This story is part of Planet or Plastic?—our multiyear effort to raise awareness about the global plastic waste crisis. Learn what you can do to reduce your own single-use plastics, and take your pledge. Join a conversation with Kathryn Kellogg on zero waste on Reddit at 2 pm ET May 18.
Imagine 15 grocery bags filled with plastic trash piled up on every single yard of shoreline in the world. That’s how much land-based plastic trash ended up in the world’s oceans in just one year. The world generates at least 3.5 million tons of plastic and other solid waste a day, 10 times the amount a century ago, according to World Bank researchers. The U.S. is the king of trash, producing a world-leading 250 million tons a year—roughly 4.4 pounds of trash per person per day.
And yet there are a growing number of people—often young millennial women—who are part of a zero-waste movement. Their yearly trash output can be small enough to fit inside an eight-ounce mason jar. These are not wannabe hippies, but people embracing a modern minimalist lifestyle. They say it saves them money and time and enriches their lives.
Kathryn Kellogg is one of those young millennials who has downsized her trash pile—anything that hasn’t been composted or recycled—so two years' worth literally fits inside one 16-ounce jar. Meanwhile, the average American produces 1,500 pounds of trash a year. (Learn more about Kellogg in the recent plastic issue of National Geographic magazine.)
“We also saved about $5,000 a year by purchasing fresh food instead of packaged, buying in bulk, and making our own products like cleaners and deodorant,” says Kellogg, who lives with her husband in a small house in Vallejo, California.
Kellogg is one of several zero-waste bloggers who share online the details of their efforts, along with practical tips and encouragement, for others looking to embrace a zero-waste lifestyle. In three years, she has gained 300,000 monthly readers on her blog goingzerowaste.com and on Instagram.
“I think many people are ready to cut their waste,” says Kellogg. However, she doesn’t want people to fixate on trying to stuff all their trash into a jar. Zero-waste is really about trying to minimize your trash and making better choices in your life, she says. “Just do the best you can and buy less.”
A Thriving Community
A breast cancer scare in college led Kellogg to start reading labels on personal-care products and finding ways to limit her exposure to potentially toxic chemicals. She found alternatives and started making her own products. Like her own readers, Kellogg learned from others, including New York City’s Lauren Singer, who has the very popular Trash is for Tossers blog. Singer started reducing her waste footprint as an environmental studies student in 2012 and has turned zero-waste into a career as a speaker, consultant, and retailer. She has two stores dedicated to making trash-free living easier for everyone.
There’s an active zero-waste community online sharing ideas, challenges, and support for those struggling with unhelpful friends and family who think it’s weird to worry about trash. “There’s a fear of being rejected when you try to do things differently,” Kellogg says. “But it’s not a radical act to clean up a kitchen spill with a cloth towel instead of a paper towel.”
Many of the solutions to cutting waste use practices that were commonplace before the era of plastics and disposable products. Think cloth napkins and handkerchiefs, vinegar and water for cleaning, glass or stainless-steel containers for left-overs, cloth grocery bags. These, and similar old-school solutions, produce no waste and are cheaper in the long run.
Questioning What’s Normal
Going zero-waste means questioning what’s normal and thinking outside the box, Kellogg says. As one example, she mentions that she loves tortillas but hates making them. But as part of her zero-waste quest, she didn’t want to buy packaged ones at the grocery. Eventually, she hit on the solution: buy a bunch of fresh-made ones from her local Mexican restaurant. The restaurant was even happy to put the tortillas in Kellogg’s container because it saves them money.
“Many such solutions to waste are insanely simple,” she says. “And any step to reduce waste is a step in the right direction.”
Cincinnati’s Rachel Felous took more than a few steps in January 2017 and cut her waste to one bag for the year. Felous was surprised and delighted with the impact it’s had on her life.
“Going zero waste has been great,” she says. “I found an amazing community, made new friends, and new opportunities have come my way,” says Felous.
Although an environmentally aware nature lover, Felous hadn’t really thought about how much waste she produced until she moved. That’s when she realized how much stuff she’d accumulated, including a dozen half-used bottles of shampoo and conditioners. Not long after reading an article on zero-waste she vowed to take more responsibility for her own footprint. Felous also documents her struggles, challenges, and successes on Instagram during her quest to slash the trash.
By weight 75 to 80 percent of all household trash is organic matter that can be composted and turned into soil. As an apartment dweller, Felous deals with her organic waste by putting it in the freezer. Once a month, she takes her frozen lump to her parent’s house, where a local farmer picks it up to feed animals or for composting. If the organic waste went to a landfill it likely wouldn’t compost, because air can’t circulate enough there.
Felous, who runs her own web design and photography business out of her home, advises others to approach zero waste with small steps and show themselves kindness. Making a lifestyle change is a journey, it doesn't happen overnight. But it’s worth the effort, she says. “I don’t know why I didn’t start sooner.”
A Regular Family
Shawn Williamson started ten years ago. While his neighbors in the suburbs outside of Toronto drag three or four bags of trash to the curb on cold winter nights, Williamson stays warm inside watching hockey on TV. Williamson, his wife, and daughter have taken just six bags of trash to the curb in those 10 years. “We live a very normal life. We’ve just eliminated waste,” he says.
Contrary to what most people think, cutting out waste isn’t a lot of work, he adds. “We buy in bulk to cut down on shopping trips, which saves us money and time,” Williamson says.
The only unusual thing about their small, 20-year old house is the amount of shelving used to store bulk purchases of rice, flour, dried beans, nuts, toilet paper, and other products—enough to avoid going shopping for a month, he estimates. “It’s not cluttered. I still park my car in the garage.”
Williamson, a business consultant specializing in sustainability, says his goal is simply to be less wasteful in all aspects of life. “It’s a mindset of looking for better ways of doing things. Once I figure it out there’s little effort to maintain it,” he says.
It helps that his community has a good recycling program for plastics, paper, and metals and he has room in his backyard for two small composters—one for summer and winter—that produce lots of rich earth for his garden. For everything else, he shops carefully to avoid waste and notes that throwing things out costs money: packaging pushes up the cost of the product, and then we pay for disposal of packaging in our taxes, he says.
Buying local makes it easier to buy foods and other products without packaging, from meat to soap. And when there is no choice, he leaves the packaging behind at the checkout counter. Stores can often reuse or recycle it, and leaving it sends a message: many customers don’t want their avocados wrapped in plastic.
Even after ten years of slashing waste, new ideas still pop into Williamson’s head. And here he means waste in the broader sense—not getting a second car that’s parked 95 percent of the day, or shaving in the shower to save time. His advice: take a good look at what you might be wasting in your life. “If you eliminate it, you’ll have a happier and more profitable life,” he says.
Five Principles of Zero-waste From the Experts*
1. Refuse - refuse to buy things with lots of packaging
2. Reduce - don’t buy things you don’t really need
3. Reuse - repurpose worn out items, shop for used goods, and purchase reusable products like steel water bottles
4. Compost - up to 80 percent of waste by weight is organic. But this rarely decomposes in landfills
5. Recycle – It still takes some energy and resources to recycle, but it’s better than sending stuff to the landfill or allowing it to become litter
*These are listed in order of importance
Editor's note: We corrected the spelling of Kathryn's name from an earlier version of this story.
This story is part of Women of Impact, a National Geographic project centered around women breaking barriers in their fields, changing their communities, and inspiring action. Join the conversation in our Facebook group.