2 years of trash in a jam jar: People striving to go 'zero-waste' say it's worth the effort

Morgan Hines
Living waste-free, or waste-free-ish, isn't as hard as you'd think. We spoke to zero wasters to see how people can get started.

Imagine fitting months of your trash into a single mason jar. Sounds impossible, right?

Kathryn Kellog, owner of the blog, "Going Zero Waste" and author of "101 Ways to Go Zero Waste" did just that on her zero-waste journey.

After two years of effort to send nothing to the landfill, she was left with only a small jar of waste that couldn't be reused: produce stickers, tags from thrift stores, straws, one cocktail stirrer and tape (from when she purchased mason jars to use for other purposes).

"I stopped tracking after two years because it just felt vain," she said.

While Kellog was able to limit her trash to a jam jar, Americans on average discard 2,555 pounds of materials annually, according to a 2018 report from the Frontier Group citing a Columbia University study.

Kellog had a breast cancer scare at age 20. She started to think more about what she was putting into her body as a result. She found research suggesting plastic disrupts the endocrine system.

That's how her journey to living without plastic and going zero-waste began.

No one can have absolutely zero-waste, she admits. "However we can reduce, reuse and recycle to the point where we have very little waste," Kellog said.

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Reducing your waste can be fairly easy if you make it a long-term lifestyle. It's a collection of small habit changes over time resulting in less waste, according to Lauren Singer, who owns the blog "Trash is for Tossers" and the Package Free Shop in Brooklyn, New York. 

But that kind of change can't happen overnight. "It's like the equivalent of crash dieting," Singer said.

Getting started:

Singer recommends starting with small steps — don't try to purge yourself of garbage overnight.

A simple first step: look in your full trash can to see what can be eliminated. If there are plastic water bottles, stop buying the disposable bottles in favor of a reusable one, for example.

"It's just about doing what you can," said Dani Brown, a Pittsburgh-area journalist, who also strives to live waste-free. A large part of living waste-free is trial and error.

Here are three simple changes to make to get started:

  1. Choose reusable bags instead of plastic bags when going grocery shopping.
  2. Buy fruits or vegetables that come without packaging.
  3. Switch from disposable straws, utensils, takeout containers and water bottles to reusable options.  

Kellog emphasized switching from disposable to reusable goods. "You're literally paying for trash, which is absurd," she said.

Singer recommends continuing with small steps by replacing things within the regular pace of your daily life rather than replacing all your products at once.

"If you run out of toothpaste, it's good opportunity to buy plastic-free," she said. 

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The payoff:

Singer said that cutting back on your own waste is an incredible way for an individual to make an impact, especially to help fight climate change.

The United States produced 30% of the world's trash, according to the report from the Frontier Group, despite making up only 4% of the world's population. Methane, which is produced by trash, locks in 25 times more heat to our atmosphere than carbon dioxide. 

The EPA reported that in 2015, Americans produced, on average, 4.48 pounds of municipal solid waste per person per day. 

The results of the efforts to be waste-free have more benefits than just helping the environment, though.

Brown said that as a result of her package-free lifestyle, her diet is mostly plant based, which makes her feel better and healthier.

And it's an economically friendly lifestyle, according to Kellog. After two years of living waste-free she saved $12,000. Singer too, said that she has saved a ton of money over time living zero waste.

"A lot of people think it's going to be more expensive or super time-consuming and it's really not," said Kellog. "It's about simplifying your life."

Singer said going waste-free isn't a time sucker, for her. In terms of washing all her reusable items she said that it's equal in time consumption since people should be washing recyclables before disposing of them anyway. And for things like toothpaste, it takes her 30 seconds to make her own as opposed to the 20 minutes it would take her to go to the drug store to pick up.

Brown, on the other hand, said that trying to be waste-free has taken up more of her time. She spends an additional 30 minutes daily packing and washing her reusable lunch containers and an extra 30 minutes every two months to make her own skincare products, toothpaste, lip balm and cleaner.

But she doesn't mind too much.

"I never thought I'd enjoy making my own products, but it's become a creative outlet for me, one I never expected," said Brown.

Follow Morgan Hines on Twitter: @MorganEmHines.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Zero-waste: Meet 3 people who barely throw anything away