When Kathryn Kellogg was 20 years old, doctors discovered six lumps in her breast. The lumps turned out to be benign, but their appearance transformed the way Kellogg related to her body. She started thinking about what she put in and on her body in a whole new way.
“I learned a lot of the products we use aren’t thoroughly tested,” says Kellogg. “I learned that plastic has BPA and BPS… Both are endocrine disruptors that mimic estrogen. Basically, the last thing I needed.”
As she researched the chemicals that were coming into contact with her body, Kellogg began to identify correlates between the health of our environment and the health of our bodies.
“Nature can’t digest plastic either,” she says. “It poses a huge threat to nature, especially marine life… It’s completely in our food chain and could wipe out an entire eco-system. It’s a big deal.”
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So Kellogg decided to remove plastic and other toxic products from her life — both for her own health and the health of the environment. Then, she took things one step further. She adopted a “zero waste lifestyle,” in which she endeavored to produce as little trash as possible.
Now Kellogg runs goingzerowaste.com, where she encourages others to join in her efforts to ditch plastic, remove harmful chemicals from their home and beauty routines, and — you guessed it — majorly reduce their waste. To that end, she created the 30-Day Zero Waste Challenge to ease people into the zero-waste lifestyle. The challenge includes everything from using natural cleaners to forgoing plastic straws, consuming whole foods, and swapping out paper towels for cloth napkins.
And the movement isn’t exclusive to hippie communes. The zero waste lifestyle can be adopted by people of all stripes (including city dwellers). Here’s what zero waste really entails, why it matters, and how to get in on the action.
Going Zero Waste: The Difference It Makes
“Americans generate a whopping 220 million tons of waste every year.”
“Going zero waste is all about reframing our thinking and overhauling our consumption habits,” says Kellogg. “The easiest [way to describe it] is, ‘We make no trash.’ But it goes so much deeper than that. The lifestyle promotes putting value back into our belongings. Instead of being a disposable society, we focus on being a reusable society.”
Why is reusability such a good thing? For starters, it reduces our consumption of natural resources. Right now, says Kellogg, “We’re using two earth’s worth of resources [each year] to make products that are thrown into a giant hole in the ground where they will never decompose.” Put another way, Americans generate a whopping 220 million tons of waste every year. This waste ends up in one of the country’s more than 3,500 landfills (at best) or pollutes our land and waterways (at worst).
But waste doesn’t stop being a problem even if it makes its way to a landfill. Landfills are major emitters of methane, which is one of the primary greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. And then there’s the issue of plastic. Much of our country’s waste is composed of plastic, says Kelsey Head, an Environmental Educator at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon, CO. “Plastic takes nearly a million years to degrade,” she says. “The longstanding existence of plastic will present us with issues we can’t even fathom yet, most especially in our water. We’re doing serious damage to our global ecosystem.”
When individuals reduce their waste, they benefit the environment by minimizing their eco-footprint. But their impact extends much further than that. “What’s really cool is the influence they can have on people around them,” says Head. If only one person in the world tried to reduce their waste, it might have a minimal impact on the planet. But when their actions inspire others to follow suit, says Head, that can be nothing short of revolutionary.
Zero Waste, Zero Regrets: The Personal Benefits
The zero waste lifestyle doesn’t just benefit the planet. It may also improve the lives of the people who adopt it.
“I’m no longer filling my life with stuff. Everything in my life has purpose or meaning.”
Nutritionist and editor Michelle Pellizzon has gradually transitioned to a zero waste lifestyle. In the process, she’s identified several benefits. For starters, she says, “It saved me a lot of money. I definitely wasn’t expecting that.” Pellizzon attributes this perk to conscious consumerism: When you carefully consider every purchase, you avoid spending money on impulse buys. And when you purchase whole or bulk foods as opposed to pre-packaged items, you’re not paying for the product’s packaging.
The lifestyle also saves Pellizzon time. “I thought I’d waste a lot of time trying to come up with solutions for [being] zero waste,” she says. But going zero waste has had the opposite effect. For example, because she now plans her grocery shopping ahead and cooks in bulk, she cuts down on trips to the grocery store and time spent in the kitchen.
Kellogg has experienced these same advantages — and then some. She eats healthier because she’s not eating processed foods. She’s developed a sense of community as she purchases locally made products directly from their creators. And she’s happier. “I’m no longer filling my life with stuff,” Kellogg says. “Everything in my life has purpose or meaning.”
The 30-Day Zero Waste Challenge: How to Get Started
If you’re sold on going zero waste or just looking for simple ways to reduce your eco-footprint, Kellogg recommends starting out by committing to one waste-reducing action. Once you’ve made it a habit, you’ll naturally be motivated to delve further into the zero waste lifestyle. Here are several ways to get started:
- Assess your waste. To reduce your waste, you first need to understand how much you’re producing. Pellizzon recommends taking a day (or several) to deposit everything you would normally throw away into a bag. This will give you a sense of how much trash you produce on a daily basis. Then, identify areas where you can reduce those outputs. (Also check out these 8 Genius Ways to Use Produce Scraps.)
- Do your research. Review what is and isn’t recyclable where you live, says Pellizzon. Take stock of the products you use every day so you can determine every little piece that can be recycled.
- Pause before you purchase. “Think of all the resources used in producing products that are only in use for [short periods],” says Kellogg. Try to avoid purchasing anything you’ll soon throw out.
- Be meal prep-ready. Make like Pellizzon and carry a reusable water bottle or thermos, an aluminum tin for leftovers or packed meals, and a set of cutlery everywhere you go. Not sure what to pack? Steal these trainers’ meal prep ideas.
- Shop with purpose. Purchase fresh produce at farmers markets and buy in bulk whenever possible.
- BYO bags. Bring reusable bags to the grocery store and use reusable produce bags. In some states, like California (and soon Massachusetts), packing your own totes will save you 10 cents a pop.
- Compost to reduce food waste. If you can’t compost on your property, see if you can donate your food scraps to a local farm or community garden.
- Get thrifty. Buy used clothing or host a clothing swap for your friends and community members. Also look to donate or recycle used clothing whenever possible. Several organizations will repurpose athletic wear, sneakers and other clothing, says Pellizzon. You just have to do your research.
- Add a bidet attachment to your toilet. “I was a little skeptical, but now I could never go back,” says Kellogg. “Our toilet paper usage is down almost 75 percent and are so much cleaner.”
- Embrace challenges as opportunities. When Pellizzon started vermicomposting (i.e. using earthworms to turn organic waste into compost) in her apartment, she realized she needed to find a use for the worm’s nutrient-rich excretions. So now she’s growing plants on her balcony.
- Be a change agent. Individual actions are important, but social action is critical to create an infrastructure that supports zero waste. Head encourages us to “really reflect on our own actions and start to think about the ways we can shift our behaviors as a greater society.”
Transitioning to zero waste can be a slow but steady process. “I wouldn’t recommend anyone try to go completely zero waste in a week,” says Pellizzon. “It’s overwhelming [at first], because you realize just how much trash you produce on a regular basis.”
Still, as you dip your toe into the zero waste lifestyle, you’ll discover it’s not as challenging as you might expect, says Pellizzon. “When you really dig into it, you can recycle a lot, you can reuse a lot, and you can repurpose a lot of things.”