For Summer Hanson, it all started with Initiative 732, a 2016 referendum for a carbon tax in Washington state. During college, Hanson worked on the election effort, building a calculator that explained how voters’ costs would change if the initiative passed. In the end, 732 failed — in fact, it was handily voted down — and Hanson was left frustrated. What was she supposed to do to help the planet now? How could she make an impact?
Then a friend introduced her to the zero waste movement. Hanson remembers thinking: I could do this.
“I care about sustainability and I was devastated when this initiative didn’t pass, but I realized I have control over what I do,” says Hanson, now 24. “I think that’s what was really exciting for me. I was like, ‘Oh, I can actually control my environmental footprint. Nobody can let me down if I can be in full control.’”
We asked Summer to describe a day in her life in the zero-waste movement.
5:30 am: My boyfriend, Michael, sticks a thermometer in my mouth to take my basal body temperature before he goes to work. This is part of how we track my fertility to avoid pregnancy.
8 am: I wake up, drink a glass of water and brush my teeth with a bamboo toothbrush. I used to use David’s toothpaste, which comes in a recyclable metal tube, but my dentist told me I needed fluoride toothpaste, which I can only find in a plastic tube. My health comes first!
In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that the average American generates 1,620 pounds of garbage — 4.44 pounds of garbage per person, per day. Through the zero waste movement, thousands of people are combatting this statistic directly by taking waste reduction to an extreme.
The strategy is outlined in popular books like Zero Waste: Simple Life Hacks to Drastically Reduce Your Trash, whose author, Shia Su, argues that most of us have become blind to the trash we create. As a culture, Su writes, we should make the process of buying and discarding items less reflexive and more intentional.
It’s hard to tell how many people have taken her words to heart; the movement has no leadership, structure, or organizational ties. But the hashtag #zerowaste now has 2.6 million posts on Instagram, up from 350,000 posts two years ago. Seattle Zero Waste, a Meetup group about the lifestyle, had 12 members in 2017, and now has 1,613. And Hanson says she’s noticed a lot more anecdotal interest in her lifestyle in the past year.
The fascination is understandable; as Hanson and Su describe it, zero waste can lead to a magical life free of stress, clutter and psychological exhaustion. In practice, it is some of these things — but it’s also a lot of work.
8:05 am: I apply some homemade deodorant using a tiny bamboo spoon. On my face, I apply tinted sunscreen that’s not quite plastic-free, but comes in a glass bottle with a plastic pump. Again, health comes first, and I haven’t landed on a plastic-free replacement for my daily sunscreen. For makeup, I use the remnants of an old cream blush that I put into an empty lip balm container. I brush it onto my cheeks and lips, and curl my lashes to complete the look.
8:20 am: I make myself a cup of coffee using an organic cotton reusable coffee filter, adding a spoonful of sugar (bought in bulk), and a bit of coconut milk from a can (I keep the leftover contents in a glass bottle in the fridge). For breakfast, I spread some homemade guacamole on toast. I keep a jar of guacamole in an old salsa jar in my fridge, and it stays fresh for several days thanks to the lime juice. The bread I buy comes in a paper bag, which I reuse for compost. (I keep my compost in my freezer before taking it to the bin outside.)
When you glimpse into Hanson’s zero waste life, it’s hard not to feel a little inadequate. I visited her apartment and offered to bring her a coffee; she asked me to bring it in a reusable cup. When I arrived, she showed me a fridge full of healthy items in glass jars: pickles, guacamole, chopped vegetables, vegan sausage. In her bathroom, she pulled out a razor she had just bought, which was plastic-free. Her grocery store trips involve filling up her own glass containers with bulk items, such as rice, spices and oils. She buys most of her clothing and furniture second hand, and makes her own tortillas and almond milk when she has time.
I left her home inspired to do better in my own life, to stop buying pre-packaged butternut squash and curb my constant use of Clorox bleach wipes. But after a week, I found myself struggling to change my own habits; convenience is a powerful force. I got particularly frustrated one day when I realized I’d have to go to multiple grocery stores after work to fill my weekly shopping list — a reminder that you pay for a zero waste life, in part, with time. It takes time to search for plastic-free items. It takes time to find bulk versions of products you love. And it takes time to make your own almond milk.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I can actually control my environmental footprint. Nobody can let me down if I can be in full control.’”.
There’s a financial cost to zero waste living, too: stainless steel razors and alum stone deodorants can be significantly more expensive than their plastic counterparts. Still, Hanson says she spends about $260 less per month than she did before her zero waste days, largely through buying less online (for the most part, she can’t shop on Amazon anymore), purchasing more durable products, avoiding snacks and junk food, and becoming more intentional about the items she brings into her life.
8:40 am: I get dressed in black jeans, a cotton shirt, and a patterned scarf. By the door, I grab my headphones, wallet, and keys, and slip on a pair of sparkly rain boots and a big puffy coat. Most of my belongings I’ve had for a long time, or bought secondhand. I pack my backpack with my daily essentials: my lunch in a metal container (it’s more lightweight than glass), a stainless steel water bottle that doubles as a coffee cup, cloth napkin and handkerchief, a set of bamboo utensils with a metal straw, and a grocery bag just in case.
10 am: After yoga, I ride my bike two miles to Eco Collective, the Ballard, Washington store that I co-own. We sell reusable alternatives to disposable products, made of recyclable or compostable materials and natural, non-toxic ingredients. I have a great conversation with a customer who tells me she’s transitioning to zero waste gradually, because she knows she’d get burned out otherwise. She’s finally running out of her old makeup and looking for something more sustainable. I encourage her to keep taking it one step at a time — it’s what I do, too.
Hanging over Hanson’s work and her thriving business, Eco Collective, is an overarching question: Does one individual’s waste reduction really make a difference? In terms of hard-and-fast numbers, the answer is probably “no,” says Marian Chertow, an Associate Professor of Industrial Environmental Management and the Director of the Program on Solid Waste Policy at Yale University. One person’s work — or even a hundred people’s work — won’t reduce the pressure on landfills, let alone affect climate change.
But the zero waste movement is still valuable, Chertow says — as pressure, and as inspiration.
“I admire those people who want to make less waste and live a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity,” Chertow says. “How much waste do they really reduce? The answer is it makes barely a dent. But the intangible side of that is the awareness that [zero wasters] raise about what’s possible. That’s important. And it’s especially important when it starts catching on at companies, hospitals and universities.”
Chertow is referring to movements to reduce waste on a large-scale basis, such as the supermarkets in Thailand and Vietnam that use banana leaves as packaging, or Seattle’s ban on plastic bags at grocery stores. Some municipalities are considering bans on plastic straws; others reward their residents for leaning heavily on recycling and composting, instead of throwing everything into a landfill. Many of these changes started at a grassroots level, inspired by people like Hanson.
6:30 pm: I bike home from work and arrive home to the smell of sautéed onions and garlic. Michael is making pasta with vegetable stir-fry and onion tofu from our favorite local tofu shop, which sells freshly made tofu in bulk. After dinner we pack our leftovers for lunch the next day. We clean up with dish soap bought in bulk, a biodegradable dish brush, and plant-based detergent pods that come in a recyclable paper box. For fun tonight, Michael and I play a game of dominoes and make candles using melted wax from old burned down candles — all we add is a new wick!
10 pm: Before bed, I brush my teeth, floss with refillable floss, clean my tongue with a metal tongue scraper, and swish around some herbal mouthwash. I wash my face with a bar of facial soap, and moisturize with some Yay for Earth natural face lotion, made by a zero waste Instagram influencer, @stevieyaaaay. The label on the glass jar reads “Nature on your face,” which makes me laugh every time.
In the end, it’s not all about the garbage, either. Hanson says the zero waste lifestyle has brought value to her life beyond the mere shedding of stuff; as much as it’s about improving the earth, it’s also about psychology. Politics can feel frustrating. Slow-moving institutions can be hard to trust. And as climate change news becomes more and more dire, as global solutions feel increasingly elusive, a feeling of control is nothing to shrug about.
“Becoming zero waste caused me to be more connected with the environment and my choices,” Hanson says. “I felt disempowered before, but now I have a purpose and something to do every day.”