In the months before COVID-19 changed the way we do just about anything, I had really been acing up my zero waste game. Horrified by the broken state of our recycling systems, the compounding crisis of China and other countries rejecting our trash and the amount of waste a single household can produce, I set out on a mission to not be part of the problem.
Over the course of a year, I gradually tackled the sources of unnecessary waste produced by my family: me, one husband, one 5-year-old, one cat and two chickens.
- Ziplock bags were replaced by durable silicone bags.
- Individually-wrapped kid snacks were banned outright.
- Shampoo bars were in, shampoo bottles went out.
- At the grocery store, I became a bulk aisle ninja armed with pre-tared mason jars and washable cotton produce bags.
Eventually, it paid off. We downgraded our garbage bin to the smallest size, only needing to put it out every other week. The recycle bin would go out on the curb half-full instead of overflowing. I wrote self-congratulatory posts in my zero waste Facebook group and tormented my extended family members with compostable oral care products as birthday gifts.
Then the Pandemic Hit
The global pandemic upended all of my success. Single-use plastics have surged back in the name of safety while U.S. recyclers have seen their business shrink by as much as 60%, according to a recent Reuters report. Many municipalities have rolled back their plastic bag bans during the pandemic out of hygiene concerns. (A study in March, however, showed that COVID-19 lived on plastic for 72 hours, compared to 24 hours on cardboard.)
In my protective bubble, I signed up for InstaCart and began doing curbside pickup at grocery stores, and found myself once again swimming in plastic grocery bags.
I felt physically ill after one particularly horrifying pickup, in which I opened my trunk to find nearly every item I had purchased in its very own plastic bag.
Even at my favorite environmentally-conscious grocery store, the bulk aisle was shut down and reusable bags were prohibited.
What Zero-Waste Experts Say
I called up Stacy Strickland and Stephanie Wall, co-founders of Seattle Zero Waste, to find out how they’ve been handling these challenges. “For those of us already on a zero-waste path, we’ve had to revert to when we first began this journey,” Strickland said.
So I’ve recently taken a fresh look at my strategy. Thankfully, I’ve realized that waste reduction and safety are by no means mutually exclusive. In fact, in some ways it may even be safer to participate in a circular economy where we’re reusing and recycling more in order to reduce our reliance on virgin resources.
I’ve branched out, as Wall suggests, “looking beyond the bulk bin” at other creative solutions. She even recommends using some of that extra time if you’re not currently commuting to call up your representatives to encourage waste-reducing policies.
My Best Tips
Regardless of where you are in your own mission to reduce waste, here are some of the best tips I’ve gathered for keeping the zero waste dream alive.
The kitchen is the source of most household waste, so a lot of the effort here begins at the grocery store. This is also one of the places that has undergone the most rapid change during the pandemic.
- Reusable bags: Many stores have again loosened restrictions and will now allow you to use your own bag, as long as you bag your own groceries. Alternatively, you can just place your groceries directly back in your cart, and throw them in a bag you keep in your car.
- Baskets in place of produce bags: At stores with self-checkout options, you can bring a bolga basket or similar lined with a clean towel to put your produce directly in, instead of using the store’s plastic produce bags. Choose ‘skip bagging’ at the kiosk and place your items in your own clean bag in your cart.
- Farmers markets: Shop at farm stands and local farmers markets, which are often more flexible in terms of bagging. Bonus: You’re shopping in a safer open-air environment, and supporting local farmers, who are struggling more without large restaurant orders.
- Produce delivery service: Sign up for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, a great way to buy local, seasonal food direct from farms. CSAs often use minimal and/or sustainable packaging options. Plus, farm-direct deliveries have gone through less handling than grocery store produce, likely making it a safer choice. You can learn more and find participating farms near you at LocalHarvest.org.
Shopping online has of course surged as we avoid going out more. It’s a great time to explore some of the fantastic waste-conscious choices available.
- Large bulk food orders of non-perishable items: Try online suppliers like Azure Standard, which packages goods in reusable paper. You can either have your order shipped via UPS, pick it up from a local drop-off point, or if there isn’t one near you, corral your neighbors to join as well to set up your own community drop.
- Waste-conscious grocery delivery service: Loop is now available nationwide, offering online shopping of many popular brands in reusable containers you leave out for pickup when you’re done (think the old milkman bottle deposit model).
- Clothing: If thrifting for new-to-you clothing isn’t the leisurely treasure hunt it used to be, check out online consignment shops such as ThredUp for women and kids or PoshMark, which sells clothing for men as well.
- Cleaning product subscriptions: Force of Nature (which is effective against the coronavirus) and Sheets Laundry Club can save you trips to the store as well as cut down on your waste output.
- Think about a bidet: Did the Great TP Shortage of 2020 have you thinking about the importance of this bathroom staple in ways you never wanted to? It’s a great reason to consider installing a bidet. There are a number of modern and affordable spigot devices that attach unobtrusively to your toilet seat, greatly reducing the amount of a precious resource you are literally flushing down the toilet. It’s not only more sustainable, but your extra clean derriere will thank you as well.
- Toilet paper alternative: If you can’t quit TP, sustainable bamboo toilet paper such as Cloud Paper combats deforestation with sustainably-packaged delivery subscriptions to your door. Plus they’re less susceptible to panic buying shortages.
- Clean hands: We’re washing our hands every chance we get, but public bathrooms raise all sorts of new and unpleasant questions. I’m a fan of keeping a small, clean towel in my bag that kills multiple birds: reduces paper waste, avoids air dryers, which researchers say increase air contamination, and gives you a handy way to keep that freshly-washed hand clean if you have to open a door to get the heck out of there.
Sadly, the answer to all this extra plastic isn’t just recycling more. Waste services across the country have been disrupted as another fallout of the pandemic, further adding to existing recycling issues. Robert Reed, spokesman for waste management company Recology San Francisco, advises people to start thinking about waste well before it goes out to the curb. “Buy only what you need, make full use of what you have. Doing so reduces waste and saves you money,” he says.
- When you do buy a product, be aware of its packaging. Remember the materials that are most commonly recycled: paper, cardboard, aluminum, and glass bottles. Decline products made from or packaged in plastic.
- Before something goes into the recycle bin, make sure it’s clean and dry. With everything going in the same bin in many municipalities, one unemptied can of soda spilled onto the paper and cardboard can render all that wet stuff unrecyclable.
- Don’t underestimate composting. The benefits are enormous, including reducing landfill gas emissions, keeping the rest of your waste separated and clean, and supplying farms with the healthy nutrients they need to grow our nation’s food supply. If you don’t have municipal composting services in your area, Reed says, write to your city officials and encourage them to start programs.
- Check out the free programs for hard-to-recycle items like baby food pouches and toothpaste tubes offered by Terracycle.