THE CAR AT A STOPLIGHT, I cried into an M&M’s McFlurry. Maybe it was because I was fighting a killer cold. Maybe it was the ever-intensifying acne situation on the left side of my face. Maybe it was the fact that I wanted nothing more than to eat a fucking M&M’s McFlurry. The castor oil mascara I bought off of Etsy ran down my face as I looked into my rear view and chanted, “Nineteen more days. Nineteen more days.” I was less than two weeks into my challenge to live waste-free for a month.
I drove home and put my McFlurry cup with the rest of my trash, accumulating quickly to the top of a Mason jar.
I’m Erin. I work at the Kaimin. I’m bad at organization, I’m bad at time management, and my meal prep usually means buying Lean Cuisines at 10:30 p.m. from the 24-hour Albertsons on Van Buren. I love wearing makeup, I love buying clothes, and when it comes to shoes, my mentor is Carrie Bradshaw. And for the entire month of September, I decided to try and totally change.
The average college student produces about 640 pounds of trash every academic year, according to Planet Aid, a nonprofit charity that reports on various environmental statistics. A lot of that’s attributed to school supplies and other temporary goods, things a lot of students throw away at the end of every year. Just picture the overflowing Dumpsters on campus and the “FREE” signs on curbs as people move out of dorms and off-campus apartments to go home for the summer and you’ll get the point. As for the average American, we produce a whopping 4.4 pounds of waste per day. This includes plastics, packaging, clothes, food scraps … you get the picture.
The movement to go waste-free is based on the idea that if individual consumers can cut out their use of plastics, disposables and anything that can’t be reused, recycled or composted, they reduce significant waste and, in turn, their carbon footprints. It starts with one person, right?
We’ve all heard of the three R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle. Waste-free-ers say there’s a fourth: refuse, as in, ”No thanks, I’ll pass, I don’t need that plastic bag.” They argue the lifestyle isn’t about perfection, it’s about making decisions and being more conscious about the ecological impact those decisions have.
That’s all sunshine and rainbows, but it’s a little hard to believe that waste-free living is as easy as influencers, like Lauren Singer from TrashIsForTossers, make it seem. Singer’s built her personal brand by displaying a solitary Mason jar containing all of her garbage from the last four years on the main page of her YouTube channel.
I’ve always been intrigued by drastic lifestyle-changing trends like veganism, minimalism or waste-free living, but it’s always more of a “How-the-hell-can-anyone-actually-do-this?” Sort of curious.
Here’s the thing: Waste-free life seems expensive, time-consuming and frankly a little too privileged for a college student to successfully accomplish. But hey, you can’t knock it till you try it. So I tried it. Thirty days. No plastic. No waste unless totally necessary. How hard could it really be?
The first person I told about this challenge was my roommate, Sara, who also works at the Kaimin. I’m partially blaming her for the idea. She came home one afternoon in August with beeswax food wrap, sending my brain into a spiral which ultimately led to a neuron firing off the idea of living waste-free.
“I think less waste comes from better planning,”
she said when I asked for her advice. She looked at me and raised her eyebrows.
“You better write that one down.”
Instead, I went on YouTube.
One search of “waste-free living” later, I was watching a girl with lavender hair tell me her video was sponsored by Ecosia and assuring me that all I had to do was buy a Diva Cup and a metal straw and I’d basically become Missoula’s own Greta Thunberg.
I have a metal straw and a hormonal IUD, so: check and check. Waste-free living is no match for me.
But as the first few days of September came and went, it really started to sink in just how large-scale a waste-free lifestyle change is. I guess I must’ve overestimated my abilities, because I just figured I would avoid buying plastic, use my canvas tote bags, and buy some food in bulk. Bingo, bango, bongo; waste-free living, baby.
There were things I hadn’t even considered until I realized I couldn’t use them. I couldn’t shave my legs, unless I wanted to spend $80 on a metal razor and razor heads. I needed to buy deodorant packaged in a glass jar — Fiji Old Spice wouldn’t cut it anymore. I had to get a handkerchief to dry my hands instead of paper towels. Makeup? It turns out you can buy waste-free makeup — meaning it’s packaged in glass or tins — online, if you’re willing to spend $32 on tinted moisturizer. And toothpaste! How had I forgotten about that?
It was time to look for affordable alternatives. I found an Esty shop called Clean Faced Cosmetics. Laura from Grand Rapids sent me vegan cocoa powder tinted moisturizer, castor oil mascara and powder eyeshadow. Lauren Singer from TrashIsForTossers had a recipe for homemade toothpaste on her blog.
Cut to me on Sept. 6 in the kitchen with coconut oil, baking soda and peppermint essential oil to make toothpaste, legs growing even more stubbly, starting to regret that I signed onto a whole month of this.
As I put on my waste-free makeup for my first waste-free Friday night downtown, I thanked God the Union is dimly lit.
“I can’t. It’s wrapped in plastic.”
“I can’t. They’re in plastic.”
“Thanks, but that’s plastic.”
- Me, annoying everyone around me.
Let’s talk plastic pollution.
A plastic bottle takes 450 years to biodegrade. Plastic straws biodegrade after 200 years. Single-use plastic bags usually kick the bucket after 20. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, plastics can also break down into “microplastics,” which are small enough that they can be hard to detect, and even harder to clean up.
Remember microbeads, the tiny plastic nubs in face and body wash? They’re great at exfoliating and even better at showing up in our oceans. A 2015 study from Environmental Science and Technology found that 8 trillion microbeads entered aquatic environments every day. If that’s not exhausting enough to hear, microbeads aren’t even the biggest contributor to the microplastic issue. Car tires are, with rainfall, sweeping upwards of 7 trillion rubber fragments from streets into the San Francisco Bay Area alone every year.
What’s more: 60 million plastic water bottles are thrown away every day, according to the Container Recycling Institute.
I thought of Rich, the old man from Chicago who came into my job on day two. When I told him about my fresh, new, not-yet-waste-free-mascara-stained-waste-free-lifestyle, he said,
“You know, I’ve been saying this for years, but humanity is a cancer to this earth. We’re going to wipe ourselves out and this earth is just gonna keep spinning.”
I was starting to agree with him.
Like most of us in our 20s in the 2010s, I feel like I’m all right at the three R’s. I try to find reusable items and avoid buying things unnecessarily, and I try to recycle whenever it’s available. But “refusing” turned out to be a lot harder than I thought.
Packing a mason jar of cucumber slices for a snack radiates Health Goddess Energy but somehow packing a mason jar of pickles just? I don't know, hits different?— Erin Sargent (@_erin_maureen) September 8, 2019
And, listen, this is a me thing. I could buy all my clothes secondhand, but I like H&M sometimes. I could buy local from the farmer’s market in the summer, but I buy frozen veggies because it’s easier. I could reduce how much makeup I wear, but I really like makeup. I could buy an $80 razor, but I like not being broke.
Thanks to plastic, I was refusing meat. I was refusing easy lunches during busy days at school. I was refusing cheese. Motherfucking cheese, guys.
“Hi, I’m so sorry, I know this is really specific, but do you know if I could find lip balm that isn’t packaged in plastic? No? OK, what about a bar of face soap packed in like, a cardboard box or tin? No, that’s OK! I’m sorry!”
- Me, to the poor Lucky’s Apothecary girl
I was having a really hard time finding the things I needed. I went to Lucky’s, to the Green Light, to Google. This stuff is expensive, and it’s hard to find. There always seemed to be some element of plastic involved. Even at Lucky’s and the Good Food Store, where I could buy food in bulk, my options were limited. Fruits and veggies in the produce section are labeled with stickers, and no, they aren’t edible, despite what a “fun facts” Twitter account may have told you. Metal straws are packaged in plastic. Want fresh blackberries? They’re in plastic, too.
Everywhere I went, all I could see was plastic. Plastic windows on cardboard pasta boxes. Plastic cold medicine packaging. Metal straws packaged in plastic. It was depressing as hell. I was staring down a problem I’d always navigated around. Now it was controlling my every move.
I first cracked one week in. After lying in bed for 20 minutes trying to get the taste of coconut oil and baking soda to feel clean, I got up and washed my face with my plastic-bottle acne wash and brushed my teeth with toothpaste that tastes like peppermint, goddammit.
The next day, I drove to the Good Food Store in shame and bought a charcoal face bar ($8), a cocoa lip balm ($6), hand lotion ($14) and a metal tube of charcoal toothpaste ($9 advertised as “fluoride-free” because the Venn diagram of people who live waste-free and people who believe fluoride is toxic might as well be a circle. I’m looking at you, Lauren Singer.)
Out of this whole month, the one thing that drove me the most insane was how many things I needed to buy. Going waste-free, initially, means a bonkers amount of consumerism. Yes, definitely use what you have until you have to replace it, and then you can buy something that will last longer. But you still have to buy all of those things.
And then there are the products you have to keep buying: toothpaste, deodorant, lotion, Chapstick, soap, shampoo, conditioner — all the things you need to use regularly. It’s overwhelming. Need to clean your house? You need to buy cleaning supplies in bulk. Need another month’s worth of toiletries? You could order them online from LUSH or Package Free Shop, if you’re willing to ignore the environmental impact of shipping and processing to get that stuff to your home. And that’s never going to stop. You’re always going to be shopping like this.
I mean it’s crazy, really crazy, the products out there marketed to waste-free-ers. Within three weeks, my Instagram feed contained ads for reusable Q-tips. REUSABLE Q-tips. That you wash yourself. Gross.
And I got sucked in, too. I was so close to buying that shit, just for the hell of it. I wanted so badly to clean my ears out after I showered. When I started this journey, I didn’t realize I would miss Q-tips so much.
“Is it recyclable?”
“Can I compost this?”
“Where can I go on campus to compost this?”
- Me, every time I bought food
“Sustainability” is a buzzword everywhere you go in 2019. UM is no exception. UM Dining throws it around a lot, having just recently proposed ridding campus of plastic straws and investing in compostable to-go food packaging. The lovely man who works at Harvest, in the Food Court, told me about the packaging. He then saw me almost three times a week for all of September.
But here’s the catch. When UM Dining employees say packaging is compostable, what they mean is biodegradable. Everything is made out of a corn fiber plastic-substitute called polylactic acid, or PLA. PLA will eventually biodegrade in landfills, taking anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years, depending on how tightly the landfill is packed. PLA can decompose within about three months, though, if it’s processed through an industrial composting plant. But UM doesn’t do that.
“We would have to have a complete infrastructure to support that and, to be honest with you, UM just doesn’t have that,”
Camp Howard, head of UM Dining, told me.
“And I’m not sure any school really has that.”
Sept. 30 was the Bad Place. I counted down the hours to my planned midnight shower. I wake-dreamed about shaving. I wanted to use a goddamn Q-tip. I wanted Crest toothpaste in my mouth after it had sat untouched for 23 days.
I had succeeded, to a degree, to live waste-free, but it also made me feel like a failure. There were so many details from the rest of life I couldn’t dedicate time to. I had to clean my bathroom, but I didn’t have waste-free cleaning supplies. I had food scraps, but not the time to send them to a composter. I had pills I needed to take that were in plastic prescription bottles, or individually wrapped. Plastic is everywhere, and cutting it out after 21 years on the planet had been frustrating and tiring. It was all I had been thinking about. I fucking needed it to end.
Here’s my big takeaway: Waste-free living is so surface-level. Trying to achieve the perfection of one Mason jar filled with four years worth of garbage just feels performative. And it’s fully based on the individual consumer. Just because one person doesn’t produce any waste by buying an apple from the grocery store doesn’t mean that apple is waste-free. What energy and water did it take to grow that apple? To ship it here to Missoula? You can’t hide that in your Mason jar.
And I get it, OK. I really do. By giving things up, making an effort to think about your role as a consumer, it does feel like making an important change. A small change is still change. After this, I’m not judging people who use metal straws or buy makeup that comes in a tin for $32. We absolutely live in a society that puts convenience above all else, and all of us play into that. Maybe it’s good to take a step back and think about it.
I went to talk with Eva Rocke. She’s the sustainability coordinator at UM. She manages UM sustainability initiatives, like sustainable transportation, emissions reductions, recycling and low-waste. She also manages the UM’s Climate Action Plan. She’s working on the revisions right now.
“Climate change is real and it’s a real issue and I personally believe we have a responsibility to address our impact, our role in climate change,”
she told me when I asked about the Climate Action Plan. As far as how waste-management plays into the plan?
“Waste is part of that picture, but to a very small degree,”
Eva Rocke said.
“Landfill waste is relatively small in terms of its footprint. Waste reduction diversion is totally part of the picture, but it’s not one of the top tier strategies.”
Here’s the thing about climate change: There’s more to it than cutting down on your plastic. It’s about carbon emissions. If you’re worried about climate change, you won’t reverse it with your very own reusable Q-tip.
The world needs to lower carbon emissions, the United States especially. The global temperature has risen 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since the Industrial Revolution. Climate scientists at NASA estimate we have less than 18 months to reduce our carbon emissions enough to avoid another 0.5-degree global temperature increase.
We should be talking about how to fix that; how to change our transportation systems, and how to restructure our energy systems to include clean energy, wind, hydroelectric or otherwise.
And while I think some of what waste-free-ers are doing on YouTube is silly, I have changed.
Bulk shopping was pretty economical, the make-your-own trail mix bar at Lucky’s is about to become a monthly tradition, and that charcoal face bar I got from the Good Food Store totally slaps.
What’s the point of going back to plastic straws now that I’ve got a metal one? Why use plastic forks now that I’m into my bamboo utensil set?
I don’t think I’ll ever go back to shopping so passively anymore. I’ll never stop seeing plastic everywhere I go.
Would I go back to living waste-free? God, no. Nope, no thanks, I’d like to never try to do this again. But maybe you would, and that’s pretty cool. Or maybe you want to try biking more, or taking the bus, or trying new makeup, or buying in bulk. The world isn’t going to be dropping the climate change crisis commentary, whether you’d like it to or not. I think it’s time we all take a step back and reevaluate our roles in it.
Landfill waste is a real issue. I do think there is a lot to be said for avoiding single-use plastic when you can. For bringing your own travel mug to the coffee shop. For using canvas or paper bags instead of plastic. For composting, if it’s available to you.
But this narrative — mine and yours — it’s pushed onto our generation. It’s an idea sold to us with Instagram ads and no-plastic-straw campaigns. By YouTubers who stuff their trash in Mason jars and insist that coconut oil-baking soda toothpaste doesn’t totally suck. We need to pay more attention to that *and* to our own consumerism. It’s overwhelming.
So, let’s find the middle. Figure out what works for you and make changes you can stick with. Maybe spend each day a little more aware of your carbon footprint, and know, like I do now, that the way to a smaller footprint might not be by jumping through hoops and spending tons of money to have a perfectly waste-free life.