I tried living zero-waste in Charlotte — and was wildly unsuccessful

I tried living zero-waste in Charlotte — and was wildly unsuccessful
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Recycling is the new norm, and that’s pretty cool.

But you would have to recycle some 40,000 bottles to offset the carbon footprint of one round-trip New York to London flight. I doubt I could recycle this many bottles in an entire lifetime.

Which got me thinking about the zero-waste bloggers now swarming the internet — you know the ones, miraculously brandishing a single mason jar filled with the only trash they couldn’t evade in the last five years (damn that one cocktail straw).

Torn between feeling skeptical and inspired, I gave their tips a try to see how realistic zero-waste living is here in Charlotte.

Some of the strategies I picked up along the way have really stuck with me. But I would be lying if I said there was a large decrease in the amount of trash I’m producing.

Rather, the opposite — this exercise mostly made me realize just how much trash I am producing. I’m hoping that realization is a victory in and of itself, because I’m going to need more than a mason jar to contain the amount of trash I produce in everyday life living here in Charlotte.

Who’s living zero-waste, and why?

What do zero-waste proponents hope to accomplish? At the very least, making a dent in the 254 million tons of trash Americans produce a year. That’s more than four pounds of trash per person, per day.

The first thing I needed was resources. Very few of zero-waste bloggers’ favorite products are available for purchase in-person here in Charlotte.

I checked the healthiest of health food stores and didn’t find much, and was left wondering how much time the everyday person has to invest in hunting this stuff down.

I was irritated after spending half a day driving around town looking for products to help me reduce the trash I’m producing—and I wondered if it’d been worth it when I came back nearly empty-handed.

But there are resources out there.

Trash is For Tossers is an online and pop-up store for waste-free shopping (Package Free Shop), Zero Waste Chef is a great resource for reducing kitchen and food waste, and Treading My Own Path has great resources for beginners.

You get it — there’s a lot out there. This list can get you started.

The best options in Charlotte

I’ve boiled down the major recommendations that most of these bloggers share, and listed them in order of ease —and how likely I am to keep these habits in my daily life.

The first three are no-brainers for me — you can always catch me at the farmer’s market. But 6-7? I’m not so sure. I need some convincing.

1) Skip the bags.

Grocery stores in areas like D.C. and California have to charge you a few cents per plastic bag—something like that could be a major win here.

Also, considering reusable produce bags.

Time: Zero.

Cost: $5-$10 to invest in reusable produce bags. Conversely, no money saved by this measure.

2) Bulk bins

This is something I wasn’t doing before but really loved. Charlotte has bulk bins at places like Publix, Whole Foods, and Earth Fare. They are cheaper, buying household-size specific quantities reduces food waste, and there’s no packaging.

Time: Zero. Stores have bags to use for the bulk bins, and the paper option can be recycled or composted later. You can bring your own mason jars and they’ll subtract the weight of the jar you filled at the register.

Cost: This one’s a money gain. NPR estimates purchasing bulk foods saves an average of 56%.

3) Farmers Markets

This one’s huge. One resource Charlotte is fortunate to have in ample quantity is year-round local produce available daily.

Time: Some. Perhaps an extra hour or two a week to visit the farmers’ market if you wouldn’t have otherwise.

Cost: This one is also a gain. Recent studies debunk the myth that farmers’ markets are more expensive.

4) Food Prep

Aluminum or glass Tupperware require less replacement than stain-gathering plastic. Plastic sandwich bags, saran wrap, and Styrofoam can all be replaced by beeswax alternatives that won’t need replacing, like these.

Time: None.

Cost: $10-$30 investment in Tupperware, sandwich bags, etc. — but this will pay for itself rapidly when Tupperware no longer needs frequent replacing and sandwich bags are no longer a grocery item.

5) Cleaning Supplies

A pretty significant impact can be made simply by ditching paper towels, sponges, etc. Making all-natural cleaning supplies (white wine vinegar, lemon, etc.—see the aforementioned blogs) can be fairly simple.

Time: For swapping out paper towels? None — grab some reusable cloths the next time you visit Trader Joe’s. Making your own cleaning products requires preparation, but few resources and little more than an hour a month of time.

Cost: Those reusable kitchen cloths run something like $2. AOL Finance reports that the average family spends upwards of $180 a year on paper towels—a pretty good trade off.

6) Toiletries

Decreasing toiletry waste requires overcoming a certain mental hurdle—humans are fairly set in their way when it comes to hygiene (usually, a good thing). Alternatives are plentiful however, and no less hygienic. From bamboo toothbrushes that are biodegradable, to soaps like Dr. Bronner’s which are sold in biodegradable packaging, to feminine hygiene products that are washable, there are a lot of options to explore here.

Time: Only as much time as you invest in researching and purchasing options.

Cost: Most of these options won’t save much money — bamboo toothbrushes fall into an average toothbrush price range, and some environmentally-packaged soaps can be on the pricier side. However, feminine products are a $2 billion industry, and the average woman could save over $3,000 in her lifetime by switching to washable and reusable products.

7) Composting

This one’s tough if you live in an apartment. Decomposing food matter in a small, enclosed space isn’t fun. If you have a backyard, and especially if you have a garden, have at it. If you do want to incorporate this into apartment living, consider switching to compostable trash bags, collecting your (compostable) trash as you might otherwise, and then bringing it to one of the Charlotte facilities that accepts compost (or a gardening friend).

Time: Fairly significant. Whether you’re tending to your own compost bin or driving to a waste disposal location, expect to put at least an hour into this each week.

Cost: Compostable trash bags can be fairly expensive, at $5 for a pack of 20. Dropping off compost can also require a fee at some locations.

So, how feasible is it?

My conclusion? I’m not going to be producing zero trash any time. It would be a full-time job (which, for many of these bloggers, it is).

But employing the aforementioned, beginner-friendly tactics into my life while writing this article has made a small difference in the amount of trash I’m producing.

It’s also made me question what I want to buy at the store — like package-heavy items are luxury items that I should only select sparingly. So the mental shift that this experience has led me to has been fairly valuable.

My biggest takeaway here is community.

Exploring all of these options has led me to conversations with grocery store employees and farmers’ market vendors that I may never have had otherwise. At the farmers’ market I got to talking with Deannie Barr, whose Earth n Oats Soaps products are all natural and packaged in only biodegradable labels, coffee filters, or small slivers of plastic where necessary to protect the soaps.

Knowing the person you’re buying your products from means knowing that you are contributing to an all-natural, waste-minimal supply chain.

Talking to Deannie about these interests, I asked her how Charlotte’s interest in natural products and sustainable living has changed over the years.

“I’ve been doing this for 12 years, and the changes that I’ve seen have been in the last five,” said Deannie. “People are starting to realize that consumers want this now.”

While Deannie recognizes that Charlotte is a bit behind other cities in waste-reduction initiatives, she says young people driving the changes that she’s observed in recent years.

Being involved in conversations with community members about cutting down on waste and living more sustainably feels like an output in and of itself of this movement. It’s the kind of conversation that convinces companies, much like Deannie has observed, that this is something people care about and are prepared to invest in.

What do we need here in Charlotte?

There are things that haven’t happened here in Charlotte that would be good to see ASAP. In places like D.C. and California, you’re paying a few cents per plastic bag at the grocery store — this makes a lot of sense.

There is also a serious lack of interest in packaging reduction. That stores like Trader Joe’s (usually I’m a big fan, sorry TJ) don’t have bulk bins is disappointing. The relative lack in a push for doing away with Styrofoam and other plastic with takeaway food feels outdated.

Ideas — we need innovation. Bulk bins at TJ’s or a single brick and mortar waste-free store (these are popping up in NY) that will be out of most consumers’ convenience and price range are unrealistic.

Innovative ideas and legislation—and a healthy increase in the conversation surrounding the topic — feel like the most powerful move.

 

Cover photo via Gregory Hurst

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