I spent a week in Charlotte trying to live trash-free. Here’s how I did.

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My new bamboo toothbrush, providing some much-needed motivation.

For 19 years, I have been throwing trash away and instantly forgetting about it.

But when I read the June issue of National Geographic, “Planet or Plastic,” I was astounded by what I learned. The average American produces 4.4 pounds of trash per day, most of which ends up in landfills, where the oxygen-poor environment prevents even biodegradable trash from decomposing.

The numbers I read about stuck with me, and I knew I wanted to do something to reduce my own impact, so I decided to attempt to live trash-free for one week.

Here’s an account of my week attempting the zero-waste lifestyle (spoiler alert: I did terribly, but I learned a lot):

Monday

I wake up feeling ready to tackle the week. My first challenge presents itself immediately: every morning, I use two cotton balls to wash my face with witch hazel. For now, a face cloth will do, but I order these reusable organic cotton rounds for future use.

Next: breakfast. My morning routine is to wrap a bagel in a paper towel, put it in a Ziploc bag, and eat it on the way to work. Today, I just use a plate, since I’m going to eat it in my car anyway.

I meet my sister for dinner at Fenwick’s that night, but I’m running late and the waitress has already laid out plastic straws with our waters. I leave mine on the table and tell my sister about my challenge. A former server, she tells me that the straw will be thrown out regardless since it’s been put on our table. From now on, I’m going to have to request no straw, a concept which makes me shy. I intensely hate making special requests of any kind. Mother Nature, you owe me one.

Tuesday

I forget my beloved Camelbak water bottle in the car. I start to think very nobly about how I rather dehydrate myself than contribute to the plastic water bottle problem polluting our waterways, but then I remember I’m less than a minute away from my car. I go back to get it. Close call, there.

When I drink from the reusable bottle later, I’m feeling quite pleased with myself, although I think the hardest part of this challenge will be my forgetfulness. Wasteful habits are deeply ingrained in our culture, and it’s going to be hard to break that routine.

Wednesday

My mom and I decide to test out Waverly’s newly opened Cafe Moka, where I face a tough decision: I have a reusable Starbucks cup in my car. I know I should ask the barista to make my hot chocolate in it. But I desperately want to engage in my favorite hobby: Snapchatting my hot chocolate. How am I supposed to get a nice picture if you can’t see the Cafe Moka label? I deliberate until the last second. In the end, I am weak and accept the paper cup.

Unfortunately, the picture doesn’t even look that good and I just feel guilty and annoyed that I produced trash in such an easily avoidable situation. I start to think that maybe eco-friendliness is more important to me than Snapchat. Is that growth?

Thursday

I load my favorite Smelly Cat canvas tote bags in the car and head to Target to get some things to make a care package for a friend.

Of course, as soon as I arrive at Target, I immediately forget the tote bags in the backseat. After the paper cup fiasco yesterday, I really don’t want to use the plastic bag — I learned that plastic bags have a working lifetime of about 15 minutes but take 1,000 years to break down, releasing harmful chemicals all the way. I’m forced to precariously balance everything in my arms and rush shamefully to my car.

I want to use a box I already have to send the package. After a little hunting, I find an old shoebox in my mom’s closet that will work. Clearing out space and saving the planet!

Friday

Since I have a little free time today, I work on a canvas I’m painting for one of my mom’s coworkers. I’ve always used mason jars to clean my brushes, but to make the process a little more eco-friendly, I dig an old t-shirt out of the recesses of my drawers to use as a cleaning rag.

In the evening, my friends and I go to Food Truck Friday, my first opportunity to use one of the main phrases of the zero-waste community: “Just the food, please.” That way, even though I receive my grilled cheese in a paper tray, I don’t receive a stack of napkins, plastic utensils, or a plastic bag.

Saturday

I’m painting again today. I’m actually really enjoying my t-shirt rag — it’s starting to fill up with different colors and inks, so it’s almost like a record of what I’ve painted.

In researching zero-waste lifestyles, I’ve heard a lot about bamboo toothbrushes. I know that before I head back to college I’m going to buy new toiletries, so I decide to learn a little more about bamboo toothbrushes.

I don’t want to bore you with statistics, but it’s pretty grim: 4.9 billion toothbrushes are tossed every year, and unfortunately, many end up in the oceans. Approximately 90% of seabirds have ingested plastic.

I love birds! I don’t want to contribute to that mess anymore. I’m off to Target, this time with my canvas bag tucked under my arm, but I don’t see any bamboo brushes. I try Harris Teeter, where I find two brands in the bottom corner. One is wrapped in plastic, which seems to defeat the purpose, so I go with the one wrapped in cardboard.

Sunday

My parents and I go out for brunch at Stacks. The waitress puts out straws for us, and this time, I don’t even feel shy about telling her that I don’t need one. I’m so eager, in fact, that I tell my parents they don’t need one either and hand theirs back (am I going to become that person? Maybe).

In the evening, my friends and I decide to get takeout and eat outside. I again turn down the napkins I won’t use and the plastic bag I don’t need.

“Do you want utensils?” the guy behind the counter asks.

“No, thanks!” I say, because I wasn’t paying attention and missed the question. I end up reducing waste even more than intended, because I then have to borrow a metal fork.

Conclusions:

The zero-waste lifestyle isn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I think I had visions of my reusable water bottle and canvas tote bags replacing all of the trash in my life, but it’s not as simple as that. In many ways, our lives are designed to be disposable. Breaking that mold isn’t easy.

But it’s not impossible. Many of the changes I made were small and simple, often simply swapping one product, like synthetic cotton balls, for a reusable option, like organic cotton rounds.

Living completely waste-free is difficult and time-consuming, like most extreme lifestyles are. But living with consciously-reduced waste? That’s a pretty easy thing to do. And when I consider everything that the planet has given me, it’s the least I can do.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I think we could cut down on our plastic bag use if grocery stores start charging a small fee for plastic bags. It is done in Europe. Not a perfect solution and people will still pay for bags but may make some others change their mind about the whole thing. Ultimately, if want to look out for the future of our planet…we have to start somewhere

  2. I’m visiting NY right now and they charge 10 cents a bag and just that small charge made me go bagless yesterday. I think it’s a good idea.

  3. I lived in California in 2008 and they were charging for bags. It’s sad how much we waste everyday! I was at Whole Foods yesterday and they have taken away the opportunity to compost or recycle and it all goes to the landfill. Disappointing that corporations claiming to be green don’t take the responsibility to help the planet. Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. Why do they have to charge for bags to get you to stop using bags? Just bring your own bags and don’t use theirs. No need to punish others for your new religion.

    • Why is that punishment Steve? Do you really feel punished if you’re charged for a plastic bag? It’s about incentivizing the choice of bringing one’s own bags to the store — unfortunately, money talks and is a powerful way of changing human behavior…can’t just depend on appealing to people’s consciences.

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