Can you imagine daily life without a trash can? What would you do with all your trash? Would you bury it? Throw it in your neighbor’s trash can? Stop buying and using things that produce trash?
That’s the question I faced in late 2017. The agency I worked for decided to move to a new office building. I packed up my entire cubicle into several boxes that the moving company would transport to the new office.
But, something unexpected happened during the transportation phase—my trash can didn’t make it over to the other side. And after unpacking all of my belongings into my shiny, new cubicle, I realized, I was one trash can short!
Can you imagine cubicle life without a trash can? It was awful! Anytime I snacked on a Hershey’s Kiss or Belvita Breakfast Biscuit I’d end up with a pesky wrapper. I’d then have to trek ALL THE WAY to the communal trash can just to dispose of everything (because I’m too OCD to let it accumulate on my desk).
Eventually, I got annoyed with all the walking. Except, rather than doing what normal people do in such situations (purchase another trash can) I had a different, much more brilliant idea. What if instead, I produce less trash during work hours?
Who doesn’t love a fun challenge like that? (Plus, deep down I still hoped that my old loyal trash can, which had been with me since day one, would find her way back to me. If she did, how horrible would she feel seeing that I had already replaced her?)
So I changed my trash producing ways. I stopped eating pre-packaged snacks and brought things from home in Tupperware containers. I used a ceramic plate to cover my bowl in the microwave, rather than a paper towel. I stopped printing things I did not really need. Before I knew it, TWO WHOLE WEEKS had gone by and I didn’t need to make a single trek to the communal trash can.
Wait a minute. Was the universe trying to tell me something here? Perhaps I didn’t even need a trash can? Perhaps life without producing trash was possible?
If that was the case, if I removed my trashcan at home, would it have the same trash-reducing effect? There was only one way to find out!
(You might be wondering why any person in her right mind would want to take on a trash-reducing challenge. Let’s just say I was reading a lot of books about trash, like “Garbology,” and I was a bit disgusted with how humans seem to think it is OK to turn any piece of available land into a landfill.)
Now, the challenge I faced at home was that my loving fiancé was not as into trash (or reducing it) as I was. Which means, I had to make the change gradual and not a huge inconvenience.
We had two landfill trash cans in our home at the time–the main one in the kitchen and a smaller one in the bathroom. The kitchen trash can usually filled up the fastest, which meant that if I could eliminate the landfill trash I produced in the kitchen, I could eliminate my need for that trashcan.
After some strategic trash can diving and digging, I found that the majority of the trash in that can was paper towels and non-recyclable plastic food packaging. Since I’m the one who loves to do the grocery shopping at home, I had a feeling that reducing the amount of trash in this trash can was well within my control.
Baby steps. That was how I started. I downsized the trashcan liner from a 30 gallon bag to a 10 gallon bag. I visualized how little trash I could produce if I fit it into that liner. I went grocery shopping in the bulk aisle and brought my own containers. I didn’t replace the empty paper towel roll. Instead, I cut up some re-usable cloths.
The result of package-free shopping in the bulk aisle.
Wednesday night rolled around. (Our trash gets picked up on Thursday.) I went to empty our kitchen trash can and long and behold—there was barely anything in it! I beamed with pride! I had done it! Drastically reduced our trash output to a fourth! (Note, we were already composting at the time, which truly reduces landfill waste in any household.)
Maybe totally eliminating trash was possible after all?
Hungry for inspiration, I began Googling terms like “reduce trash” and came across the zero waste blogs of Bea Johnson and Lauren Singer. These women were zero waste goddesses—fitting years worth of trash into tiny jars!!! I wanted to be just like them!
(On a side note, why are most zero wasters women? We need some zero waste gods too! Guys, you have to step it up!)
I was ready to give up all trash for good… Except, I noticed that Bea and Lauren live in environmentally friendly places like California and NYC. It was easy to be zero waste there. Central Texas? Not exactly a zero waste-friendly place.
Luckily, shortly afterwards, I met a local zero waster. She showed me that the impossible was in fact possible. Even in Central Texas, many grocery stores have bulk aisles where you can bring your own containers. These aisles are brimming full with grains, flour, sugar, spices, and…. chocolate covered pretzels (crucial information for anyone with a sweet tooth). Some even carry bulk soap, shampoo, conditioner, honey, and olive oil. How had I not realized this before?
If you shop at the farmer’s market, you can get your veggies unpackaged. You can ask the butcher to put your meat in your own container. Since I couldn’t find unpackaged milk anywhere, I stepped out of my comfort zone and asked my dairy supplier if he would be willing to do a bottle exchange program with me.
Much to my surprise, his answer was, “Yes, absolutely. I have several other customers who are avoiding plastic and also doing a bottle exchange.”
Once I actively started seeking products that I could purchase without packaging, it became clear that most of what I needed was in fact available where I lived. And the things that weren’t–well maybe I didn’t really need them?
Since I was clearly on a roll, I tackled the bathroom next. I drastically cut my trash there by making a few simple swaps–using baking soda instead of toothpaste, switching to refillable shampoo/conditioner, using a safety razor, and cutting up an old cotton dress to create re-usable tissues and menstrual pads. (Let’s not even talk about how much $$ I’m saving by using re-usables instead of disposables.)
Today, I no longer have an actual trashcan in my home. Unlike in 2017 though, I hardly notice.
By taking away the convenience of having a place to toss things, I simply shop and use more consciously. I can’t say I’m completely zero waste–random plastic that can’t be recycled still shows up with my Amazon packages. My yogurt containers always have a pesky plastic seal on them. I collect these bits of plastic in an old coffee bag (still trying to get my significant other to buy coffee in bulk).
The only trash can currently residing in my home–the compost collection bin!
Even though I produce some trash, it is significantly less than what I was producing in my kitchen and bathrooms prior to the trash can gone missing incident.
No matter where you live, there are zero waste or low waste options. You just have to think creatively and keep an open mind.
To find a store that carries things in bulk, check out this bulk finder.
If there is no bulk option near you, you can still make other changes that will reduce your waste. Carry a re-usable water bottle rather than buying single use plastic bottled water. Bring your own to-go containers at restaurants. Replace your paper towels with cloth. Taking even the tiniest steps can cut down on plastic pollution and landfill trash that we create over our lifetime.
Happy Zero Wasting!