The Zero Life 

Two weeks, a zero-waste kit, and no trash

From the moment you wake up and brush your teeth, wash your hair, and shave your face with products packaged in non-recyclable containers, you're contributing to the waste stream. Need to buy something at a big box retailer or grocery store? Good luck finding anything in recyclable packaging. Going out to eat can be especially wasteful, as restaurants continue to use Styrofoam and other disposals, simply because it's deemed cheaper or easier than having to wash dishes.

Trying to live without generating trash is next to impossible. But we decided it was worth a shot.

For 14 days, the folks who participated in our experiment went to extremes, constantly discovering previously unnoticed and often unavoidable sources of trash in their daily lives. Between the lawyer and the meteorologist, the outdoor ed teacher and the work-at-home mom, the college student and the City Paper reporter, none of the eight participants made it more than three days without contributing to the waste stream.

Of course, attempting to live waste-free inevitably leads to some awkward moments. The girl at the register at your noontime haunt might look at you funny when you ask for your sandwich on a plate you just pulled out of your backpack. Bartenders might mock you when you tell them that their non-recyclable plastic cups won't do, or when you're seen dropping your empty cans and bottles into your purse. Your co-workers probably won't be too happy with you when you forget to take your hand towel to the bathroom, and they inquire about the wet door handle they've just grabbed on to. And try walking down the street with your dog's poo fisted in a dish glove — at least it's easier than rinsing out a poop baggie.

Erica Schneider is already the green type. The Coastal Conservation League intern and frame shop employee brings her own bags to the grocery store, composts in her backyard, and doesn't eat meat or animal products. But never before had she found herself sorting through the fruit bins at Earth Fare, looking for the peaches and plums without stickers on them because she didn't want to toss the add-ons into the trash. (Schneider later discovered that those stickers are edible and compostable).

Like most participants, she carried a mug with her for coffee and her own napkin and plate for eating out. But exactly what do you do with a hair tie when it breaks? Or the non-recyclable top from the recyclable soda bottle? Or for that matter, the condom that you're sure as hell going to use, zero waste experiment be damned?

Going waste-free will force you to make sacrifices. If you want cereal, you'd better buy it in bulk — Whole Foods even let us weigh our own reusable containers before tallying the cost of items in their bulk section. Foods like Clif Bars and chips don't make the cut — the wrappers and bags aren't recyclable — and most meats come packaged with Styrofoam and plastic. To go all the way, you'd even have to make your own products like toothpaste — mint and baking soda, anyone?

But with sacrifice comes innovation and substitution. Patricia Carson, a law student at the Charleston School of Law, brought a reusable bag with her to purchase a loaf of bread; the good folks at Saffron Bakery promised to reuse the plastic bag her loaf came out of. And instead of buying a half gallon of ice cream in a non-recyclable container, she'd go out for a walk and a cone when she got the craving.

"It was a way of keeping me from overindulging. It forced me to get on my bike and go get things more often," says Carson. "If I was in the mood for something, I had to go get it. It forced me to eat healthier."

Carson even went camping with a group of friends during the experiment, and apart from a s'more out of the community supply and the plastic from a 20-pound bag of ice, she managed to do the entire trip waste free.

Traveling to Greenville for her mother's birthday the next weekend wasn't so easy. When she let the folks at a coffee shop know that she was going to stay awhile, they still served her drink in Styrofoam, instead of a reusable ceramic mug. To make matters worse, the only creamer in sight was in individual plastic containers.

click to enlarge milk.jpg

To avoid waste on-the-go, a zero-waste kit became a necessity for the participants. Brad Sale, an environmental educator at Old Santee Canal Park in Moncks Corner, brought his own plate and cup when he went to eat at Subway. They didn't flinch, building his sandwich right on the plate, sans paper and plastic. "I just acted like it's what I normally do, which it will be from now on," says Sale.

Most everyone carried their own napkins and to-go plastic containers for leftovers. But biodegradable items like peach pits and banana peels don't break down well in an oxygen-starved landfill, and even the sugar cane- and corn-based cups and cutlery used at earth-conscious restaurants won't decompose if they're just tossed in the trash.

If you're going to live waste free, you need a compost bin, a fact that the members of our zero waste challenge were well aware of. From vacuum scraps to human hair, spoiled leftovers to paper napkins (accidentally used of course), the backyard decomposition piles of the participants received a heavy load over the two weeks.

Jessica Zichichi is a stay-at-home mom and a geographic information systems programmer. She normally goes the extra mile when it comes to her baby; Zichichi uses washable cloth diapers and breast-feeds her child. But finding a substitute for throw-away baby wipes? No, thanks. "I couldn't bring myself to dry them out and recycle them," she says.

Even for the most dedicated, eliminating trash completely simply wasn't feasible. From a new cell phone to iPod earphones, tampons to wax-lined dog food bags, there are many things that just can't be recycled — you have no choice but to toss them into the trash. You can't even buy a lickable stamp at the post office anymore.

The Mess Behind the Scenes

Broken down by person, the average South Carolinian generates 6.4 pounds of trash a day; 1.8 pounds more than the national average. Each of the zero-waste participants was able to fit their personally generated trash into a gallon bag for the two weeks. But that doesn't take into account all of the waste that is created during the production of the goods the participants used. Some estimates state that for every can of trash generated on the consumption end, there's as much as 70 times that waste created during production.

"There's waste that you've generated and waste that's generated on your behalf," says Alec Cooley, a Charleston-based project manager with the National Recycling Coalition.

Cooley participated in the challenge and found himself at a recycling conference where he was served a box lunch in a non-recyclable container, in which all the food items were wrapped in plastic, along with the typical plastic-wrapped silverware and napkin. He says that we've developed a culture where everything is disposable and perceived as having no value, a luxury that won't last much longer.

"Plastic bottles are made out of petroleum, and that's oil that's not being used to make other things, including gasoline," he says. "So why not recycle it, or better yet, refill an old bottle and use that water to make gas cheaper? We have a finite matter of resources. If we decide to squander them by using something once and then throwing it away, that's a resource we no longer have to use in other ways or otherwise leave for the next generation."

Unfortunately, many business owners continue to use disposables because up front, they're still the cheapest option available. But even big companies like Walmart are finding that packaging products efficiently ultimately saves money — less unnecessary plastic means more product fits on the truck, adding up to savings in shipping and energy costs.

"When you hear about that, it just makes sense. You're almost surprised that every company doesn't have someone managing sustainability and conservation," says Jonathan Lamb, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service and a zero-waste participant. "You can save so much money with simple changes."

A Cleaner Future?

Charleston County is staring a big trash monster in the eye this year. We're faced with the decision of whether or not to renew a 20-year contract with the incinerator, where nearly 80 percent of our household waste is burned and converted to electricity. The health, air quality, and mercury-releasing effects of that facility have been well-reported, and are concerns shared by citizens and government alike.

But because we rely on the incinerator to handle so much of our waste, taking the trash that otherwise would have been burned and transferring it to a landfill is also problematic. It would require us to either haul waste to neighboring counties or construct a new landfill. The latter is questionable because of our proximity to sea-level and the high water table. It's also less-than-popular with the potential neighbors of any new Mt. Trashmores.

In response to public input during the incinerator debate, County Council voted to establish a Green Ribbon Committee earlier this summer. Over 60 applications were received, and by November, the members should be chosen and an outside consultant decided upon. After that, the Committee will begin discussing how to best move forward on the solid waste issue.

"It's the four 'R's — reduce, reuse, recycle, and rethink. It's a whole new thought process of what we're trying to do," says Councilwoman Colleen Condon. "I think we're going to be seeing lots of changes."

Condon emphasizes that even while disposable products seem cheaper on the front end, businesses, particularly restaurants, that have switched to recycling and reusable products see significant savings when they're able to reduce or eliminate dumpster fees. Restaurants and bars like Monza and Raval that utilize Fisher Recycling, a local pick-up service, echo those claims.

So with the City of Charleston adopting its own Green Committee (separate from the County entity), could comprehensive waste reduction, even zero waste, be a possibility here? A recently adopted resolution by the City of Austin, Texas, calls for zero waste (or darn close) by 2040. Their plan calls for banning problem products and packaging, encouraging composting in homes and schools, and "pay as you throw" incentives to discourage putting recyclables into the waste stream.

Charleston's recycling rate is currently at 30 percent. Ideas like city-wide recycling pick-ups for businesses, currently offered only privately, would likely be the first to come to the table.

"We each need to take personal responsibility and learn to conserve again," says the Recycling Coalition's Cooley. "That doesn't mean we have to do extreme things like carry our own plates and utensils to a restaurant, but it does mean moving beyond the 'throw it away' mentality."

the kit

Want to try it yourself? In addition to avoiding non-recyclables, a zero-waste kit and a compost bin are essential.

Here's what we kept on hand:

•Refillable drink bottle/coffee mug

•Plate and utensils

•Cloth napkin

•Personal hand towel

•Reusable plastic container for leftovers/bulk items at store

•Mesh bag for produce

•Cloth grocery bags

Recycling 101

Charleston County lets us be a bit lazy. Apart from paper and cardboard, we're instructed to put all of our recyclables together in the big blue bin, no sorting required. (Put paper products in a separate container or a paper bag.) Don't have a blue bin? Get as many as you need free at their facility (13 Romney St., Downtown). Once the contents of your bucket get to Romney Street, a team of dedicated workers sorts it — #1 plastics, #2 plastics, glass, and otherwise recyclable jars and cans you were too lazy to wash; a magnet sucks up all the metal. But just because that jug is plastic doesn't mean you can throw it in the bin. Plastics #3 through #7 are either too expensive or lack the demand for the County to accept them. So check your numbers. Milk bottle? Good to go. Ketchup bottle, plastic wrap, CD tray, and Tupperware? Probably not. Now get really eco-savvy and check the number before you buy it.

  • Illustration by Scott Suchy/CCP

Make your own compost bin

Here's a super easy DIY project. Try it, then use the healthy soil to grow your own.

1. Get a plastic bin or trash can with a tight-fitting lid. Punch five to 10 small holes in the bottom, a few around the sides near the top, and about 10 in the lid. This provides oxygen to the bacteria making your compost.

2. Fill the container two-thirds with the following: about one-fourth with dry leaves or newspaper, one-half with dirt from your yard, and one-fourth with green plant debris. Go ahead and add any fruit and veggie leftovers, egg shells, and tissue paper-like materials you have ready to compost. NO MEAT. Mix well.

3. Spray the mixture, so it's moist but not soaked.

4. Put the lid on.

5. Add scraps (and stir!) at least once a week. The smaller the scraps and the more you stir, the quicker the decomposition process.

Keep your compost moist, well-mixed, and out of constant direct sunlight. Secure the lid well with a brick or you may make some raccoon friends. If it starts to smell, it's too wet or you've added too many scraps. Move it further from your back door and give it a couple of days. After a month or two, you should have healthy black compost, ready to mulch your home garden, flower beds, or house plants.

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