Lessons in Zero Waste: Shopping and Living

Plans for a package-free grocery store in Brooklyn, plus tips for a sustainable lifestyle from Lauren Singer.

Lauren Singer is a presenter at Wanderlust Hollywood and Wanderlust Festivals. For more information, click here

Observe for a moment, if you will, your trash can, and its contents.

How many trash bins do you have in your home? You probably have more than one, possibly even one in every room. Now, observe your refrigerator and cabinets, stacked with groceries and cooking supplies, most of which are likely packaged products. More often than not, this packaging is not sustainable nor recyclable. So, whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re frequently subjected to producing a lot of unnecessary waste.

Lauren Singer, a Zero Waste guru and founder of The Simply Co. says your trash can actually be pretty telling. “Look into your garbage can and go through it to see what you’re throwing out,” she says. “Because you can’t start reducing your trash if you don’t know what trash you’re making.”

Cutting back on the amount of waste we as individuals produce will help our planet, and, in turn, future generations. As the Zero Waste movement continues to grow, particularly among eco-conscious and mindful consumers, it’s something you really should consider. If you are looking to make a positive change—both for yourself and for the Earth—adopt a zero waste lifestyle. Why wouldn’t you want to carry out a considerate act that even your planet will thank you for? Mother Nature breathes a sigh of relief as the number of environmentally-conscious people grows.

Sarah Metz and The Fillery

Joining in on the waste-free movement is Sarah Metz, who has been living in Brooklyn for the past decade. As someone who cares deeply about the environment, Metz dreamed up The Fillery, a zero waste friendly, package-free grocery store, as a means to reduce waste after observing the immense amount of it in her neighborhood.

After a successful Kickstarter campaign for The Fillery, Metz is looking forward to playing a part in creating a package-free Brooklyn. In The Fillery’s press release she says: “12,000 tons of waste is created in New York City every day. By opening a package-free pantry staple and specialty grocery store, I hope to be a small part of a movement that will reduce waste in our city.” The Fillery is set to open in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn this summer.

Package-free stores have been popping up across the globe in places like Europe, and are slowly but surely starting to make their way over to the states (Colorado and Texas participate too). At The Fillery, food will be available for purchase without the unnecessary packaging. With self-serve containers, bins, and dispensers, patrons will be able to buy exactly what they need, eliminating excess and waste. In time you’ll be able to walk into The Fillery in Brooklyn and use your own reusable containers or utilize the reusable or compostable options in the store.

Metz provides some insight as to how she personally minimizes waste:

“By composting my food scraps and some paper products, shopping the bulk aisle when possible, avoiding packaged produce, and reusing or recycling other containers, it’s actually quite easy to send very little waste to the landfill.”

What Zero Waste Living Is

So, what exactly is zero waste living, and what does it entail?

At its core, a zero waste lifestyle means living without producing any trash. That is to say, that the “waste” you do produce is not making its way to a garbage can or landfill, rather it is compostable or recyclable.

To help explain, we’ll start with an introduction to where most trash ends up: landfills. Landfills are mystical places where waste just disappears, right? Well, truth be told, most people don’t really know what they actually are. Singer explains:

“Landfills are like little sealed pockets of stuff that doesn’t biodegrade. Not only do they not biodegrade, they kind of just sit there, and what happens is they start to release methane gas. Which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.”

Knowledge is power, people. So, rather than contributing to the production of these potent gases floating out into the atmosphere, consider composting. Or, as Singer suggests, just “try to eliminate that trash all together.”

“Say no to single-use disposables.” – Lauren Singer

It can be intimidating to make a change that sounds as drastic as eliminating all trash from your life. How does one even begin to tackle such a challenge?

Singer recommends “picking at the low-hanging fruit.” Which is another way of saying start small. Begin with “little, one-time decisions that have a big impact,” she says. Singer provides some practical, easy tips:

“Say no to single-use disposables … say no to straws, and just drink your drink without one. Do things like saying no to plastic bags and using reusable bags, or saying no to single-use coffee cups and using a reusable coffee cup, or a reusable water bottle. Just avoid anything that’s single-use and replace it with a durable, long-term use thing.”

You may be doing some of these things already without even realizing you’re taking steps toward a zero waste lifestyle. If you’re looking for a place to start or more information, check out Singer’s blog, Trash is for Tossers, where she shares many different options to eliminate waste.

What Zero Waste Living Is Not

There are, as to be expected, some misconceptions surrounding the zero waste lifestyle.

The most common? That it’s expensive. Do you know what’s more expensive, though? Spending countless dollars on food and products that inherently go to waste. CNN reported on how 40 percent of food waste in the United States translated into dollars, stating that it amounts “to $165 billion a year in waste.” Let that thought sink in and burn a hole in your pocket for a moment. More is not always better.

And actually, according to Singer, you may save money.

“I live on a really tight budget, I don’t spend very much money at all. In fact, for my groceries I probably spend about $40 a week, and I eat all organic and really sustainably. You actually save a lot of money through living zero waste, which is something that people don’t typically think.”

Zero waste living may seem a little difficult, uncomfortable, or maybe even weird at first, particularly if you (like many others) don’t think too much about the packaging surrounding your favorite products. A misconception is that this lifestyle is not possible. Well I can tell you this: Trying out a zero waste lifestyle is eye-opening, to say the least. I gave it a whirl at a local store and realized just how difficult it is to try and go package-free in your typical retail environment. I actually felt a bit strange and out of place—did I look weird in my attempts?

I shared my experience with Singer, and she said:

“Looking weird is the absolute coolest thing that can happen! What that means, when you look ‘weird,’ is that you’re showing someone something they’ve never seen before. Which means you’re opening their eyes to alternatives, and you’re teaching them something.”

By shopping at farmers markets or zero waste friendly stores like The Fillery, you’re doing a lot of good in one stop. You’re avoiding unnecessary food packaging, eliminating excess by purchasing just what you need, and you’re often buying real, organic, unprocessed foods. Your body will thank you just as much as your wallet, as Singer says: “[this lifestyle] helped me to not only save money on my grocery shopping, but to feel a lot better too. Because, when you eat real food, you feel good.” So, embrace the fact that you’re going against the norm, and use those reusable bags, bottles, and jars with pride. Compost and recycle the rest. Who knows, you could very well be the catalyst for change in someone else’s lifestyle.

Find out more about Lauren Singer’s Zero Waste lifestyle as well as how to lessen your environmental impact and lead a more sustainable life by watching her Speakeasy below. (You’ll also find out how little trash she has made in the past three years—it’s inspirational.)

Maggie Peikon bio2Maggie Peikon is a New York native, writer, and sufferer of insatiable wanderlust. An avid endorphin seeker she has a constant need to be moving, seeking adventure in all she does. She is a lover of travel, daydreaming, fitness, thunderstorms, and her dog, Finley. Despite the fact that she has to take medication daily due to a thyroidectomy, Maggie still believes that laughter will always be the best medicine. Follow her musings on Instagram and Twitter.