30 Day, 0 Waste challenge

A bunch of my friends are trying to waste less as their New Year’s resolution. One of my friends spent 2019 trying to go 30 days without generating non-recyclable, non-compostable trash. I loved reading her notes and learning about the unexpected hurdles. She didn’t want to share this publicly but was okay with me posting it.

January 1/1/19 — Leaving Philly, BF and I stopped for breakfast at Au Bon Pain. Bought oatmeal in a non-recyclable container. Totally forgot.

January 1/2/19 — Bit my nails at work but didn’t have a composting bag with me. Also, don’t really want to carry one around for this purpose. Will have to stop the habit.

January 1/3/19 — Washed my hands and dried them on a paper towel, which I tossed in the garbage by accident. Apparently food-soiled paper/short-fiber paper in the last step of the recycling chain (napkins, paper towels) can be composted. Need to remember to throw the paper towels in composting, or ideally, carry a handkerchief to dry my hands.

January 1/4/19* — BF bought groceries at Morton Williams, and he included several of my (recyclable) items in his shopping cart. We disagree on whether I’m now responsible for 3/13th of the non-recyclable/non-compostable receipt, but I think this was a full Zero Waste day.

January 1/5/19 — Had a cough drop and then realized the wrapper had wax on one side and was non-recyclable.

January 1/6/19 — Went out to breakfast with my friend Megan and threw out a plastic cup.

January 1/7/19 — Got stressed at work and both bit my nails and used paper towels without realizing. On a positive note, the hot dog guy at 68th and 1st is willing to put hot dogs sans aluminum foil in my tupperware directly.

January 1/8/19 — Realized my feminine hygiene products have plastic wrap. Need to buy zero waste versions in bulk for the future.

January 1/9/19* — Zero waste day.

January 1/10/19 — Medicinal blister packs are supposedly recyclable if you can separate the components. The paperboard backing is easy to peel off but the aluminum foil backing is pressed into the rigid plastic. I couldn’t get a clean separation and eventually got frustrated and threw it out. On the plus side, the poke place near work has Square (no paper receipt) and compostable bowls, and they were nice enough to take the bowl out of the paper bag when I asked.

January 1/11/19* — Zero waste day.

January 1/12/19* — Zero waste day.

January 1/13/19* — Zero waste day. Was super grumpy in the afternoon (sorry, BF) about my limited meal options until I figured out Chipotle’s bowls are compostable (lids are recyclable).

January 1/14/19 — Picked up my birth control, and the box comes with these little pre-packaged day-of-the-week stickers that you’re meant to apply to the blister pack. These stickers are non-recyclable. Emailed the pharma company to see if they have a recycling take-back program. They do not.

January 1/15/19 — Pros & Cons of today. Pro: I figured out the bulk foods section of Whole Foods. If I use rigid plastic containers (and reuse them) and note the PLU code on my phone instead of printing it out on a sticker, I can get dried fruit snacks in a zero waste manner. Cons: The Whole Foods cashier gave me a receipt when I wasn’t looking and also stuck masking tape around the berries container to keep the berries from spilling out. I was too busy putting my basket down to interject. Note to self: Don’t buy berries from Whole Foods anymore. Also, ask the cashier ahead of time if they have an electronic receipt option, rather than printing it.

January 1/16/19* — Zero waste day, I think. I ended up eating dinner at a restaurant, at a table with a white tablecloth that was then covered by a large white sheet of paper. Despite my best efforts, I did spill a bit of food on the paper. Will the restaurant compost/recycle this paper? Will it go to landfill? Let me assume the former (and not return to this restaurant during the rest of my Zero Waste journey just in case).

January 1/17/19* — Zero waste day

January 1/18/19 — Threw away some duct tape at work after I realized it wasn’t strong enough to seal up an air conditioner. I had mangled it too badly to try to reuse it elsewhere.

January 1/19/19 — Used up a liquid eyeliner and threw it out

January 1/20/19 — Went out the night before and threw something out once I got home, not realizing it was after midnight and I had invalidated another day

January 1/21/19 — I had asked BF to include an order of compostable dental floss in his next Amazon Prime order. When it arrived, he showed me that there was extra packaging than what he was used to when ordering the same items sans dental floss. The packaging was an inflated plastic film kind. No more ordering online.

January 1/22/19* — Zero waste day. Today I bought from Whole Foods, and this time I didn’t end up with a receipt. VIGILANCE. DURING. CHECKOUT. IS. CRUCIAL. Also, Whole Foods doesn’t offer digital receipts (boo).

January 1/23/19* — Zero waste day. I’m hungry. I’m always hungry.

January 1/24/19* — Zero waste day

January 1/25/19* — Zero waste day

January 1/26/19 — Went ice skating in Central Park with my friend Pat, and they use receipts in the skate rental process

January 1/27/19 — Emptied and tossed my Neutrogena face wash, which Neutrogena confirmed is not recyclable. Will have to find a new option, which is unfortunate because I’ve been using this face wash product for over (five?) years

January 1/28/19 — Zero waste day (I think). Bought some star anise and currently waiting for the manufacturer to reply to my email inquiring if the bottle seal is recyclable. It looks like paper. [Update: Frontier Co-op emailed back the next week saying the foil/paper seal is not recyclable.]

January 1/29/19* — Zero waste day. Sliced my ring finger open on the lid of a can after trying to twist it off. I realized I don’t have zero waste bandages so I just cleaned my finger and waited until it stopped bleeding. Cans suck. No more cans. And I need to locate local zero waste bandages.

January 1/30/19* — Zero waste day

January 1/31/19* — Zero waste day

February 2/1/19* — Zero waste day

February 2/2/19 — Went out to dinner and my cocktail was served with a straw. BF and I disagreed about whether straws are recyclable (I said yes because they’re a rigid plastic, he said no because there must be a reason everyone is up in arms about plastic straws). Turns out we’re both right. Technically, straws are recyclable. In practice, they are so small that they can’t be processed by the the recycling machinery and end up getting sent to landfill. I saw a blog post online that recommended collecting a bunch of straws and putting them inside a larger rigid plastic container of the same plastic resin type (#5). Then, I came across another article that had a quote from the president of the Association of Plastic Recyclers that said he had NEVER seen a straw in the processing line during his years of running a recycling plant. What, never? Well then, I guess plastic straws are not recyclable.

February 2/3/19* — Zero waste day

February 2/4/19* — Zero waste day

February 2/5/19* — Zero waste day

February 2/6/19 — Went to a City Council meeting downtown and was given a sticker to enter the building. I tried to hand the sticker back to security afterwards, but they were not interested.

February 2/7/19 — Cut myself with a kitchen knife last night and needed a band aid today. Still have not procured zero waste bandages yet.

February 2/8/19 — Going on a temporary break until after my trip to Mexico City

February 2/21/19 — Back from my vacation/mental break. Mexico City was beautiful, but it was also a very wasteful city just like NYC. The most obvious example was the street food on every corner (tacos, tamales, etc.). The food is served on plates covered by thin disposable plastic bags, and after the customers are done eating, they toss the plastic bags with any food scraps in the trash, and the clean plates are returned to the vendor. These street vendors are everywhere, and probably the cheapest and fastest way to get a meal. And Mexico City has a population of 8.8 million people! Imagine the crazy amount of plastic bag waste alone.

February 2/22/19* — Zero waste day

February 2/23/19 — Went to a concert and even though I had a mobile ticket, everyone had to wear one of those soft Tyvek plastic wristbands that you have to cut to take off. Dupont has a Tyvek recycling program, which I called at 1–800–448–9835. They will mail me a takeback envelope. Once I send it back, this will be a zero waste day.

February 2/24/19* — Zero waste day

February 2/25/19* — Zero waste day

February 2/26/19* — Zero waste day

February 2/27/19* — Zero waste day

February 2/28/19 — Bought melatonin gummies and the bottle seal was not recyclable, as confirmed by a response from the company, Olly.

March 3/1/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/2/19 — BF made me an omelet on a coated paper plate

March 3/3/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/4/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/5/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/6/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/7/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/8/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/9/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/10/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/11/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/12/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/13/19* — Zero waste day, I think. Went to a City Council meeting again, and that darn building still has the dumb sticker ID policy for guests. So my tactic is to leave the sticker on my nice/formal coat, and I’ll ask them the next time I visit if I can reuse it.

March 3/14/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/15/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/16/19* — Zero waste day. Went home to visit my parents, and they told me I sound like religious zealot when I talk about zero waste. So there’s that.

March 3/17/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/18/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/19/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/20/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/21/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/22/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/23/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/24/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/25/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/26/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/27/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/28/19* — Zero waste day.

March 3/29/19* — Zero waste day. Had another meeting with the City Council Speaker’s office. Asked the security desk if I could reuse the guest sticker from last time. They said no. But they did take my old sticker back so not counting that as waste.

March 3/30/19* — Zero waste day

March 3/31/19* — Zero waste day

March 4/1/19* — Zero waste day


Final thoughts

1. I accomplished my overall goal which was to stop being hypocritical wrt sustainability. I’ve worked in the energy efficiency/sustainability field for 6 years, and basically only ate takeout, recycled incorrectly most of the time, and loved the convenience of single-use everything. Versus now… I make most of my meals and schlep to Bushwick every week to buy groceries from a zero waste grocery store; carry spare tupperware and silverware everywhere; avoid receipts like the plague; and compost goddamn EVERYTHING (hair, nail clippings, actual food waste, you name it). And now I finally know all the rules to recycling in New York. Can I keep all of this up? No, not all of it. I’ve already stopped collecting my hair because it’s pretty weird.
2. A sustainable lifestyle is for the bougie. The most locally sourced, freshest, organic food? 3x-5x the price at a normal grocery store. Also, it’s hard to get your hands on. I eat short grain rice almost every day, and I could only find one location in all of NY that would sell it to me by weight, and that was an hour away from home on a good day. What are the odds that busy families trying to raise kids on a budget would have either the time or money to do what I did? I don’t care what the sustainability books say — I absolutely did not save money.
3. America is unprepared for a zero waste future. Go into any grocery store, and everything is packaged in single use plastic. Hard boiled eggs? In plastic containers. Want to buy two bananas? In styrofoam trays covered in plastic wrap. Don’t even get me started on the waste of online deliveries. New York has come out with a ban on plastic bags starting in 2020, which is a start, but there’s a looooong road to go.
4. It’d be cool if more people tried a version of this experiment. Maybe not an extreme 30-day streak, but maybe a week-long one. You’d think it’s easy; I know I did. But this stuff doesn’t hit home until you try it, and you realize you can’t buy anything/do anything/go out to eat without generating waste. It’s an “oh crap” moment, and going through the painful process of holding yourself accountable does the rest.
5. I gained weight. Maybe a better cook wouldn’t have this problem, but I’m not the world’s greatest chef, and I basically survived on carbs for several months (steak fries, rice, fried rice, stir fried…potatoes, cereal). I’m not proud of it, but hey.
6. Greta Thunberg is fucking awesome.

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