As I report on zero waste initiatives across California and the small Fresno businesses striving to provide more sustainable options, I thought I’d share my own zero waste journey.
A few years ago, early on in my 20s, I was diagnosed with a health condition that left me searching for healthier eating alternatives.
Since then, I’ve been on a journey to heal my gut through the food I eat, and in the process of seeking to cook anti-inflammatory dishes, I crossed paths with the zero-waste movement.
Three years ago, Google searches and checking out books on zero waste living occupied my time.
I wondered what I — as an individual — could do about all the plastic floating around in the world.
It’s a Plastic World
Once I started paying attention, I realized plastic was all around us and I was constantly using and throwing it away.
Old soda jumbo drinking cups, green Starbuck straws, broken down Styrofoam, and plastic bags lay scattered on every corner street, parking lot, and freeway, I traveled.
While the trash in the streets is clearly visible, food and housing items are often packaged into neat, tidy plastic boxes and wrapping.
At Costco, massive boxes lined with plastic pile up on top of each other.
Jars of pasta are held together by plastic loops, jars of spices come in plastic bottles, frozen meat, pastries, and bread are perfectly packaged in plastic boxes and plastic wrapping.
Where Does All This Plastic Go?
It’s a known fact that a lot of plastic ends up in the ocean, but more appallingly is the fact that it ends up back in our guts.
I soon realized the seafood I was eating was contaminated with plastic because the ocean is full of it — it’s breaking down, and fish think it’s food.
According to the Journal of Hazardous Materials, the amount of plastic entering the oceans every year is estimated at between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons.
Once plastic starts breaking down over time, it disintegrates into smaller-sized microparticles and then into tiny nanoparticles that wash up in our air, soil, rivers, and in the deepest oceans around the world.
A study by the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, found that the average human consumes 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles a year and inhales an estimated 74,000 or more.
To make matters worse, research studies conclude that this exposure to tiny plastic NPs can cause mild inflammation, and changes in your gut microbe.
After finding that out, I realized I had to make serious changes that went beyond my diet.
How Do You Start?
While intimidated by the entire process, I started with the first thing I could replace. I waited until my old plastic toothbrush became too old to use and then I switched to biodegradable wooden toothbrushes, and kept my old plastic toothbrush to clean small areas around the house.
Afterward, I made a list of things that I constantly used that were made of plastic and looked for budget-friendly zero waste alternatives.
First Step: Reuse
In California, it was easy to adapt to using reusable bags after a state law added a tax on the purchase of plastic bags at the grocery store.
I gathered up all my reusable bags I had around the house and left an old bin inside my car trunk for every time I go grocery shopping.
I also purchased a reusable water bottle that I’ve carried with me for the past five years. I take it everywhere and stopped buying plastic water bottles if I can help it.
Another easy habit is to make lunch at home and bring it to work in a reusable container with reusable utensils.
Second Step: Find a Zero Waste Substitute
As a broke college student, I only purchased what I could afford, which was mostly books, food, and gas.
After sharing everything with my roommates, once I moved into my own place, I had to start from scratch and began to purchase things I needed.
I decided to purchase an old-school coffeemaker with a reusable filter instead of opting for the more trendy Keurig coffee maker. While more convenient, plastic Keurig pods are very wasteful.
Once I was done with my plastic razors, I switched to a reusable steel razor. Razor blades often come in packs of 100, and can last you for an entire year or more.
With a new place, I needed cleaning utensils, so bought biodegradable wooden brushes to wash dishes and blocks of dish soap that come in paper wrapping rather than plastic containers. I find that dish soap blocks last longer than a normal-sized DAWN dish soap bottle.
Other swaps I have made include wool balls that you can throw in the dryer after adding a few drops of your favorite scented oil instead of using dryer sheets.
I have also opted to use beeswax wraps to cover food in rather than foil or saran wrap.
I use soap blocks for shampoo and conditioner that I purchase online or from Lush cosmetics, where they also provide reusable containers for face and body cleansers.
Third Step: Plan To Shop Sustainably
As Americans, we tend to shop more than people in other nations, and it’s made easier by shopping online. But, part of the zero waste movement also means only buying what you need.
On days when I’ve had a good night’s rest, I get up early on Saturday morning to buy my fruits and veggies from local farmers markets.
When I need new clothing, or a home décor piece to spruce up my living area, I visit local thrift stores. And, I’m often surprised by what I find.
I also have a book-buying habit that can get out of control. Fortunately, thrift stores are just the place to find reused books.
By visiting your local library or using your library card to rent an e-book from the Libby app, you can save yourself the trouble of spending money on a book you might not even like.
However, it’s impossible to avoid plastic all the time. There are always going to be things that you need that don’t come in anything other than plastic, and that’s OK.
Buy in bulk when you can, especially items and food that have a long shelf life. That way, the items you use and consume last longer before you have to buy another plastic container.
Challenges With Going Zero Waste
While there are many ways to reduce your plastic waste, getting to zero is often impossible through no fault of your own.
Before the pandemic, many fast food establishments would let you bring your own reusable container to fill up and take with you. But, after COVID-19 made its way across the world, those zero waste alternatives were no longer an option.
Truth is, it’s not always easy to swap out for a reusable or biodegradable product. In fact, eco-friendly toilet paper, laundry strip sheets, biodegradable garbage bags, and facial and makeup products can be expensive.
The important thing here is to practice zero waste living but understand that you will never be able to do it perfectly.
A popular quote by zero waste chef Anne Marie Bonneau reminds everyone of this: “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”