What I Learned from Going Trash-Free for 3 Months

I remember looking at my family’s recycling bin in the garage one day, filled to the brim with plastic water bottles. It suddenly hit me that all of those bottles will outlive me and my children and my children’s children. They’ll never biodegrade. I promptly added my own bottle to the pile and slunked back into the house.

Considering my impact on the environment is always a surefire way to send me on an all-expenses-paid guilt-trip. We’re constantly bombarded by warning voices– Neil Degrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, the yearly UN Climate Change conference — reminding and reminding and reminding us that the way we’re living just isn’t sustainable. It can be overwhelming to listen to alarms that say we’re killing our planet, yet offer few practical, truly impactful solutions that the average person can easily work into their daily life. Two years ago, I decided I needed to make a change. I spent an entire summer going virtually trash-free, save for the occasional plastic bag at the grocery store when I (for SHAME) forgot my reusable sacks.

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This lifestyle fell almost to pieces as soon as I started back to school. Between class, work, volunteering, club meetings, and social engagements that left me far too busy to make my own toothpaste or deodorant, my once-trash-free lifestyle again began to accumulate wrapper after plastic bottle after styrofoam takeout container. That being said, when my routine settled into a rhythm, I managed to recapture and conserve the following good habits to keep my trash output to a minimum–helping me to love Mother Earth, myself, and my spending habits a little more:

Shop smart

The base of our trash output is our consumerism. Our convenience-over-everything culture dictates that we consume and discard disposable (often plastic) packaging for almost every purchase we make–and it adds up quickly.

With this in mind, buy items you know you’ll need–and won’t go bad–in bulk (toilet paper, flour, dish-soap, salt, etc.). It’s not as cute or convenient as 12 tiny, individually wrapped paper towel rolls, but the more you buy at once, the less packaging you accumulate and the less money you ultimately spend.

For things with a shorter shelf life, buy unpackaged produce and grocery items when you can, and when that’s not an option, opt for metal, glass, or paper packaging where possible. And find creative ways to reuse packaging. I buy peanut butter in a glass jar, and when I finish the peanut butter, I repurpose the jars as water glasses and storage containers.

Don’t fall for the “green-looking” packaging. Think for yourself: Is this item/packaging really earth-friendly or am I being sold the suggestion of earth-friendliness? Just because the plastic package has a leaf on it, doesn’t make it any less of a plastic package or any better for the environment than its counterparts on the shelf.

Prep, prep, and prep some more

Do you get thirsty during class or your afternoon walk? Bring a reusable water bottle with you. Are you going to bring a homemade meal to work? Pack lunch in a reusable dish. Grocery shopping? Keep a few canvas shopping totes in the car or at the bottom of your bag. I think you see where I’m going with this. Planning ahead not only saves you from discarding a water bottle, styrofoam takeout box, or a plastic bag, but it also saves you from having to purchase any of the above. This not only decreases your carbon footprint, but making sure you have what you need before you need it saves you last-minute scrambling/shopping time (and money) in the long run. It’s a win-win.

Be realistic

What do you really, REALLY need? For instance, those $10 disposable makeup wipes look compact and convenient on the shelf at Walgreens, but are they necessary? Anything with an oil base will remove makeup, so I started using a little olive/vegetable/coconut oil (whichever is in my kitchen cabinet already) on a handkerchief to remove my war paint at the end of a long day. Other excellent beauty swaps can be found here. Are you a dryer-sheet fiend? Making a ball of tinfoil about the size of a baseball to throw in the dryer will eliminate static. (And you can continue to reuse the same ball of tinfoil for up to six months. Here’s how.) Do a little research and a little self reflection. Analyze your purchases, your trash, and your habits to find out what’s truly necessary and where you can make more earth-friendly substitutions.

In the words of Kermit the Frog, “It’s not easy being green,” especially when you’re a person on-the-go. Total trash freedom is a real commitment, but even a slight reduction in our waste day-by-day can make a positive impact overall–on your budget and on the planet.