When Erin Rehm was a freshman at University of Massachusetts, in 2013, she, like many Americans, considered recycling a cure-all for waste pollution. Chuck a water bottle into a recycling bin and forget about it. Why not? It’s helping the environment, right? But after taking her first biology class as an animal science major, Rehm, now 25, learned this wasn’t so.
Here’s the harsh truth: Most recyclables end up in landfills—and, eventually, the ocean. By 2050, it’s estimated that the ocean will have more plastic than fish. And the U.S., with its 250 million tons of plastic pollution each year, is a large contributor to that. Unable to process this unfathomable amount of plastic waste, U.S. recycling plants have turned to incinerating plastics—fueling carbon emissions and adding to the scourge of health problems in communities who live near industrial plants and dumping sites. “I learned that even if you recycle everything, it still won’t solve the problem,” Rehm said. So she decided to do something about it.
In October 2018, she started an Orlando-based business, Harmony Zero Waste Market, selling zero waste products—bulk goods, reusable household items—at local farmers markets. The impetus for creating the business germinated from consumer need: Florida, she felt, lacked decent options for buying completely zero waste. That means no plastic, no packaging and (as the term implies) no waste going to landfills. Even well-intentioned grocery stores—think Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s—are not waste-free, using carbon emissions for transporting goods and packaging for mass production. This economy of scale was exactly what led to Rehm shuttering her business in just over a year. Grocery stores can sell more for less, allowing them to make a profit, and she, a sole proprietor and investor, simply couldn’t compete.
Still, Rehm takes every opportunity to educate others. At December’s IDEAS For Us Hive, a monthly meeting where community members brainstorm climate change solutions, she spoke to a room of 50-some individuals about the importance of adopting a zero waste philosophy. Our garbage, and, yes, that includes materials rejected from recycling facilities, is outpacing landfill capacity. What’s more, China—once known as the world’s dumping ground, processing more than 40% of all U.S. recyclables—has issued a recent import ban on reusable items, in an effort to crack down on the country’s pollution. As a result, hundreds of recycling systems in American cities are collapsing. Locally, the dwindling landfill space has come to a head: In November, officials reported that Orange County has an 85% rejection rate of recyclables; in Ocoee and Apopka, that number climbs to almost 100%.
Ours is a society of excess. But the good news is that we have a wealth of options for scaling back our waste. While much has been written about the zero waste lifestyle, young environmentalists, known for their pluck and ingenuity, are adding a fresh perspective to this newfangled movement. Dedicated to time-saving, cost-effective and, above all, eco-friendly practices, they are taking the reins on teaching the rest of us about sustainable living. Here, Rehm gives five simple tips for novice zero wasters, starting with culprit No.1—the grocery store.
Don’t forget reusable produce bags
Conscious recyclers never go to the grocery store without reusable shopping bags. Zero wasters, on the other hand, take it a step further—bringing reusable produce bags too. The produce section, Rehm explains, is one of the best places to shop zero waste. Look for items that offer nonplastic options, such as a head of lettuce in lieu of celery, unpackaged apples instead of bagged ones. An added bonus: fresh produce—the kind that isn’t housed in plastic—has undergone less processing, which means it contains fewer hidden preservatives. These cotton produce bags from Lauren Singer, a celebrity environmentalist and pro zero waster, are a great alternative to plastic, even offering up different sizes to conveniently hold all your fruits and veggies.
Be prudent with bulk goods
Shoveling bulk goods into disposable plastic bags is easy. Many grocery stores readily supply these. But just because they’re plastic, doesn’t make them recyclable. Many recycling guides come with this caveat: Don’t recycle plastic bags; they contaminate the rest of the batch. As an alternative, Rehm recommends bringing cotton reusable bags—yes, these can also double as produce bags!—or mason jars. Tupperware or other storage containers work as well. If using a heavier container, such as one made of glass, Rehm says to record the tare weight (the weight of your container without product) and PLU code in your phone, then give this information to the cashier at checkout. Don’t want to go through the hassle? Rehm recommends using a simple paper bag, where weight is negligible. Anything’s better than plastic, right?
Green your cleaning products
Household cleaners are one of the biggest offenders when it comes to waste pollution. Though the plastic used in most products is technically recyclable, many people toss them in the trash, or in the recycling bin without rinsing them, guaranteeing their route to the landfill. Plastic takes roughly 400 years to degrade, so imagine how much of it occupies dumping grounds and pollutes our oceans over time. Chemical compounds in cleaning products (specifically nitrogen and phosphates) can also find their way into rivers, lakes and streams, having a fertilizing effect that triggers algae growth (another bane of marine life and the environment). The turn of a new year is a perfect time to experiment with greening your home. Google homemade household cleaners, and you’ll find dozens of options. But here are a few that Rehm shared at the IDEAS Hive.
Dishwasher detergent (use 1T per load)
- 1 cup washing soda
- 1 cup baking soda
- 1 cup citric acid
- ¾ cup table salt
- 1 part water
- 1 part white vinegar
- 15 drops essential oil (optional for scent)
Toilet Bowl Cleaner
- Baking soda (It’s that simple!)
For more on how to make homemade cleaners that you—and the environment—will love, see these recipes from Better Homes & Gardens.
True beauty comes in sustainable packaging
Who said beauty doesn’t come from the inside and outside? When it comes to zero waste, the full package matters. Far from guiltless in the waste-pollution problem, the cosmetic industry produces over 129 billion units of discarded packaging every year. Unlike plastic water bottles or other such items, beauty products can’t simply be thrown into a recycling bin. Of the seven types of plastic, only two are commonly deemed “recyclable.” (Check what your city’s guidelines are.) And most beauty-product packaging does not fall into that category. Thankfully, many cosmetic brands have taken note, pledging to ban plastic and use more sustainable materials in their products. Just last fall, Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched a global campaign, signed by 250 organizations, to eliminate plastic waste at the source. Major beauty brands, such as Loreal and Unilever, were among the signatories. Peruse the internet and find what sustainable personal care products work best for you. “Pretty much any item you can think of there’s a zero waste alternative,” Rehm says. “I always try to encourage people that even if you don’t want to go all the way, even a little bit helps.” Below, Rehm’s list of zero waste beauty options.
- refillable dental floss
- bar soap
- bar shampoo (She’s a fan of Lush.)
- safety razor (Preserve is a favorite.)
- reusable wash cloth
- bamboo toothbrush
- moisturizer blocks
Asking never hurts
While taking steps on your own to reduce waste is important, sometimes voicing your needs and concerns as a consumer can be just as effective. CEOs, retail managers, grocery store directors—they have authority to implement changes and a responsibility to make customers happy. If you plant the seed of sustainability—start a petition, ask if your supermarket can sell produce without plastic packaging—something might come of it. “Even if nothing happens,” Rehm says, “at least the idea is in their mind.” Another piece of advice: Ask individual sellers from online retailers to use sustainable packaging in shipping materials (such as cornstarch or sorghum, which can be composted), instead of traditional plastic foam. Esty and eBay, for example, offer message boxes where you can leave special requests to the seller.
Making significant lifestyle changes can feel daunting—and, at times, defeating. As with any overhaul in daily routine, starting small often yields the best results. “Be open-minded, go at your own pace and don’t get discouraged,” Rehm says. “Sometimes, it will work out better than you thought—if you just give it a try.”