Basics: Zero Waste

Welcome, friends. In the interest of making this blog as educational as possible (I am wearing my glasses rather than my contacts at the moment, which definitely ups the academic flavor), I figured I’d include some basics of veganism and zero waste for those of the beginner variety who could use a quick course in the basics. (And also for those seasoned veterans who like to read things they already know so as to nod sagely and say, “I knew that.”)

So today, let’s talk about Zero Waste, covering such burning questions as, “What is Zero Waste?” “What’s the deal with plastic?” and “Food and methane, whaaaa?”

Let us begin.

What is Zero Waste?

A more appropriate name would be “low waste” or “lower waste,” because actually attaining a “zero” waste lifestyle is probably possible only if you are dead, and if you’re dead, you probably have more pressing concerns than the world’s increasingly unsustainable plastic production.

But putting semantics aside, a Zero Waste Lifestyle basically means that you’re striving to create as little waste in your daily life as possible, and you are particularly avoiding products made from materials that won’t biodegrade for a zillion billion years [citation needed], like that unholy demon beast of waste, plastic.

The low-down on plastic

Plastic has made a lot of things possible (or so the ads tell me), and it’s especially useful in the medical field, where having sterile, disposable materials is vital for protecting patients during vulnerable times. Unfortunately, we’re also using plastic for Every Other Thing Ever, and this is a problem simply because plastic does not go away. Every piece of plastic that has ever been produced is still in the world today in some form or another, and it will continue to be there for the next thousand years or longer.

Just think about that for a sec. Think about the toothbrushes you’ve thrown away, the plastic wrappers, the plastic bags, the plastic cutlery, the plastic everything. It’s all still out there, and we’re still making more and more and more of it, and we only have so much space to put it in. Someday, sentient cockroach people are going to be cursing the stupid ape-men for clogging up their planet with plastic debris, and that’s on us, people. The sadness of the cockroach people is on us.

Plastic does break down a bit, but it doesn’t go away – it just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces until it becomes so small that we call it “microplastic,” and then it’s just small enough to be eaten by animals, birds, and fish, to end up in our drinking water, and to just generally spread to everywhere and everything like the annoying pop song of the waste world.

Okay, fine, so plastic is bad. I’ll stop using plastic, like, yesterday.

Great. But you should also be keeping an eye on your food waste.

Wha? But food decomposes. I know, because it’s currently doing it in the back of my fridge in that tupperware container I’m afraid to open.

Yes. Everyone knows that food decomposes, so they don’t worry about throwing it away. But here’s the thing. Things can only decompose under certain conditions, and stuffed into a plastic garbage bag and piled in the toxic air of a dump doesn’t exactly meet those conditions. So the food rots, and you know what it releases? Methane. Food waste makes up a startlingly large percentage of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

Fine! I’ll eat every piece of food in my fridge, even the scary sludge in the tupperware, so I won’t have to throw anything away.

I mean, that’d be great, but a better solution is to do a few simple things. First, don’t buy more food than you need. Second, eat the food you do buy. Third, if you’re able to get a compost bin and turn the food to compost, definitely do that – it’s the best way to break the food down and also turn it into a lovely meal for someone’s garden. 

If you can’t do that, then do what I do: Put your food scraps in a container in the freezer, and then dump it into a compost collection bin when you’re out and about. Natural food stores like Whole Foods and MOM’s have these, farmer’s markets have these, or you can use the Share Waste App to find someone in your area who could use your food scraps. 

Personally, I bring my scraps with me every week when I go to the grocery store, dump them in the compost bin when I’m on my way into the store, and then go about my shopping.

Okay. But, like, almost everything we use is made of plastic. How can we even live without it?

Unless you move to a self-sustaining cabin in the woods, you probably can’t, but you can reduce your use of it hugely. The thing is, once you start noticing the plastic around you, you start to realize how ridiculously ubiquitous it is, and this can feel pretty overwhelming. 

My advice, thus, is to take it slow. Look at different aspects of your life in small chunks and see what you can do, then when that’s done, see what else you can do. Take it slow and do what you can.

In future posts, I’ll talk about different things you can do to reduce your waste in various parts of your life, but for today, I’ll just talk about a few things I do.

  1. Grocery shopping: When I go to the grocery store, I bring cloth shopping bags, cloth produce bags, and a ton of mismatched jars and containers to fill with stuff from the bulk bins. As I mentioned above, I also bring a freezer bag full of food scraps from the week, which I dump into the compost bin at the store, then bring the bag home, put it back in the freezer, and begin again.
  2. Clothes: I used to throw clothes away when they got a hole in them; now, I try to repair them, and if I can’t, I cut them up and use them as rags or handkerchiefs. I had a T-shirt that had stretched so much that it had become rather risque in its thinness, so I cut it up into squares and now use those squares as cloth tissues. Now, before you say, “Ew, gross,” let me explain the Highly Scientific System I have developed. These tissues are neatly folded and kept in a little cloth bag in my shoulder bag. When I need to make use of one, I do so, then stick it into another little bag that’s only for used tissues. On laundry day, I dump the used ones into the wash, and they come out clean, beautiful, and ready for another week of dabbing my dainty snot-filled nose.
  3. Ditch the paper towels: I use cloth rags to clean up messes, dish towels to dry my hands, and scrubby rags to wash dishes. No paper towels or disposable sponges required.

Questions, comments, or existential crises about sentient cockroach people? Drop me a comment below – I’ll be sitting here staring expectantly at the screen until you do so.

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