consumption. Zero-waste expert and blogger Bea Johnson and her family produce a small jar of waste every year, and she actually suggests that we embrace a new mantra — “Refuse what you do not need, Reduce what you do need, Reuse what you consume, Recycle what you cannot Refuse, Reduce or Reuse, and Rot (Compost) the rest.”

As you can see, recycling lies toward the end of this waste reduction model. Refusing what we do not need is a difficult concept to grasp, especially in a college environment where free, useless stuff is haphazardly given away nearly every day! Do we all need that extra t-shirt? That cheap pair of sunglasses? Definitely not, but college students (and people in general) love the idea of receiving free things. Learning to pass by these opportunities is important and can help us reduce wasteful consumption, which ultimately reduces the amount of junk we throw away. Reducing what we do need is equally important but perhaps more challenging in a society where we are surrounded by excess and “needs” become conflated with “wants.”

Mark Manson wrote an excellent article titled “Minimalism” which elaborates on his journey from conspicuous consumption to carrying all of his possessions in a single suitcase. He emphatically supports the idea of prioritizing experiences and relationships instead of “stuff.” He supports his claims with several studies proving that happiness stems from spending time on our relationships and experiences with the people we love instead of using our possessions to display our identity.

So… how do we make the transition from living a wasteful life to produce a jar of trash once a year? Well, it’s certainly a slow process. I would first suggest to make a few basic changes in your life, most of which have become fairly common among the general population.

1. Ditch the single-use plastic bottles and embrace a reusable one. While reusable water bottles are ubiquitous now, I continue to see individuals purchasing plastic water bottles. First, plastic water bottles are harmful to human health… the presence of BPAs (in the past) and other petrochemical-based hormone disrupters are found in these plastic bottles and can cause serious health effects due to the leeching of these chemicals into the water you drink, especially when the bottles are heated (left sitting in a hot car, for example). Secondly, purchasing these single-use plastic bottles produces unnecessary waste (and wastes money… just fill up your bottle for free!).

2. Stop using any type of bags (plastic, paper, etc.) at the grocery store. Though many of us use reusable canvas bags or something similar when we go shopping, many of us continue to use the plastic produce bags, plastic bags for bulk items, etc. Bea Johnson and other zero-waste enthusiasts suggest planning for your grocery store trip more meticulously by bringing your own reusable bags for everything! For produce, bulk cereal, bulk grains, etc. I personally save old food containers (i.e. hummus, etc.) to bring to the store and reuse continuously instead of using the items provided by the grocery store.

3. Whenever you purchase something, consider if the packaging can be reused/recycled. Sometimes I refuse to buy an item if the packaging is ridiculously wasteful, like shrink wrap and other things that cannot be recycled at all. Generally, try to choose products with minimal (or no) packaging (you can do this by reducing the amount of processed foods you consume) and consider the entire consumption-use-waste continuum to determine if you’re making a sustainable choice.

Some other waste-reducing tips include:

  • Hosting a clothing exchange among your friends or within your community (HOPE Farmer’s Market hosts these regularly, and you can even coordinate one on your own with a few friends! I’ve participated before, and it definitely helps reduce our consumption of new clothes)
  • Seek out items you need on Facebook pages such as UT Buy/Sell/Trade or Craiglist… I bet someone’s trash in Austin is your treasure!
  • Start making your own personal care products. I make my own shampoo, hand soap, dish soap, and laundry detergent by diluting Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap and adding essential oils and other things to improve the smell. You can find countless recipes online, and this reduces the need to purchase these items continuously… I simply buy the soap in bulk from Wheatsville and refill the same containers (you can use old shampoo bottles, old detergent containers, etc.). You can also make your own toothpaste… the possibilities are truly endless!
  • Be resourceful! Look up neat upcycling projects when you have random items laying around the house (old t-shirts, old jars, etc.) so you can make something new or something you might want from things you already have!

Good luck with your journey toward waste reduction!

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