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Avoiding the Disposable Notion: My Waste-Free Month

How do you feel about the Starbucks holiday cup? Being a holiday season enthusiast, I used to be tickled as the barista handed over that red cup, because it meant the most wonderful time of the year was right around the corner. A paper cup filled with hot liquid makes me feel happy, content. But those warm and fuzzies bring about an unsettling problem: I am a hypocrite.

Exhibit A: My guilty pleasure. The straw necessary for sipping and walking without mess…

Exhibit A: My guilty pleasure. The straw necessary for sipping and walking without mess…

If you know me well, you might know that I love garbage. If you don’t, then I’ll tell you that in line with architecture, I have a passion for waste diversion (I even wrote my graduate thesis around the topic). Many methods for diversion are habitual; recycling, composting, buying bulk, re-using anything possible like foil, plastic bags, water bottles, old t-shirts, making my own deodorant and cleaning products, etc…. Yet even with all these efforts, including cringing at displays of coffee-cup filled garbage cans, this is my favorite way to drink coffee (see photo). Revelation one.

Revelation two: “You have such beautiful, clean teeth,” says every hygienist, ever in my dental history. Well that’s because, per cultural norm, I brush twice and floss once every day. This has been routine for nearly three decades, which means I’ve consumed approximately 120 tubes of toothpaste, 103 toothbrushes, and 5,500 yards (or 55 football fields) of dental floss, all of which have gone to sit (forever) in a landfill because I didn’t know any means for recycling them, or just assumed there weren’t any. Yuck.

“If you don’t like the way the world is you change it. You just do it one step at a time.” –Mark Twain

Whether to avoid hypocrisy, or just do better, I needed a change and so commenced a self-imposed challenge: one month of landfill-free living.

The Five R’s

Landfill-free living means I wouldn’t contribute waste to the landfill either at home or in the office, and all my consumption would be guided by the 5R’s instead of usual three: Recycle, Reduce, Reuse, plus Refuse and Rot (Bae Johnson outlines these nicely in her book “Zero Waste Life”). Other people have done this for years or months living in New York City and with families (see an extreme case, No Impact Man, or other hypocrites like the 23-year-old New Yorker to name a couple), so how hard could it be for one person, in Portland, of all places?

Exhibit B: This is a list of some of the items that I knew would be pests to find alternatives for. Everything circled, I failed with finding solutions other than to just avoid them completely. The crossed-out items I was able to divert or avoid by using alternative methods or products.

Exhibit B: This is a list of some of the items that I knew would be pests to find alternatives for. Everything circled, I failed with finding solutions other than to just avoid them completely. The crossed-out items I was able to divert or avoid by using alternative methods or products.

As the resident “tree-hugger” among friends and family, I fancy myself a conscious consumer and garbage slinger, so although I knew there would be real challenges, I didn’t think it would be hard to change a few habits that narrowed my waste stream. To prepare I thought of all the annoying garbage producers in my life, see image above.

Exhibit C: Some of my biggest waste comes from decisions to live a certain type of lifestyle. Taking care of this charming animal, for example, leads to three poop bags a week headed to the landfill. Composting cat waste is possible, but frowned upon, and you need a use for it once it’s composted, like for flower beds, which I don’t have.

Exhibit C: Some of my biggest waste comes from decisions to live a certain type of lifestyle. Taking care of this charming animal, for example, leads to three poop bags a week headed to the landfill. Composting cat waste is possible, but frowned upon, and you need a use for it once it’s composted, like for flower beds, which I don’t have.

Revelation three: It is hard. It’s even harder to accept that your best just has to be your best, and not the best, because the best doesn’t seem possible with our cultural situation. Living without or with less of anything takes preparedness to a different level, it takes commitment and time. Throwing something in the garbage at most takes good aim.

So here’s the thing: I love the earth, but there are parts of my life that I don’t plan on changing. Until I start growing my own kale and chard, it will always come bundled in twist ties at the store. If I want to buy meat, it will come wrapped in plastic-coated paper, or plastic that is wrapped in paper. And if I want to maintain my clean teeth, I can buy compostable silk floss online, but it will arrive in a mountain of packaging, and its container will, of course, be made of plastic!

All this makes me mad, sometimes hopeless, so I have to keep reminding myself to “take one step at a time” and reflect on the small, sometimes unconventional, steps I took to reduce my landfill waste:

“R”efuse

  • Produce from chain stores. I shopped for fruits and vegetables at farmers markets to avoid those pesky waste-producing stickers
  • Traditional meat buying. New Seasons and Whole Foods wouldn’t put meat in my own reusable containers because of the Health Code. I bought as much as possible from a ranch that sells frozen meat because the packaging could be recycled or composted.
  • Store-bought broths or nut milks because they can’t be fully recycled. It takes a lot more time, but homemade just tastes better anyway!
  • Take-out food. This was a particularly bad habit at work, walking to the store for to-go lunch. Instead, I chose to eat-in at the store. Note: Whole Foods in the Pearl only has disposable water cups and silverware!
  • Nail varnish. You can’t compost a cotton ball with nail polish remover on it. Unfortunately I painted my nails right before this experiment.. They’ve looked better.
  • Paper towels and napkins. Instead, I wore a lot of scarves and absorbent dark clothing for drying hands or wiping face.
  • Packaging: I avoided anything that came pre-packaged (no chips, bread, ice cream, etc.)

“R”educe

  • Meat purchases. I need meat for nutritional purposes, so when I did buy it from the grocery store, I asked for it in plastic only. At home, I can rinse the plastic bags and recycle them through Far West Fibers.
  • Use of the garbage bin. Sounds obvious, but this reduces your landfill contribution two-fold: first by not having a bin full of garbage, and two, by not using a plastic bag to contain the garbage.
  • Purchasing any socks until after the month is over. Just kidding! But I didn’t buy any products that came with tags on plastic hangers.
Exhibit D: These "BioPak" containers are at every grocery store, touting their environmentally friendly design. That is, until you get back to your office and realize, "Crap, I have to throw this away… it’s not recyclable in Portland."

Exhibit D: These “BioPak” containers are at every grocery store, touting their environmentally friendly design. That is, until you get back to your office and realize, “Crap, I have to throw this away… it’s not recyclable in Portland.”

“R”e-use

  • Chicken bones to make chicken stock and bone broths, for example.
  • Twist ties. I offered these back at the farmers market and was shut down. “I know, just one of those things…” I was told. They can’t re-use them. However, a few that I collected over the month are helping hold my bike fenders on.

“R”ecycle

  • Continue good recycling habits and searching for areas of improvement.

“R”ot

  • Compost dryer lint and vacuum cleaner dust.
  • Compost cotton rounds, Q-tips, Kleenex.
  • Compost my new silk floss.
  • Continue composting food and yard waste.
  • If getting a take-away coffee cup, choose compostable cups and bring them home to compost.

Revelation four: There is no un-knowing what you know now. I can name the items of trash I created for one month: a few plastic seals from glass jars, a couple plastic lids, some twist ties, one BioPak container from a deadline night, and two plastic forks from my eat-in adventures (side note: I still haven’t found a new way to dispose of cat waste, so there was that too).

For one month I didn’t have to take out the trash and instead recycled or resourced. Conscious consumption is a part of my life and I like it that way.

7 Comments

  1. If you live in a single-family home, or a place where you are responsible for your own curb-side trash collection, cancel it. You will learn quickly way to reduce your impact. I cancelled curb-side service over a year ago. Now I shop much more thoughtfully and I save hundreds of dollars in garbage collection fees.

    • Katie Felver says |

      Thanks Michael for the great advice! I’ll put this in my mental bank for the day I have a single-family home, and a housemate that would accept the challenge. I do wonder if landlords that pay for garbage service would ever negotiate some rent for savings on declining the service and saving them money?

  2. Shelby Schroeder says |

    Katie, you’ve highlighted a few behaviors I could start to change (using to-go containers and disposable coffee cups). If you can go (practically) waste-free for a whole month, I can start using Tupperware and reusable mugs! Great blog post.

  3. Nicole Carruth says |

    Instead of getting your clothing dirty, you could always keep a cloth napkin around. They come in different fabrics and can be thrown in the wash. Plus, they last a lifetime.

  4. Katie,
    Your adventure is very inspiring and you are absolutely right, you can’t unlearn what you know. One major impact you had was with your conversations about these challenges. Talking to the company about their compostable floss that comes in a non-compostable package; the farmer about not taking the twist ties back and how ridiculous that is; the butcher and his use of plastic coated paper. All of these conversations shed light on the silliness that exists in our society and hopefully encourages these individuals or companies to ponder what they could do to change that. There is tremendous power in contacting a company and expressing your concerns for why their products don’t measure up. It can be transformative.

    Great job. Very captivating and motivating.

  5. I am just about to begin my 40 days with no waste experiment. You’re story is just the motivation I needed to hear. Wish me luck!

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