Zero Waste Challenge(d): Practical Strategies for Avoiding Waste

The two weeks of the Ethical Writers Coalition Zero Waste Challenge having passed, its epitaph should read: She tried her best. Despite our very best efforts, Alden, Leah, Holly, Stephanie, Rebecca, Natalie, Summer, Faye and I did not attain completely zero waste lifestyles. Regardless of our planning and vigilance, life happened — we had to evacuate for hurricanes, entertain brides-to-be, got sick. However, I feel confident we will keep whittling down our garbage loads with the knowledge we’ve gleaned (and will continue to share with you).

Zero Waste Challenge: The Rules

  1. Baseline is not sending anything to the landfill.
  2. As long as you can (responsibly) donate it, recycle it or compost it, it doesn't count as waste.
  3. However, you can't just throw whatever in there - you have to verify that it can ACTUALLY be composted or recycled in your city's existing systems. For example, in NYC you can't just throw compostable cups into your local garden. And beer caps aren't recyclable.
  4. You must document how much waste you produce and why, honestly.
  5. That includes waste produced outside of your apartment, like straws, napkins, wrappers, etc.
  6. That does not include waste you don't see being produced on your behalf, like plastic wrap behind the scenes at grocery stores or restaurants, because that would be impossible.

Had it been a normal two weeks where I hermit in my apartment working, I probably would have done quite well. But my grandmother was in town and we visited lovely museums and restaurants and were on the go most days. With more of an outside routine, New York City can be quite accommodating, but without more investigation I ran into some snags which earned me quite a bit of trash. I’m not going to pretend to know much about waste management and frankly, I wish I were not in the position to try and figure it out. However, it seems integral to understanding how to make lasting changes that will lead to a zero waste lifestyle.


The Waste Hierarchy

The waste hierarchy is a framework that can be applied to waste management in countries, cities, industries, and even households. It’s aim is to extract the maximum practical benefits from products while generating the minimum amount of waste. It works from the top down, with more sustainable solutions higher up. In an effort to better understand our successes and failures, I've applied this useful hierarchy to our two week challenge, along with some practical strategies.

1. Prevention

Prevention is the most sustainable and favored option in the hierarchy and can often be achieved with a bit of planning. Most of us earned trash points via food packaging, a (sometimes necessary but often overkill) feature of most modern grocery stores. Buying bulk in reusable bags and containers is the ultimate way to prevent this kind of waste, but is sometimes not available in certain stores or for certain products. Of course, we can deny ourselves some these products, but as Leah found, alternatives can often be found.  

For longer than I can remember, I have routinely carried reusable grocery bags, stuffed down in my purse. (Now trying to keep their accumulation to a minimum after reading this). After I began circulating in the sustainable scene in NYC, I realized I should also carry a reusable water bottle or mason jar when I would be out for the day. Like Holly, other waste prevention items in my bag include a bandana or handkerchief, and reusable produce bags. At times, I also carry a stainless steel straw and flatware in a roll up pouch made by my friend, Andrea.


Be prepared. Here are waste prevention items that can be found in my bag most of the time:

2. Minimization

Preventing waste to begin with is obviously key, but when it cannot be avoided, shoot for minimization. Composting and refillable containers are both good examples of minimizing waste. Refillable containers can reduce waste and the energy put into the creation of new containers. We should all be asking our grocery stores for more bulk bins and products like olive oil and soap on tap. Here in the city, most of us compost because it is fairly easy to drop it off at a local farmer’s market. Homeowners can build their own as Stephanie did, but apartment dwellers in smaller cities may have a harder time finding an outlet for organic waste.


Make from scratch and refill what you can. And whether you are able to compost or not, everyone can benefit from planning for minimal food waste with regular shopping trips, learning to make use of leftover ingredients, and finding alternate uses for some types of food “waste.” Here is one of my favorite recipes adapted from Bon Appétit:


3. Reuse

By this step, you have waste that you have neither avoided nor minimized, so now you have to deal with it. Even if it is recyclable, extending its life (as Summer does here with jeans) is the next best choice. Reusing can save money, save raw materials, and avoid disposal. Other options that fall under reuse are often “feel good” enterprises — food collected for homeless shelters, old computers donated to a community center, or buying refurbished goods over new ones.


The next time you end up with waste in hand, challenge yourself to find another use for it. Think string and paper saved for gift wrapping or takeout containers for organization. On the flip side, the next time you need to purchase something, consider getting a refurbished or secondhand version.


4. Recycling

This part of the hierarchy includes recycling, upcycling or creative reuse, and downcycling. A lot of people and ahem, brands, think this is a good solution to our overuse of resources (despite what we know about how much is actually recycled). But as you can see, it falls in the middle of the hierarchy because recycling is still difficult and energy intensive.

Watch this video:

Did you see them washing out their things, separating them into thirty-something categories? That’s discipline perhaps only this small Japanese village can master. Canberra, Australia tried (and failed) to become a zero waste city by 2010, despite political and residential support. They have a new goal of 2020, as does New Zealand. New York City wants to be zero waste by 2030, yet we can’t even get a plastic bag tax now (so maybe thirteen years is realistic for how long it will take). Recycling here is not particularly intuitive as it is now. Currently, rather than clear and obvious information IRL, I have to do some research on the Department of Sanitation website — not something that is going to occur to many citizens whose first stop is the garbage can. To be effective, it has to be relatively easy.

Honestly, I send more than I would like to recycling. I knew plastics were not the best choice (petroleum derived, leach into food), but I didn’t know how very little of the massive amount of plastic we use in the US is recovered within municipal solid waste systems. On a scale of thinking face to crying face, we are sobbing.

Plastics made up an estimated 390,000 tons of MSW generation in 1960. The quantity has increased relatively steadily to 32.5 million tons in 2013 (Figure 9). As a percentage of MSW generation, plastics were less than one percent in 1960, increasing to 12.8 percent in 2013. —  EPA

Plastics made up an estimated 390,000 tons of MSW generation in 1960. The quantity has increased relatively steadily to 32.5 million tons in 2013 (Figure 9). As a percentage of MSW generation, plastics were less than one percent in 1960, increasing to 12.8 percent in 2013. — EPA


Plastics are complicated, made of a Baskin-Robbins level of different flavors of plastic, and simply inundate waste management. I have no doubt this is what the plastic (i.e. oil) industry wants to be the case — convenient and disposable. It’s like when the junk food industry “optimizes” chemically addictive foods and then blanches at the idea they might share some responsibility for the rise in obesity. So on we go “taking a single use fork or accepting a plastic bag for one f*cking can of soda,” as Faye so eloquently put it. 


Reduce your overall plastic use, even when it is recyclable. Agitate for taxes or bans on plastic where there is a simple alternative (like reusable bags). They work to reduce consumption. Push for easier and clearly defined recycling of all materials in your city. Advocate for change in industrial design and material choice. Ask brands for less packaging that is made from less damaging materials, and critique those that over package. 


5. Energy recovery

Energy recovery is

the conversion of non-recyclable waste materials into useable heat, electricity, or fuel through a variety of processes, including combustion, gasification, pyrolization, anaerobic digestion, and landfill gas (LFG) recovery. This process is often called waste-to-energy (WTE). Converting non-recyclable waste materials into electricity and heat generates a renewable energy source and reduces carbon emissions by offsetting the need for energy from fossil sources and reduces methane generation from landfills. After energy is recovered, approximately ten percent of the volume remains as ash, which is generally sent to a landfill.EPA


By sending less waste into the system, we reduced the amount of energy that needed to be recovered.


6. Disposal aka things we sent to landfill

Subtitle: Receipts are really a problem.

Disposal is the least sustainable option of the hierarchy and why we strive for zero waste. The main sticking points for our cohort seemed to be straws, food wrapping, and receipts. Even though Holly says the French insist a mojito be drunk through a straw, their use is rarely warranted. Everyone, please stop handing out straws like there’s a dire reason for their use — we can’t always remember to refuse them. I made the mistake myself of ordering an iced matcha tea at Chelsea Market. It was a lapse in judgment; it unsurprisingly came in a plastic to go cup, complete with straw. I recycled the cup, but the straw was a loss.

Besides our straw counts, tamper resistant packaging also made its way into our heaps due to regulations stemming from the 1982 Chicago Tylenol Murders. Not much to be done about that. Receipts were another problem. Faye received two for one transaction and I kept getting the monster receipts that come pouring out of the machine at CVS. You know, the ones that double as coupons for things you never buy, but they wish you would. I seriously may just have to switch drugstores to avoid them. Clumsy as I am, I also went a few rounds with band-aids; I am looking into solutions for those.

These items aside, routines make it easier to avoid waste (buy bulk here, eat out there). Conversely, the unknown often leads to more waste and requires more planning and a big bag, in my experience. Take my recent trip to Ellis Island for example. My grandmother was in town so, along with my parents, we went to see the former immigrant inspection station after swinging by the 9/11 Memorial pools. It was going to be a long day, so I searched for a restaurant within the already sparse options of the Financial District that 1. didn’t require too much walking for my grandmother, 2. had vegan and gluten free options for me, and 3. was a sit down type of restaurant (thinking there was a chance of less waste). There’s no “zero waste” search on Yelp, [note: app idea for enterprising environmentalists] so I went with an option that actually seemed to fulfill these needs. Turns out this particular establishment serves everything in take out containers whether you are taking it out or not. I’ve reported them to 311 for this since all businesses in NYC are required to recycle. There was really no a way for me to know this in advance, aside from calling and asking. I considered that perhaps I should have packed up a zero waste picnic to take with us to Ellis Island. There’s a large lawn and the weather was ideal, but I checked their security requirements which unfortunately state:

  • large bags are not allowed on Liberty Island or Ellis Island
  • Food (even unopened) and drinks (including water) are not allowed inside the Statue of Liberty

You go through airport style security before you get on the boat, so I have to assume they would not have allowed a giant picnic lunch in a backpack through. There’s a “cafe” on the island, but it being take out as well, that would have just created a different kind of waste. I found it very frustrating that, in many situations, one-time use was the default. I continued to collect various ticket stubs and receipts over the course of the week as we made our way through museums and other institutions.


If you've made an effort to reduce your waste, but ultimately end up here sometimes, be kind to yourself. None of us are perfect or will always be prepared or have all of the answers. 


Where we go from here

What's most important is that we create a climate for continual improvement. Alden, Leah, Holly, Stephanie, Rebecca, Natalie, Summer, Faye and I can tout our personal lack of waste, but in our privilege, we have the responsibility to be advocates as well. Consumer decisions can signal some of our desires to industry, but I think we must strike a balance between personal responsibility and wider social change. I don’t want to be a pillar of good behavior, I want zero waste to be the norm (and easy choice) for everyone. 

Throughout our history, there has been pressure from citizens to make lasting policy changes (civil rights, environmental rights, safe working conditions). It’s a privilege to have the time and means to make some of these zero waste choices. I don’t feel comfortable putting the lion's share of responsibility on consumers when industry causes even more waste, or when big oil lobbies for ever more plastic and blocks bag bans and taxes. We have false “freedom” in our choices when social good is manipulated by the highest bidder and misinformation thrives when we lack transparency and regulation. I want studies done on best environmental and waste practices. I want the EPA to have more authority, employees, and money to enforce solid environmental regulations. I want lifecycle assessments and better material selection. And I want us all, by way of good design and production, to have to go out of our way to create waste. 

Read the rest of the Ethical Writers who participated:



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