Can you live trash-free like Lauren Singer? Sure, but it’ll take some work. Much easier will be to use her tips to cut out around 80% of your waste. And if you look close enough, you’ll see a few places where you can beat Singer at her own game.
The jar pictured here is what Singer claims to be two years worth of trash. That’s it. Impossible? No, but you’ll have to cheat a bit to get there.
Singer is a New York City resident who lives trash-free and blogs about it. Mostly she does this by avoiding goods with packaging, but in some cases she ditches a product entirely, swapping in a home made version. Her toothpaste, for example, is a mix of coconut oil, bicarbonate of soda, and peppermint oil. If you already use a bicarb toothpaste you’ll love it.
Singer’s best advice for reducing trash is to reduce packaging. Instead of buying packaged goods, shop at bulk stores and take your own containers. Fresh produce is even easier–you buy at a local market or in the loose-produce section of your supermarket, and take your own canvas bags instead of snatching yet another plastic bag off the roll.
At home, you can compost food waste, swap paper towels for cloths, and replace things like dishwasher detergent with bulk-bought Castile soap. You can even go back to before the time of dishwasher soap, and use baking soda to cut the grease instead.
Much of Singer’s technique involves composting, but she counts a lot of things as “compostable” that would never make it into any gardeners composter. Nevertheless, wood-and-bristle dishwashing brushes are better than disposable sponges, and a bamboo toothbrush might not decompose for a few years, but even in a landfill it’s better than the plastic version.
Bulk-buying is the other secret, but we don’t mean stocking up on multipacks of soda from the supermarket. “Bulk products often come packaged in easily recyclable packaging,” says Singer. Bulk-buying is also key for those people who don’t have a store in their town that sells loose goods. I put it to Singer that many of her blog’s followers talk about mail ordering goods, which seems counter to her local, mile-zero philosophy.
“I suggest ordering this way instead of buying many small items of a certain type because all of that packaging requires energy to produce and recycle,” she says, pointing out that bulk-ordered items often come in basic, more easily recycled packaging.
“On top of that when you buy something from a store it means that it’s often going from a producer to a distributor to a store, and then eventually to you,” she says. “That’s a lot of fossil fuels.” Mail order cuts out all these middlemen.
Cleaning products are another problem, although when you switch to simpler, home-made alternatives it’s an easier problem to solve. “Some things are difficult to find in bulk such as vinegar, so I choose to buy them in large glass containers because I know I use a lot. I can also reuse the containers or recycle them,” Singer told me. Soaps are easy to find at co-ops and natural food stores, or you can go straight to source: “It is also possible to contact local soap producers to see if they would sell their product straight to you without packaging. From what I have seen, they will.”
What about take-out? Surely you deserve to kick back and enjoy dinner without cooking once in a while? Singer’s advice is to take your own containers. “I have called ahead and kindly asked if I could bring my own packaging because I don’t like to use plastic or waste single-use containers, and thus far I have had a 100% success rate with people saying yes.” Not only that, restauranteurs actually dig it (or so she claims). “They usually say that it is really cool that I [bring my own containers] and they wish they would see it more.”
Pizza might be tricky though–maybe opt for a calzone and bring it home in a paper bag.
Singer’s biggest “cheat” is toilet paper, which gets flushed–if it exits via the plumbing, it doesn’t count as trash? Also, while recycling is a lot better than just tossing the trash into the landfill, it’s better to reuse than recycle, and even better not to buy something to begin with. But we’re not here to pick faults with Singer’s trash-less tricks, because she’s doing a way better job than most of us.
A few things strike me as odd though. On her mostly excellent Zero Waste Alternatives list, Singer has alternatives to drier sheets and drinking straws. How can either of these be considered essential to life? It seems hypocritical to try for a trash-free lifestyle while drying your clothes in a drier. It might be better to do it the way every non-U.S. country does it, and hang those wet clothes up to dry on an outdoor line or an indoor rack. Your clothes will last longer too.
The other big problem is Singer’s advice to replace your existing Tupperware and plastic kitchenware with “sustainable, long-lasting alternatives, such as organic cotton, stainless steel, wood, and glass.” Even if you recycle or donate it, replacing perfectly serviceable tools with new ones is hardly sustainable. Better to use what you’ve already got.
That said, Singer’s advice is generally good, and easy to follow. Less packaging, more buying of loose goods, and if you really can’t get away without packaging, make sure it’s recyclable.