NOBODY SAID YOU HAD TO BE PERFECT TO JOIN THE ZERO WASTE CLUB

We did it. January is over.

Curious about our first month going zero waste? We made it through the flu and one flooded basement, and we’re all still standing. Kate, Meredith, and I report back to you on what worked, what was difficult, and what’s next for our zero waste goals in February.

Jenna Bergendahl
Jenna’s family wants to buy nothing new in 2018 and reduce their garbage to no more than 22 pounds of trash a month, the average amount of garbage an American family of five throws away in a day.

January started off with a bang. Literally.

My toddler dropped a dinner plate on Day 3 of our zero waste challenge. Whoops. That’s some heavy trash, but at least we weren’t trying to fit everything into a mason jar.

On week two, our main sewer drain clogged. We were bailing three inches of water off the laundry room floor at midnight and dumping it outside in subzero weather. We ended up using four disposable diapers the next day because in the time it took to fix everything and wash the cloth diapers we (unsurprisingly) ran out of diapers. Two kids in cloth will do that to you.

On week three and four, my family was down and out with influenza. Hence the two bags of coffee beans I needed to power through.

(Because what do you do when you’re out of coffee and on your way home from the doctor with three sleeping kids in the car? Do you drag them into the co-op to get coffee beans in your refillable container?

No. You do not. You roll stealth mode through the Caribou Coffee drive-through and cross your fingers that you can recycle the plastic bags when you get home. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can.)

Here’s our January trash total:

3 pounds, 10.5 ounces of garbage. We’ve got lots of produce stickers and price tags from the bulk foods section. The kids polished off their Halloween candy. We broke a plate. I needed coffee. Someone sent us a package (I reused the rest of the plastic bag). And one of the kids had a run-in with some duct tape.  

Part of our zero waste challenge is to buy no new “stuff” in 2018 (except food, health supplies, and household essentials). We bought: One LEGO Batman set and a couple mini-figures, purchased by the 5-year-old with his own money.  

What worked: The food! The first time I tried zero waste grocery shopping (in spring of 2017) I felt like I was always cooking, and that no one was really happy with what we were eating. This time around things were much better.

  • I simplified our meal plan by assigning a food theme to each day of the week (curry, soup, tacos, salad, pizza, and so on).
  • We learned through trial and error which zero waste foods are our favorites (we love homemade tortillas), so I didn’t waste time cooking food no one enjoyed. 
  • The kids are becoming more adventurous eaters. For one kid, this means devouring raw bell peppers and bok choy. For another one of my kids, it’s tolerating some beans on his plate. Progress is progress!

What was difficult: Subzero temps, flooded basement, two weeks of influenza. January was out of control. Going zero waste might have been one of the easiest parts. (Just kidding. Kind of.)

What’s up next: My shampoo is low, the laundry detergent bottle is empty, and there’s a stack of dirty dishes in the sink. Zero waste cleaners, here I come. Gotta get the germs out of the house anyway.   

Meredith Hanson
In 2018, Meredith’s family of five will try to fit all of the garbage they create for the whole year into a single kitchen garbage bag.

As the end of the first month of our zero waste challenge comes to a close, I thought I would take a look at the garbage we produced this month, and reflect on how the month went.

Here’s a peek at our January 2018 garbage:

Most of it is from produce. So many produce stickers! I tried to count them, but gave up – it was a lot. Produce stickers are not recyclable or compostable. So, into my garbage jar they go.

There are also a lot of rubber bands and twist ties in the jars. These are also from produce and not recyclable or compostable. These are from some of our favorite and extremely healthy veggies at our local grocery store – broccoli, radishes, and spinach. I wish they came without the rubber bands and ties, but I’m not going to give up these healthy foods over it.

There are some great options for avoiding produce stickers – shopping at the farmer’s market, signing up for a CSA, or growing your own food! Unfortunately, in January in Minnesota none of these are incredibly viable options when it comes to most produce. Things just aren’t growing locally at the moment. When the weather warms up, I hope we will be growing most of our own food for the first time ever. No produce stickers or rubber bands needed!

My two largest pieces of garbage this month arrived in the form of junk mail. One was one of those charity mailings with the little address labels stickers included as a ‘gift’. Stickers = non-recyclable/compostable.

The other frustrated me more – a very large laminated ad from a window company. Laminated paper is not recyclable because it is too difficult to separate the plastics from the paper. I wonder how many thousands of these cards ended up in landfills this month where they will go on polluting the planet for years and years to come? If companies feel they must send mail advertisements, PLEASE let them be recyclable ones!    

Ok, let’s set frustration to the side, because I try to approach zero waste from a place of joy. And, I would say this month was full of joys. I had fun figuring out how to make more things at home – from almond milk to ketchup. Gaining new skills and feeling more independent is a great byproduct of zero waste living. 

What worked: I felt really enthused about being off to a good start on this project and feeling like my daily actions are becoming a better reflection of my values. A large part of unhappiness arises from feeling like our ‘real’ lives are not accurately reflecting our values and ideals. This might be someone who is an artist, but is not creating any art, so feels unhappy and unfulfilled. It might be a peaceful, kind person who is creating conflict and pain for others. Or, it might be an environmentalist or nature lover who is creating a lot of plastic waste. When your actions are more aligned with your truth, you will be happier.   

The Zeroish Team

Another source of joy this month was being part of a local green fair where the Zeroish team had the opportunity to share our zero waste message and lots of tips with members of our community and meet a lot of great people doing important work for the environment. It was great to meet so many people who are interested in zero waste (or at least curious about it) and hear people’s stories about what changes they have made to reduce their waste.

What’s up next: This month I still had most of my previously purchased personal care and cleaning products to use, but many are starting to run out, so next month I know I will be learning more about zero waste alternatives for these products. I’ll definitely be trying out making my own shampoo, toothpaste, and home cleaners in the next month.

Kate Marnach
Kate’s family will challenge themselves to reduce their trash output by at least 50% by weight throughout 2018. Each month they will implement a new strategy aimed at reducing waste and see how effective they are.

As much as I wanted to jump head first into this zero waste journey, January had to be a bit of a baseline month to establish how much trash-to-the-landfill we are producing with our “regular” routine (this was difficult to establish last December with holidays and travelling). We were already using some zero waste techniques, but we took note to assess what types of things are currently making up the bulk of our trash output to find ways that we can cut it back.

The results: We produced 8 full kitchen trash cans of waste. Our kitchen garbage can is a 9 gallon size, so that comes out to approximately 72 gallons of waste for the month from our family of five. 

This does not include approximately 4 gallons of food scraps I saved for other purposes (e.g. vegetable stock, egg shells for the garden, etc.) Almost all of our meals are home cooked, so the vast majority of our trash comes from kitchen scraps and other compostable items, as we don’t have our compost set up yet in this house (I’m setting up a vermicomposter next month). The next major contributors appear to be diapers (since we no longer cloth diaper), non-recyclable packaging from various sources, and litter box waste from our cats.

Seeing this in print quite honestly makes me feel guilty that we produce that much trash! Especially considering we are avid recyclers, don’t use many single-use disposables anymore, and have already implemented some zero waste techniques. But then I remember back to days when we had fewer people in our family, and we would still take out a full garbage can at least every other day. That would have totalled over 135 gallons of trash per month for a family of three or four…yikes!

Clearly, we have already come a pretty long way from where we were. A large part of that previous reduction came from making better choices about food packaging, diligently collecting our plastic film to recycle since it’s not picked up curbside, and simply buying less as we have embraced minimalism.

Even though we were already doing this, the trash reduction strategy I would like to highlight for January is plastic film recycling. No matter how good you get at living zero waste, you will probably still have some unavoidable plastic film coming through your door in some way, shape, or form. Separating our plastic film saved us over half a bin (4.5 gallons) of trash going to the landfill per month! And it’s so easy.

We keep a plastic bag of some sort hanging in our main level laundry room where we put our used plastic film. When the bag is full, I bring it to one of our local Target stores where they have plastic film recycling receptacles right up front. Many other major retailers have this available as well. It takes a little extra effort, but by taking it to a store I frequent anyway, the effort in minimal. And being that plastic film one of the worst polluters I feel that it’s totally worth it. As part of our family’s effort to be zero waste, we should be consuming quite a bit less plastic film, so I hope to see our bag filling up a lot less quickly!

What worked: By switching to reusables, we freed up almost an entire storage cupboard that used to house paper towels, Ziploc bags, tissue boxes, and aluminum foil!

What was difficult: Food/compostable waste is a HUGE contributor to our overall garbage total

What’s up next: Get our vermicomposter up and running to address our food waste and work to reduce recyclables along with the trash.

What about you? Have you succeeded in reducing your trash this month? What’s working for you?

Jenna Bergendahl is a homeschooling mom of three in Minneapolis. She loves biking, camping with her husband and kids, and staying up late reading sci-fi novels. In 2018 she’s taking on a zero waste challenge, trying out veganism, and catching up on episodes of Game of Thrones. She’s also the editor of Zeroish.

2 thoughts on “NOBODY SAID YOU HAD TO BE PERFECT TO JOIN THE ZERO WASTE CLUB

  1. I just found your website and I love it already! I love that each of your 3 families have different goals for the year and yet they are all aimed towards zero waste. That goes to show that every family is different, doing what you can matters, and that going zero waste is a process! I just started my zero waste journey this month and your challenges have me so inspired. I like the idea of all 3 of you updating every month and talking what what you’ve accomplished. It’s great to see that as someone who just started and it’s great for your families to see how far you’ve come! Keep up the good work 😊

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