During this time of shelter in place, the increase in garbage for a family who strives for zero waste is frustrating. Bulk food bins are closed, Instacart shoppers put our produce in plastic bags, and groceries are also delivered in new plastic bags. California has spent years getting shoppers habituated to carrying our own bags, and we suddenly were asked to go back to generating garbage. Republic Services, the second largest garbage and recycling hauler in North America, has laid out major disrupting factors to their business – including an expected 30% increase to residential waste volumes as people stay home and some are panic purchasing. This means trucks fill faster and must return to the centers more often during routes. Increased costs can be borne by a company in the short-term, but if residential waste volumes remain elevated, these costs will be passed along to consumers. And that landfill of ours that has about 15 years left before “FULL” status? That timeline gets shorter with an increase in waste, too.
Given the increase in waste around groceries, what else are we supposed to do – or even capable of doing – to keep our waste down? The motto in our house has long been ‘Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without’, but those words seem especially true these days. Buying food in bulk, if it can be stored properly, is one great way to reduce packaging. There are plenty of nonfood items that we carry that can replace disposables. During “normal” days, these items helped us feel good about reducing our waste. However, during times of crisis when going out in public can be anxiety-inducing, the presence of these reusable items is reassuring. Not only do they help reduce waste, but they also keep us safer by avoiding trips to the store.
Beeswax wraps help store food without plastic wrap or aluminum foil. A nutmilk bag, combined with a large bag of raw almonds, helps us make “milk” as we need it, without the risk of spoilage. That bidet attachment reduces the amount of toilet paper used. An old sheet can be turned into handkerchiefs to avoid paper tissues. A menstrual cup and period panties eliminate the need to buy feminine hygiene supplies every month (and wow does that investment save money!). Even for the laundry, wool dryer balls eliminate the need to keep buying dryer sheets. Reusable face masks can be washed every day after deliveries and eliminate the need for disposable masks… which are hard to find these days anyway!
These individual actions help increase our consciousness of the waste that we generate, but let’s be honest. While individual actions are important, we need larger impact than just this to really turn the ship around on plastic pollution. We need major policy changes and for reusable items to become the norm in our culture. We can all play a role in this – take action by replacing one more disposable item. Talk about your action with your friends and family. Be the example today. Be the consistent example next week. But also – shop to avoid packaging AND tell major corporations that they need to rethink their packaging. This is the way to vote with our wallets. Write letters to our policymakers – on the local, state, federal levels – to express your opinion on what needs to happen, or even just to explain what you see as the problem. By focusing on these actions, we will create momentum in the right direction.
Thank you all for your support during these times, and for everything you do to reduce waste during this time. Just because we may have a more pressing problem today doesn’t mean that what we considered a problem yesterday is resolved.