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How it Began: Our Family's Journey to Zero Waste Living

Update: Since writing this post, the focus and goals of this blog have become more clear. While our family is still happily working toward Zero Waste living, I decided to expand our focus to give a broader and more authentic view of our lives. The post below still contains some great information, but don't miss the post Change is in The Air which explains more about the shift.

The decision to begin our journey to Zero Waste Living did not happen overnight. Rather, the shift happened slowly as it became clearer and clearer that the lifestyle we were living was not sustainable: not for us, not for our children, and not for the environment.

I had my first inkling that things needed to change when my husband and I filled an entire dumpster with discarded junk in preparation for a cross-country move from Louisiana to Montana. An. Entire. DUMPSTER. I feel embarrassed even writing about it. I remember staring at it with combined horror and fascination. How had we accumulated so much stuff?

We didn’t consider ourselves particularly wasteful people: we recycled, composted (when we remembered to take kitchen scraps to the bin), tried to reuse things like jars and containers, and even walked and biked to work when we could. We considered ourselves to be people who loved and cared for the environment. And yet here we were, staring down a miniature mountain of excess: beat-up furniture we’d been dragging around since college, toys with broken and missing pieces, piles of clothes too worn to donate, and just innumerable and unnamable stacks of things and stuff that we never needed and no one would miss.

Looking at these piles of excess, I found myself grappling with the uneasy feeling that this was wrong. We didn’t need so much stuff. We didn’t need to create so much waste. We could do MORE. And yet, facing down a cross country move with an infant and five-year-old in tow (in the midst of a pandemic no less) I didn’t have time to dwell on these thoughts. Any belongings that survived the purge went onto a moving truck destined for a storage facility. The kids and I headed to Montana to stay with family while I started a new job. My husband stayed behind for a few months to wrap up his work and to sell our house. For the time being, I could only focus on surviving the stress of moving, work, and (temporary) solo parenting.

Strangely enough though, we found we were okay living with less. With most things in storage, my wardrobe consisted of the contents of a single small suitcase, and I found I was fine with that. I discovered that if I took care to keep things clean, and mixed and matched my work clothes in creative ways, I could wear the same clothes a few times before doing laundry. I spent a lot less time washing and sorting clothes, and I also spent way less time getting ready in the morning because I had my outfits planned ahead for the entire week! When our moving truck arrived (two weeks behind schedule) I didn’t even bother unpacking any of the clothes because I just didn’t miss them. My husband survived with even less. He had a handful of clothes, an air mattress, and the bare minimum of kitchen supplies with him down in Louisiana and he wasn’t suffering (except for missing the family, of course).

The kids didn’t seem to miss their possessions either. They were content to play with a few treasured items, and to spend the rest of their time entertaining themselves with whatever they found around the house or in nature. Of course, isn’t that how it always goes with kids? They could have all the toys in the world, but they would rather spend their time playing with sticks and dirt and emptying all of the cups out of the cupboard.

This was the second step on our journey toward Zero Waste Living: realizing we could live with less.

The third step came when I tried curbside grocery pick-up, and just about every item came in it’s own individual plastic bag. I must have received nearly 50 plastic bags in a single grocery run. I was alarmed. Dismayed. Disgusted. Was my own convenience worth filling the world with so much unnecessary plastic?

Then came an offer on the house in Louisiana. We scheduled a closing date, and (finally) confirmed the date my husband would join us in Montana. Just a little longer until we were all back together and in our own space. And during one of those sleepless nights--brought on by anxiety that the house deal would fall through, and worry over my new job, concern about my husband’s upcoming cross-country drive (in addition to the normal stresses of life and finances and parenthood)--I thought again about the plastic bags.

I pulled out my cell phone and started searching online for reusable grocery bags. This led me down a deep late-night rabbit hole on environmentally friendly and sustainable living until finally-FINALLY!-I found a term for the idea my mind had been trying to articulate for some time: Zero Waste Living.

Zero Waste Living. Three simple words, but having finally named the philosophy I had been grappling with, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I read the entirety of Bea Johnson’s book Zero Waste Home in a single late-night binge. I thought again, not just about the plastic bags, but the dumpster, and all the tiny little ways we create waste every day. I knew this was the way we needed to live, and I realized that we would never have a better opportunity to design our lives around this idea. I decided we would move into our new home with zero waste living at the heart of all of our decisions.

In the middle of the night it seemed so simple, like I could wave a magic wand, buy the right products, and we would have our perfect, clean, sustainable home. The reality, of course, is a little more complicated. Zero waste is, after all, a journey, and no one reaches the destination immediately. Indeed, the goal of absolute Zero Waste Living is probably unattainable for 99.9% of people. However, that shouldn’t be a deterrent. Rather, it is a reminder that every step in the journey is important: every piece of plastic kept from entering our oceans, every jar reused, every unneeded item refused, and every decision made for the benefit of our environment contributes to the larger goal of caring for our planet and achieving a sustainable future for everyone on it.

Zero waste is indeed a pretty hefty goal, and I realized I couldn’t do everything all at once or I would become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand. Just as the need for a Zero Waste Lifestyle dawned on me in stages, the lifestyle itself would need to be implemented in stages.

That first week, I focused on eliminating all single waste and disposable plastic from my day to day life at work and at home (we were still staying with relatives at the time). While some things were easy and echoed steps I’d already been taking--using a reusable water bottle and coffee mug at work, for example--the intrusion of plastic in our everyday lives is more insidious than I had realized. The office candy jar? Off limits: the candy not only comes in a plastic bag, but each candy was individually wrapped. Forgot an afternoon snack? Sorry, no running to the corner store. Every snack is wrapped in plastic. Need to pick up a few groceries on the way home? Better have a reusable bag stashed in your purse to carry everything. This heightened awareness of the amount of plastic in our day-to-day lives truly opened my eyes. I encourage anyone who is curious about cutting down on their waste to commit to a week without disposable plastics. The amount we encounter every day is mind boggling.

And so began the start of phase one on our family’s journey toward Zero Waste Living. I hope you will join us on this adventure. Along the way I will share my best tips for making Zero Waste Living simple and fun for everyone.



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