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Photo by Michael Clemens

Waste not

This jar contains one year of the Johnson family’s garbage. A growing movement of ‘zero-wasters’ is urging the rest of us to start talking trash.

By Elena Gritzan

How often do you toss something into a garbage can? In the past 24 hours, I have thrown out the cup from my morning coffee, a toothbrush, an apple sticker and the plastic bag from the pasta I cooked last night. That doesn’t seem like so much to me, but those small, seemingly inconsequential moments — putting something into the garbage can and never seeing it again — really do add up.

On average, each Canadian produces 720 kilograms of garbage every year. After it’s collected from the curb and compacted, it’s the same weight as the most heavyset of grizzly bears or a bigger-than-average dairy cow. If you live with just one other person, your household is likely responsible for a yearly mound of garbage as heavy as a walrus. A 2009 report by the Conference Board of Canada ranked 17 developed countries on their rates of municipal waste production. Canada was the worst, producing more garbage per capita than even the United States. In 2012, Canadians collectively sent 25 million tonnes of garbage — as heavy as a pod of 250 blue whales — to landfills. Imagine, instead, if you could collect your yearly garbage inside a single quart-sized mason jar.

Bea Johnson, along with her husband and two children in California, has been doing just that since 2008. Widely considered the founder of the zero-waste lifestyle, she wrote a book about it (Zero Waste Home) and runs a blog (zerowastehome.com), documenting how she shops for groceries with reusable jars and containers, makes toothpaste and eyeliner, and refuses to buy anything that will end up in a landfill. In fact, “refuse” is the first of Johnson’s “5 Rs.” Expanding the well-known 3 Rs, Johnson’s guidelines are “refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle or rot (compost).” Johnson doesn’t even own a garbage can.

Shauna Keddy, a 26-year-old studying to become an elementary school teacher, read an article about the lifestyle last year. “The more I read about zero waste, even now that I’ve lived it for over a year, the more passionate about it I become,” she says. She, too, started to spread the word through social media.

Keddy and I met in university and are now Facebook friends. I started noticing her posts about her farmers’ market hauls, bulk shopping finds and toiletry-making experiments in my newsfeed a few months ago. I like to think of myself as relatively environmentally friendly, but seeing what Keddy’s up to really made me think about the big black bag of garbage that leaves my apartment every week or so.

Looking online, it seems Johnson’s lifestyle has sparked a movement. A large network of people are blogging about the choice to eliminate or drastically reduce garbage, in places as far as Australia, South Africa and Germany, as well as here in Canada. There are Facebook groups where members share tips about things like how to make your own deodorant, or which local stores will sell baking soda or dried fruit straight into a mason jar. More than a dozen books have been published on the topic, and zero-waste speakers are giving talks through high profile platforms such as TEDx and Google.

At first, it sounds complicated to stop producing garbage. You have to change the way you shop, stop buying things on impulse and question your daily habits. But adherents find that living without waste adds to the quality of their lives, and it could be an action that saves the environment from overconsumption, one trash bag at a time.

The unpleasant alternative is dealing with a mountain of garbage that grows by millions of tonnes each year. Not long ago, landfills were major polluters. Rainwater run-off containing potentially dangerous compounds could seep into the surrounding soil and groundwater. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas produced by decomposing organic material, was released into the air.

Today’s landfills, lined with barriers and equipped with drainage and filtration systems to stop leaking, are much safer. But they still have energy costs: since no one wants to live next to one, garbage from many densely populated areas is transported by truck to faraway spots, spewing out greenhouse gases along the way. When people get used to a constant cycle of buying new things and throwing them out, energy and resources are wasted producing, selling and transporting products.

And, not all garbage makes it to a landfill. Litter can contaminate groundwater, act as a fire hazard and threaten wildlife. At least 4.8 million tonnes of plastic enters the world’s oceans each year, which can trap creatures or break into pieces small enough for them to consume. A recent study from Uppsala University in Sweden showed that young fish would rather eat those tiny plastic bits than actual food, a choice with devastating consequences: if they gorge on enough plastic, they starve.

I meet Peggy Cao at a vegan bakery in Thornhill, Ont., a charming space with imitation cheesecakes and colourful cupcakes. The barista hands her a receipt for her green tea latte, and Cao hesitates. “Oh . . . okay,” she says. A couple of weeks before our meeting, she cleaned out her room and found 148 receipts collected over the course of eight months. Glossy receipts are made with thermal printing, which is cheaper because it uses heat instead of ink. But, the special paper that turns black when heated is coated in BPA, a compound with negative health effects in humans, which makes them non-recyclable. But since most stores print one automatically — if you don’t take it, the store will just throw it out anyway — these persistent shiny papers are part of the tiny amount of unavoidable waste in Cao’s life.

She’s a 20-year-old computer science and communications student at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus, and she’s been living and blogging about her zero-waste lifestyle since January. “I think the biggest challenge is kind of having to give people a hard time,” she says. “You have a lot of requests, and sometimes it’s just awkward because you’re asking for stuff from people.” Like asking a restaurant not to bring a straw along with a glass of water, or ordering a Starbucks latte straight into her own travel mug.

“A lot of people, I think, are really hesitant about trying zero waste because of where they live,” says Cao. She lived in a Mississauga, Ont., dorm room when she started, and now lives with her parents in Brampton, Ont. — neither a location with access to lots of stores that cater to zero-waste shopping. She makes do, bringing fabric produce bags with her to shop for groceries while avoiding the pre-packaged, processed food aisles. But there are some things she can’t avoid, like not having a place to buy refillable ingredients for her homemade shampoo and body wash. “I’m very accepting of the fact that I still produce waste,” she says, “but I try to keep that amount as small as possible for what’s feasible in my area.”

Brianne Miller (centre) and volunteer Heather McIntosh (right) fill a shopper’s empty jam jar with organic dried mango at a zero-waste pop-up shop in Vancouver. Photo by Amanda Palmer

Currently, zero wasters like Cao have to shop in stores that aren’t designed to reduce plastic and packaging, often asking staff to go against usual procedure to put an item into their own container. But imagine how many more people would be willing to give it a try if stores made it simple. That’s Brianne Miller’s vision. The Vancouver-based entrepreneur used to be a marine biologist, where she saw isolated beaches covered in litter and marine mammals entangled in plastic bags. “I think it’s really important for people to make small actions that collectively have a really big impact,” she says. “So opening a store where zero-waste grocery shopping becomes easy is, I think, a really great way to encourage people to make those changes.”

Along with her business partner, Paula Amiama, Miller has been running pop-up shops with the goal of opening a permanent zero-waste market soon. The idea is to make it easier for people to shop with their own jars and containers. Customers will start by weighing their empty jars and attaching a bar-code sticker that the digital scale prints out, which adheres firmly to the jar for future shopping trips. After the jars are full with anything from honey to laundry detergent, the checkout system can automatically subtract the weight of the empty container. If you forget your containers at home, the store will have clean, used jars available. There’s garbage saved on the way into the store, too; Miller and Amiama are partnering with local suppliers to send them products in reusable containers.

“People seem pretty receptive to the idea,” Miller says. “We’re already keeping track of how many containers we’ve diverted from the landfill. That number’s already approaching 2,500 just from the pop-up shops.”

Many people have some sense that the environment is in trouble. So why do so few of us actually do anything about it? “Dragons of inaction,” is the phrase Robert Gifford, psychologist at the University of Victoria, uses to describe the mental barriers that stop people from significantly reducing their carbon emissions. Each of us has to slay our own unique combination of dragons, he says, but they take common forms that can also be seen in how people deal (or don’t deal) with garbage.

For instance, some people don’t know how to reduce the amount of trash they put out each week. Others believe that there’s nothing they can do as individuals to address a global problem. Many more would say that they’re already doing their part by recycling, or perhaps they’re simply stuck in the habit of buying convenient, packaging-heavy food week after week. All normal thoughts, but change can’t happen unless individuals push past them and act in more environmentally friendly ways. “I use voting as a parallel,” Gifford says. “One vote ‘doesn’t matter’ — but collectively, it does. And so we must vote.”

For Katelin Leblond, 37, in Victoria, the dragons were that she didn’t know it was possible to live without a garbage can and that her smaller pro-environmental actions felt meaningless. Then one day in January 2014, she came across a video about Bea Johnson. “I equate it to my Oprah Winfrey a-ha moment,” she says. “There was no turning back.” She dove right in, going through her house and putting everything she thought she could donate or give away into one room. She shared her enthusiasm with her husband and children (like Johnson, she also has a dog), as well as her good friend Tara Smith-Arnsdorf, whose family also joined in on the transformation.

“My perspective on life has changed,” says Leblond. “Just because society says we do things one way doesn’t mean that it has to be the way.” Over time, living and shopping with less waste results in a simpler life, with fewer, cherished objects instead of materialistic mountains of things.

Smith-Arnsdorf agrees. “We have less clutter in our brains and less clutter in our homes,” she says. “It gives us more time to spend with our families and friends creating experiences rather than worrying about stuff.”

They decided to start a blog (paredownhome.com) to get the word out about zero waste and let people know that the lifestyle is attainable. While they’d love for everyone to also go to their extreme of having no garbage can, they mostly want to challenge and inspire people to take a look at their own habits and cut down in ways that make sense for them.

There’s some evidence that people who act in environmentally friendly ways can inspire those around them to follow suit. Gifford and then-PhD student Reuven Sussman studied composting behaviour at restaurants and food courts. While signs about what to do had no effect on the number of people who put their food waste in the green bin, those who saw an actor compost before them were significantly more likely to do so themselves. “The social implications of this are that one way to inspire pro-environmental behaviours is to simply do them and talk about them whenever possible,” they wrote. “Leading by example seems to be an effective strategy for behaviour change in others.”

Leblond is full of great advice for those who aren’t sure where to begin: define your own rules, make one change at a time, create a tangible goal for how little garbage you want to put on the curb this week. “Just start,” she says. 

My first step is to rethink the garbage I’ve created recently. Instead of throwing out a coffee cup, a toothbrush, produce stickers or a pasta bag, I can plan ahead and find alternatives: bring a thermos to the coffee shop, order a plastic-free bamboo toothbrush from Amazon, shop at my local farmers’ market for produce, pack a mason jar to buy pasta in bulk. Or at least choose the recyclable box container instead. It’s all about making one change at a time, and I’m ready to start.

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