Is a Zero Waste Lifestyle Possible?

 In WCS Blog
By Rosana Francescato

Special thanks to Amie Lewis and Mariya Kravchenko for organizing this excellent WCS event.

We’d all like to go zero-waste. But what does that mean? WCS Chair Lisa Ann Pinkerton posed the question to a panel of experts at our recent event, Is a Zero Waste Lifestyle Possible?

Zero waste as a concept

PictureModerator Lisa Ann Pinkerton

While some panelists offered concrete definitions about avoiding waste from manufacture to landfill, what emerged from the discussion was the idea of zero waste as a concept.

Zero waste is about more than materials and technology, said Jean Cacicedo, a textile artist, teacher, and lecturer. It’s about a shift in consciousness. We can all learn to question what we need, added

Christine Liu, an IT analyst driving sustainability at Cisco and founder of Packageless, and “learn to refuse.” Being aware of how our consumption affects the planet and where things are ending up can help us become more conscious and intentional about what we do consume


As Janelle Fitzpatrick, a zero waste specialist for the San Francisco Department of the Environment, put it, zero waste is about “valuing and using all of our resources at their highest and best use.”

The good news? Humans are adaptable. So Carter Hallock, founder of Rethink Green, which creates valuable products from waste carpet, is hopeful that we may see a generational shift in thinking about our consumption and our waste.

Leading by example

How can we encourage that kind of thinking, asked Lisa Ann, without putting on excessive pressure?
Beth Terry, author of the book Plastic Free, has found a way. She leads by example. While she set herself a challenge not to buy anything new and to get off plastic as much as possible, she didn’t try to make her husband go plastic-free. Instead, she aims to show people how fun and creative it can be to buy nothing — and how great you feel when you manage to fix something yourself.

Another method is to show people the difference they can make by changing their behaviors. This works at her office, said Christine. For example, she let people there know that if every employee stopped using disposable cups for a year, they’d save a whole tree.

Of course, even the best-intentioned of us encounter difficulties when trying to do the right thing. None of us would know how to drive, said James W. Kao, founder of electronics recycler GreenCitizen, if driving required as much knowledge as we need to recycle correctly!

That’s true even for a motivated group like the audience at our event.

What we can each do now

So, what do we do? The best we can, said Janelle. What drives people to make a change depends on the person, but there’s something for everyone. We each need to find the thing that will shift our intentions and leads to a paradigm shift. Even if you start with small actions, those actions tend to create a domino effect and add up to something bigger.

We also need action at the policy level. As an example, a local grocery bag policy changed the behavior of Beth’s dad. She never thought he’d carry a reusable bag — but he did it to avoid paying the extra 10 cents.

Still, it comes down to an interplay between policies and our own individual behaviors — and we do have a lot of power to affect policies, and to vote with our pocketbooks. Policies take a long time to put in place, but we can all do something now.

Bags again serve as a good example. We can simply avoid using bags for our produce, or use reusable bags. When using compostable bags, be sure to look for a compost certification. We can let stores know that bringing reusable containers for bulk items is important to us. Beth emphasized that talking with our dollars isn’t enough, unless we let companies know why we’re buying or not buying items.

Clothing is another area where we can make a difference. We could fill 1500 MUNI buses a year with the clothes people throw out, said Jean. We can do more in this area than reduce our consumption. It’s also important to know what to buy. Bamboo, for example, is not really a natural fabric, and its production creates toxic byproducts. Instead, we can choose organic cotton or hemp.

Zero waste and recycling life hacks

The discussion didn’t end there, as we delved into ways to motivate individuals and companies to recycle, how to address waste streams, and keeping recycling local. This event could have easily continued all day!

But we didn’t have all day, so Lisa Ann rounded out the morning by asking the panelists to share a life hack for recycling or living a zero-waste life. Her own is to take one of those very thin paper towels you find in public bathrooms and fold it a few times — you’ll find that it’s enough to dry your hands!

The panelists’ life hacks:

  • James: Just buy less!
  • Janelle: Save the used paper towel for later use to wipe off your desk. Cut up those little air bags that come with packaging, and use them for storing things.
  • Christine: Buy less! (Do you detect a theme here?) And connect with others who are also trying — like the Zero Waste Heroes Facebook group and the Zero Waste Bloggers Network.
  • Carter: Keep the people around you happy.
  • Beth: Check out her book, Plastic Free, and Bea Johnson’s new app, Bulk. To choose your wine by cork type, try Corkwatch, which  will tell you which wines use a natural cork.
  • Jean: Less is more — have fun with that.

What will you do to reduce waste in your life? Share your ideas and life hacks in the comments section below!

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