“I’ll take a cold brew coffee. And,” I handed a pint-sized mason jar to the barista. “Can you put it in here?”
“Sure.” She poured the coffee and slid the jar across the counter to me. I dropped my stainless steel straw into the brown liquid and stirred. I was used to asking for a reusable mug, but bringing my own cup for cold drinks was new. After all the thought I’d put into ways to explain my request and my trash reduction efforts, I was surprised by how normal it was to ask.
Reusable dishes in place of disposable ones were just one of the things we’d discussed in our book group last fall. Once a month for three months, some friends of Nashville A Rocha gathered in an apartment living room to read and discuss The Zero-Waste Lifestyle: Live Well by Throwing Away Less by Amy Korst.
From the moment I was first introduced to the idea of living with zero waste a few years ago, I was intrigued. It seemed impossible. How could anyone decrease their annual waste to the point that it fit in a 16-ounce mason jar? I recycled when I could, but trash was part of my daily life. Could I really do anything about it?
Book group seemed like a perfect opportunity to find out.
Over cheese and crackers and grapes, we talked about trash. We looked in all of our wastebaskets and thought about what we buy, how it’s packaged, and how we get rid of it. Moms and professors and business owners and students and artists, all of us taking a hard look at our habits, asking questions, and encouraging each other to do what we could.
Together we learned that, on average, every American throws away 2,000 pounds of garbage yearly, and, in spite of efforts to fully contain our waste, landfills contribute significantly to soil and water pollution. We took an in-depth look at recycling, the energy it requires, and how many items can only be recycled a few times before they become useless. We looked the problem square in the face, and we got a little discouraged by it.
Fortunately, Korst didn’t leave us there. From recipes for household cleaners to shopping suggestions to an audit of the entire home’s trash, she walked us through practical tips for daily life. Many people in the group already composted their food scraps, and during the months we met, one person took several steps to reduce waste in her personal care routine. We still talk about it sometimes when we see each other.
It’s a new year, and one of my goals for 2017 is to reduce my waste. I don’t make my own deodorant yet, but now, when I reach for a paper towel, I think twice about whether I really need it. I try to bring reusable dishes to use in place of disposable ones. There are some things I may never stop buying in spite of their packaging, but I’m looking for alternatives. In a few months, I plan to get a worm composting system so that even in my apartment I can do something useful with vegetable peelings.
Like most creation care work, it’s a slow process. We didn’t acquire our cultural trash habits overnight, and none of us will be able to change them back overnight, either. I’m hopeful that taking one step at a time, replacing even one plastic cup with a reusable one, will build a habit that can grow over time.
Who knows? Maybe one day my landfill-bound trash will be small enough to fit in the same sized mason jar I drink my coffee from.
Interested in reducing your waste? Here are some ideas to get started:
- Use reusable grocery bags instead of plastic ones. If you forget your bags, use a tip from one member of our book group: tell the cashier you don’t need bags and have them put your items back in the cart loose. This keeps you from using the plastic bags and will hopefully help you remember your reusables next time.
- Bring your own mug to the coffee shop. Many local coffee shops use reusable cups and mugs (if you don’t know, ask!), but if yours doesn’t, they’re often happy to put your drink in your own cup instead of a paper one.
- Opt for fresh, whole foods without packaging. Not only are they better for you, they also help you send less trash to the landfill.
- When possible, buy in bulk. Get your own set of reusable cloth bags and mason jars for bulk shopping so you’re not using plastic bags from the store that are just going to end up in the garbage.
- Look up what can and can’t be recycled in your city. While reducing waste should be your first choice, if you still need to purchase items that come with packaging, check into what recycling options are available where you live. Keep in mind that even if an item can’t be recycled curbside, it may still be able to be recycled at a recycling center or through a third-party program. Many grocery stores have a place to recycle plastic bags and other stretchy plastics like cling wrap. Here’s a list of what can be recycled curbside in Nashville and a list of recycling centers that accept other items like glass.