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How to realistically join the Zero Waste movement, without going full granola

(Laura Mitulla/Unsplash)

If the Zero Waste movement has an official mascot, it’s the mason jar. Plastic abhorring people bring them to the grocery store to load up on bulk lentils or granola, they’re used as water glasses and earth friendly containers to pack office bound lunches. But the most zealous Zero Wasters boast that they throw away such a small amount of garbage they can fit a year’s worth into a single mason jar. Which can be a little extreme and intimidating for the average person looking for inspiration to reduce waste in their homes.

“There’s been a lot of talk of rejecting the trash jar concept on social media, which I’m really glad about,” said Seattle’s April Dickinson, known as the Zero Waste Dork on Instagram.

A few years ago, Dickinson was inspired to reduce her family’s waste after watching a documentary series on CNN.

“I saw that and I thought, oh my god, we have to change everything. My partner saw it and he was like, ‘Neat. Next show.’ So it’s been a little bit of a challenge going at it on my own.”

I wanted to feature Dickinson in this story because her quest to go zero waste is realistic. She doesn’t measure her success in mason jars. She just does as much as she can. Dickinson’s partner and two young children are not as gung ho on reducing waste because it means giving up some of the quick and easy conveniences they love. So she started with small changes.

“I knew that we did not need to buy any more of those little cute, individually wrapped slices of cheese. We loved those because you could pop them in your backpack. Individually wrapping two bites of cheese is not great. And then I also eliminated things like fruit snacks and granola bars. We went to the bulk section and found snacks that easily replaced those items. They found options that they love and they don’t even think about fruit snacks and granola bars anymore.”

As Zero Waste becomes more popular and trendy, companies are starting to commercialize the movement by making you believe you need to buy certain products in order to use less plastic.

“For instance, [reusable] produce bags. You could go on Amazon and buy a pack of produce bags. But you could also take one plastic produce bag and reuse it many, many times. That’s free. Really think about putting value back into things that we already own. Maybe there is something in your house you can repurpose.”

For Dickinson it’s all about balance. She makes her own deodorant to avoid the plastic packaging but she lets her kids have sauce packets when they get fast food nuggets.

“For laundry, this fall I harvested chestnuts from my driveway. You can make a laundry detergent from dried chestnuts. So I’ve been using that. Pretty unusual and you obviously need to have access to those chestnuts.”

She bakes her own bread but draws the line at making homemade yogurt.

“Just by being a little bit more thoughtful about things that seem really wasteful, you can actually reduce by quite a bit and still not feel like you have to be a total granola munching tree hugger.”

There are things she’s given up that she misses, like potato chips. Potato chip bags are not recyclable and the chips are not sold in bulk. She also recognizes that it would be nearly impossible for people from other cultures to give up the foods they cook with, since the bulk section offers limited options.

“I’m bi-racial, I’m half Chinese, and there are some Chinese snacks I really wish I could find zero waste. I just don’t buy them anymore. I let my mom and my aunts buy it and I’ll eat it sometimes when I’m with them.”

Stay tuned for the second half of my little zero waste series. I’ll tell you about a few places that allow you to buy cleaning and beauty products in bulk.

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