A recent article in the Atlas Obscura “Fascinating Photos from the Secret Trash Collection in a New York Sanitation Garage” reminded me of all the things that get thrown away in NYC on a daily basis. Our society produces a lot of garbage, and much of it does not need to be destined for the landfill. In fact, we salvaged a piano keyboard one of our neighbours was throwing out and I personally know a nanny who furnished her entire living room from someone who was redecorating and throwing the older version to the curb. New York City is a special place where garbage gets picked up three times a week and where a lack of cars coupled with general wealth makes it easier to buy new with free delivery rather than second-hand and rent a truck/movers to help with bigger pieces.
In August 2017, our family started a project to reduce the trash we produce beyond composting, bringing our own bags to the grocery store, carrying refillable water bottles with us, and making most of our own household cleaning products (which we mostly already did). At the time, I wrote a list of things we would try, including some easy “swaps” from disposable items, to reduce our trash footprint, so here we are in January 2018 with some insight into what worked, what did not, and where we can improve.
1) Easy swaps from disposable items:
-Compostable bamboo toothbrushes instead of plastic. The brand I bought were more of a medium rather than the soft bristle advertised, but were an easy switch. When it’s time for a new toothbrush, simply snap off the toothbrush head (the bristles aren’t compostable) and throw the handle into the organics bin. Easy peasy!
–Menstrual cup instead of feminine products – the Lunette cup is comfortable, you aren’t confronted with your period every time you go to the loo, and it work like a charm, even overnight (but use an alternative when doing yoga on heavy flow days…). Why hadn’t I switched sooner?
– Stainless steel safety razor instead of disposables. Ladies, consider a razor with a longer handle for improved grip when shaving legs. It’s a super close shave for soft, soft skin, but take your time shaving! I still sometimes get cuts around my knees and ankles.
– Hankies made out of old t-shirts . I know it sounds gross but they are soft and work great for regular nose blowing. We still use disposable tissues when we have colds to decrease spread of germs, but hankies have their place in our home.
Between these changes, there is way less trash in the bathroom garbage bins.
2) Changing the usual liquid laundry detergent to a more sustainable option. The original plan was to use compostable soap nuts, but I couldn’t find any for sale near us. Instead I tried my hand making zero-waste laundry detergent, which was fine but not something I was likely to continue on an ongoing basis. Happily I found an alternative with way less plastic made by Seventh Generation.
3) Getting our building to participate in the NYC organics program. Major win!!! It took the better part of a year and influence from a friend on the condo board, but as of January 3, 2018, our building will have a brown bin for food waste in the basement and I no longer have to bring compostables to the farmer’s market or CSA! Hopefully this becomes a major nudge to other families in our building to start separating organics and food waste from regular landfill-bound trash.
Making/buying reusable produce bags to decrease our reliance on plastic. I made two of these bags as a sewing project, but couldn’t bring myself to use them outside of our CSA farmshare. They are still a bit counter-culture for me and while we bring large grocery bags when shopping, I don’t think to bring produce bags when I go out. I have on occasion re-used plastic produce bags from home, but I don’t do this regularly. My wish for grocery stores: please provide compostable plastic produce bags to help your customers go green.
What Needs Improvement:
1) Fully letting go of online grocery shopping due to the excess packaging. We live in New York City, and like most, we don’t have a car. Even if we did, there are no grocery stores with parking lots, so for us, online grocery shopping and food delivery was the most amazing part of moving here. We tried switching from Fresh Direct to Amazon Fresh because groceries were delivered in re-usable totes, but were disappointed when the Amazon Fresh drivers weren’t interested in taking the totes back, plus there was tons of inside packaging (plastic bag liners, cushions, etc). I now mostly shop in store and either take a taxi/the subway home or get the store to deliver once I’ve paid for the groceries. Buying in-store is not ideal as it takes more time and I am prone to “trying things” (those pesky impulse purchases!). Impulse purchases mean I don’t always have enough reusable bags with me, the haul gets heavy quickly, and I buy treats that aren’t healthy. I really do miss online grocery shopping, and for heavy purchases, I still use Fresh Direct. Good news on the horizon though, a Trader Joe’s is opening nearby in spring 2018 and more online grocery giants are thinking of using re-usable bags. In the meanwhile, I think I may fold up a Costco or IKEA bag really small to ensure I always have enough bags.
2) DIY cosmetics: some worked, some didn’t. I have a small jar of organic cocoa powder I sometimes use as blush or dry shampoo, but to be honest, while it works well, I’m pretty aware of the scent throughout the day. I mostly go make-up free other than face cream, mascara and lip balm (I have enough lip balm to last several years). I have previously made my own deodorant which worked well on the first batch, but not well on the second. I’ve also found a zero-waste option at LUSH cosmetics, and while it works well, I’m not sold on the scent. Will look for more recipes as I work through the products I still have at home.
3) Buying toys with less packaging/buying fewer toys. We were doing well until Christmas and O’s winter birthday. He received some “experience” gifts, but also really . wanted some transformers and superheroes which are all over-packaged. Overall, we bought fewer items made of plastic, opting instead for wooden versions, books and clothes, but once you factor in some online shopping and all the packaging there, we did not succeed. This category “needs improvement” because children do play with toys, and we need to think of other ways to decrease the trash that comes with them. Ideas are appreciated!
Overall, we have become more diligent with reducing our trash and have gone from taking out a grocery bag of trash every day or two, to taking out a grocery bag a week. We also have cut down on the items we buy that come in plastic packaging and take out recycling no more than once a week (except during the holidays). A few things I’d like to continue working on is the amount of plastic yogurt cups we go through and to find a good system to keep items without plastic wrap (which we ran out of in October)…I may need to buy more clear glass containers as jars with lids are somehow not working for us, and I decided not to buy beeswax wrap because I need to see through the film.
Something I learned from this experience is that there are a number of ways to reduce trash and recycle. Some plastic bags, including bread bags and those plastic “pillows” that protect your online deliveries can be brought back to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s stores to be recycled. These can be made into composite material for building decks and benches. It’s still not zero-waste, but better than the landfill where it takes 1000 years for a single plastic bag to degrade. In New York, textiles and clothing that is too used for donation can be recycled at your nearby farmer’s market “Clothing is not trash” booth and many places across Canada and the US recycle used batteries. Clearly it is best to just reduce the amount of extraneous stuff you are bringing in (or stop shopping altogether, like Ann Patchett?), but we can all make a difference with a few baby steps.