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Living the zero waste life begins with trashing how we deal with garbage

According to the EPA, the average American produces 4.4 pounds of garbage per day. Thinkstock / Special to The Forum1 / 2
At St. Paul’s Keg and Case West 7th Market in February, Amber Haukedahl, left, and Kate Marnach hang out at a pop-up version of their zero-waste shop, Tare Market, which is scheduled to open in South Minneapolis on Earth Day weekend. 2 / 2

If you decided to stop throwing away the items that come into your life, what would your life look like?

Life might become … delicious.

Take zero waster Erin Pavlica’s example.

When a friend recently gave the mom some extra milk — too much even for her family of six to drink quickly enough — Pavlica got creative.

“I’m making rice pudding,” she said from her kitchen on a recent winter day.

This is the joy that comes from living lightly: bowls full of kheer — Indian rice pudding — for the whole family.

It’s not just joy, though, but concern that prompt Pavlica and others like her to live as close to “zero” as possible when it comes to waste of any kind — to first refuse and re-use and reduce; and then, if those choices aren’t possible, to recycle and to rot (compost).

Why?

“We can’t just keep doing what we are doing to the planet,” Pavlica says. “It scares me, because I have these four kids. Someone needs to raise kids who compost, right?”

MOM ZERO

The “zero waste” movement that is going mainstream began with Bea Johnson, a native of France and a current resident of Mill Valley, Calif. Johnson, the author of “Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life By Reducing Your Waste,” is perhaps best known as the woman who can fit her family of four’s annual trash output inside a single Mason jar — but a decade ago she was on a solitary search for answers.

“My husband and I wanted to adopt a more eco-friendly way of living because we wanted a better future for our children,” says Johnson. “We watched our energy and water consumption, but I started questioning myself about the amount of trash we produced.”

This was 2008. At that time, there wasn’t much advice out there. At least, not in the typical Google search.

“Ten years ago, ‘zero waste’ was a term used in the manufacturing or municipal waste management world to describe waste management practices,” Johnson says. “It was not a term used at home.”

But, when Johnson happened across it, she connected with it.

“The term ‘zero waste’ gave me a goal,” Johnson says, “and that goal was zero.”

Johnson’s mission began to go mainstream after she and her “anti-garbage blog” began to catch the attention of publications like the New York Times, which dubbed her the “Priestess of Waste-Free Living.”

“My neighbor Bea produces no garbage,” the story began. “I am serious. None. It’s like some kind of amazing magic trick …”

Now, a decade later, most of us have heard of “zero waste” as a concept and Johnson is a best-selling author, a lifestyle expert, an international speaker, a social media influencer (now blogging at ZeroWasteHome.com) and a zero-waste icon who wants all of us to try and “refuse, reduce, re-use, recycle and rot” our way down to zero, too.

“My vocation is to shatter the misconceptions with this lifestyle,” Johnson says, “and for it to grow as big, as far and as wide as possible. … It’s an issue that unites us all.”

ZERO WASTE IN FIVE STEPS

Johnson explains how 5 “Rs” can equal zero.

Step one: Refuse: “Refuse what you do not need,” Johnson says. “Every time we accept something, we are creating a demand to make more.”

Those sample-sized hotel shampoo freebies you take home, for example, or a restaurant straw you use but don’t need.

“A straw in a glass is a way of saying, ‘I agree with straws, I want more straws to be created,’ ” Johnson says. “When you learn to say no to these things, you are not only stopping the demand, you are stopping the cluttering of your space and it becoming your trash problem.”

Step two: Reduce: “By letting go of all of the things you don’t need in your home,” Johnson says, “you make them available to the community.”

Johnson uses clothes as an example.

“I was a big fashionista,” she says, “but over time, I realized I didn’t need so many pairs of shoes or items of clothing in order to be creative. Now I have 15 super multifunctional pieces that I can use to create more than 50 looks. It’s been really freeing — and another perk is that each member of my family can pack what they need to travel in a carry-on bag.”

Johnson’s reduction took place in the kitchen, too, and we don’t mean fancy French sauces.

“Next to my stove, I had 10 wooden spoons in a jar, but I only used one,” she says. “I thought, ‘What is the point of 10?’ Now, I just have one.”

Step Three: Re-use: “There’s a reusable alternative for anything that is disposable now,” Johnson says. “Rags instead of paper towels; handkerchiefs instead of tissues; cloth napkins instead of paper napkins; menstrual cups instead of pads or tampons.”

Buying secondhand is also reusing. Johnson, a mother of two sons — one in college, one about to graduate from high school — understands the challenges of finding acceptable secondhand items for kids (especially teenagers). But it’s definitely possible.

“When my son’s teacher required a scientific calculator, we fell back on eBay,” she says. “Select ‘used’ for the search. We just made sure to ask the seller to use cardboard and not ship it in Styrofoam peanuts.”

She’s done the same with pre-owned athletic shoes for her growing boys.

“I think people collect athletic shoes,” Johnson says, “so we’ve been able to purchase secondhand shoes this way that have never been used.”

Step Four: Recycle: In Johnson’s home and life, the goal is to avoid having to recycle something in the first place. For example, she and her family were recently away from home, visiting a college with her younger son. What was the plan if they needed to stop for a snack at a gas station/convenience store?

“I have selective vision now,” she says. “I no longer see available, packaged foods — I only look for unpackaged foods. Convenience stores usually have an awesome selection of beef jerky in bulk. If you look, you’ll see.”

Along with selective vision, Johnson packs other items to make recycling unnecessary.

“When we eat out, we pick real restaurants that use real flatware and real plates,” she says. “But for food on the go, we each have a cloth bag when we travel and a thermos for all our drinks.”

This way, the family does not need to recycle plastic bags, plastic bottles or other items picked up along the way. But sometimes, recycling is necessary: School paperwork that finds its way into their home, for example, or supplies related to her husband’s contact lenses.

“But we recycle way less than we used to,” Johnson says. “The container (for recyclables) we use is small enough to go under the sink.”

Step Five: Rot: “The last ‘R’ is rot or composting, which people get grossed out by,” says Johnson. “But I have to say that composting is the complete opposite. With this global movement comes global systems. I have found composting very satisfying.”

In her book, Johnson writes of her own family’s experience: “Over time we’ve tried three different types of composting. We started with an open aerobic compost; we then added a worm composting bin; later, we adopted the city compost, letting go of our original open compost.”

ZERO WASTERS

It’s not always about compost bins. Circumstances sometimes lead people to consume and discard less stuff — even take up less space.

This was the case for John Torgerson.

“I stumbled upon it,” Torgerson said of the zero waste lifestyle.“I became a frugalist after the Great Recession.”

Just like a car doesn’t go from zero to highway speeds in a single moment, neither does a person usually go from purchasing and discarding typical amounts to none at all in a single day.

“I purchased less,” Torgerson says of his beginnings. “I stopped buying things I didn’t need.”

He also stopped needing to buy some things at all.

“I grew my own garden,” says Torgerson. “I grew my own vegetables one summer.”

He also rethought his housing.

“At the time, I had a much bigger house — a three-bedroom, two-story home in Battle Creek that was just for me,” he says. “I filled it with stuff — so I could have a fully furnished house for the sake of appearances. I realized I did not need all that space and all that stuff.”

A decade later, his life doesn’t look like that anymore.

“My partner and I share less space than I lived in alone,” says Torgerson. “We live in a home that is less than 900 square feet. So we consume less energy (it costs less to heat) and we buy fewer consumer-related products for the home. We also don’t feel that we have to fill the entire space up. It’s like restricting your food — you begin to realize it’s not the end of the world to feel hungry sometimes.”

It just makes life easier.

“If you refuse to bring crap in, you don’t have to worry about composting it or recycling it or throwing away things you never had in the first place,” Torgerson says.

Take his trash, for example.

“Trash is obviously the worst-case scenario,” he says. “But we were able to go from a large weekly bin to the smallest bin picked up every other week. “This, just by tackling our own spending, and purchasing fewer and better products.”

For more information on living smaller, go to Torgerson’s website at BetterJones.com.

ZERO WASTE

“We are passionate about waste reduction,” Kristina Mattson told the attendees of a February virtual meeting for Zero Waste Saint Paul.

Mattson and her co-chairs, Erin Pavlica and Melissa Wenzel, have been focusing their passions on supporting sustainable to-go packaging. It’s an example of how they are “bridging waste reduction awareness with action through advocacy, connection and education.” Or, using an acronym: “We want to A.C.E. zero waste,” Mattson says.

It’s bigger than this trio of women, though: Currently, there are 702 people who like their page on Facebook and 598 members of the associated Connections Group. In the Connections Group, the topics extend beyond biodegradable packaging. They talk about everything from zero-friendly pancake mixes to how to deal with pet waste to whether caps on plastic bottles are recyclable. A recent thread discussed what to do with an old hoodie with a broken zipper.

There’s also inspiration posted here, like this quote: “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”

Mattson gave an example from her own home.

“We are in a compromise right now over tissues,” Mattson says. “I use handkerchiefs, but my husband wants to use tissues. So our compromise is that he uses compostable tissues.”

And just because the goal is zero, that doesn’t mean everyone is always at zero.

“We throw away about one grocery-store-sized bag a month,” Pavlica says. “It’s usually packaging in my garbage. I do avoid excessive packaging, but with kids going to school …”

She pauses and considers holidays. “It’s hard to be too hard-core when you have kids. Halloween is a nightmare for zero waste.”

She has a resource for the remnants of the treats, though.

“I have found a place, TerraCycle, that recycles those small candy wrappers,” she says.

The wrappers must be mailed in, which brings Pavlica to another reality of her lifestyle.

“People think my home is going to look empty,” she says. “But there’s a lot of hoarding going on when you’re a zero waster. I’m collecting a lot of our stuff to divert to weird recycling programs.”

Even if you’re currently still throwing away wrappers, everyone is welcome in this group.

“I’ve been reassuring new members I’m not a purist,” Wenzel says. “I can do better.”

She is doing pretty well, though — she doesn’t have a car, she commutes by bicycle (yes, even in the winter). Still …

“This is a judgment-free zone,” Wenzel says.

As individuals, though, the group does influence each other. Take coffee cups, for example.

Mattson noticed that Pavlica would abstain from coffee if she did not have her to-go mug with her or if the place where they were meeting only offered disposable cups.

“Erin provided the modeling behavior for me to step it up a notch,” says Mattson. “I thought, ‘If she can do it, I can do it, too.’ ”

And she has.

“I had used my own BYO (bring-your-own) coffee cup intermittently before this,” Mattson says.

She almost always does now.

“I have only used three (disposable) cups in the last 18 months,” says Mattson.

It’s not that hard to do, she says. It just takes a little concentration — and a little support from each other.

“This is not fringe behavior,” she says of their efforts. “This is normal behavior. … We’re not looking for perfection, we’re looking for progress.”

TARE MARKET

Keg and Case West 7th Market in St. Paul was bustling as usual on a Saturday morning in February — especially around a pop-up shop for Minnesota’s first zero waste market.

“We had a line when we opened,” said co-founder Amber Haukedahl.

Haukedahl and Kate Marnach plan to open the permanent version of their “package free and (re) fill” shop on Earth Day weekend.

It’s a zero-to-60 turnaround for the friends who met through blogging about this lifestyle.

“Amber and I met last February,” Marnach says. “It’s been a quick journey.”

However, Marnach says, “Amber and I have always been environmentalists.” Haukedahl is a conservation biologist; Marnach has a degree in biology.

Until recently, they thought they were pretty green.

“We were good recyclers!” Marnach says.

It was Marnach’s children that got her to see things differently.

“When I had kids,” Marnach says, “there was a big epiphany. I started to notice our trash and how fast it was building up, especially the packaged foods that I fell into buying as a pure convenience.”

As she learned more, she became more concerned.

“We think when we haul our recycling to the curb, it’s taken care of,” she says.

She also became alarmed at what happens when food is tossed in the trash.

“I thought it got broken down and composted in the landfill,” she says. “That’s not how it works — in that anaerobic environment, it becomes petrified and releases methane, a really strong greenhouse gas. Or, if trash is burned, if we are burning trash, it causes poor air quality and releases toxins.”

She realized that “really, the answer is not to be producing trash in the first place.”

Marnach and a friend started blogging about living zero waste with kids at Zeroish.org; Haukedahl was also blogging over at Zerowasted.net. As she stood at Tare Market’s pop-up shop, Haukedahl talked about one fact that stunned her back when she took a class at Seward Co-Op called “Zero Waste Grocery Shopping.”

“Every plastic toothbrush you’ve ever used,” she says, “is sitting in a landfill, not decomposing.”

It stunned her, to think of that personal plastic toll on the planet.

“That’s what made me consider the environmental ramifications of my waste,” she says.

Through their shop, the bloggers-turned-business partners hope to help everyone go about their lives more lightly. Their stated mission: “At Tare Market, we want to make sustainable living convenient and accessible to all people, so as a community we can decrease our environmental impact.”

WHERE TO START

You don’t have to go “cold turkey” when it comes to nixing your own trash production.

Instead, start here:

“The trash audit is a good place for people to start,” Marnach says. “In a trash audit, you look at the trash you produce.”

By tracking what you toss, especially food, it might help shape what you bring into the house — buying less of something, for example. Or, buying groceries in a different way.

“I began to shop in the bulk section to avoid packaging,” says Marnach. “Or buying peanut butter in glass jars instead of plastic.”

Marnach also stopped throwing food into the trash can.

“I learned to compost,” she says.

For Marnach’s suburban family of five, the food changes really made a difference.

“My family reduced our trash by 70 percent,” she says.

It also helps that the family uses a compostable diaper service, Do Good Diapers, but starting by doing something is better than nothing.

“It can feel overwhelming to make a lot of lifestyle changes all at once,” says Marnach. “So tackle one thing at a time. It’s an evolution. The more you do, the easier it gets.”

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