This is a fun article about living La Vida Zero,
Printed from the Charleston
City Paper website: charleston.gyrosite.com
SEPTEMBER 24, 2008:
weeks, a zero-waste kit, and no trash
moment you wake up and brush your teeth, wash your hair, and shave your face
with products packaged in non-recyclable containers, you're contributing to the
waste stream. Need to buy something at a big box retailer or grocery store?
Good luck finding anything in recyclable packaging. Going out to eat can be
especially wasteful, as restaurants continue to use Styrofoam and other
disposals, simply because it's deemed cheaper or easier than having to wash
live without generating trash is next to impossible. But we decided it was
worth a shot.
days, the folks who participated in our experiment went to extremes, constantly
discovering previously unnoticed and often unavoidable sources of trash in
their daily lives. Between the lawyer and the meteorologist, the outdoor ed
teacher and the work-at-home mom, the college student and the City Paper
reporter, none of the eight participants made it more than three days without
contributing to the waste stream.
attempting to live waste-free inevitably leads to some awkward moments. The
girl at the register at your noontime haunt might look at you funny when you
ask for your sandwich on a plate you just pulled out of your backpack.
Bartenders might mock you when you tell them that their non-recyclable plastic
cups won't do, or when you're seen dropping your empty cans and bottles into
your purse. Your co-workers probably won't be too happy with you when you
forget to take your hand towel to the bathroom, and they inquire about the wet
door handle they've just grabbed on to. And try walking down the street with
your dog's poo fisted in a dish glove — at least it's easier than rinsing
out a poop baggie.
Schneider is already the green type. The Coastal Conservation League intern and
frame shop employee brings her own bags to the grocery store, composts in her
backyard, and doesn't eat meat or animal products. But never before had she
found herself sorting through the fruit bins at Earth Fare, looking for the
peaches and plums without stickers on them because she didn't want to toss the
add-ons into the trash. (Schneider later discovered that those stickers are
edible and compostable).
participants, she carried a mug with her for coffee and her own napkin and
plate for eating out. But exactly what do you do with a hair tie when it
breaks? Or the non-recyclable top from the recyclable soda bottle? Or for that
matter, the condom that you're sure as hell going to use, zero waste experiment
waste-free will force you to make sacrifices. If you want cereal, you'd better
buy it in bulk — Whole Foods even let us weigh our own reusable
containers before tallying the cost of items in their bulk section. Foods like
Clif Bars and chips don't make the cut — the wrappers and bags aren't
recyclable — and most meats come packaged with Styrofoam and plastic. To
go all the way, you'd even have to make your own products like toothpaste
— mint and baking soda, anyone?
sacrifice comes innovation and substitution. Patricia Carson, a law student at
the Charleston School of Law, brought a reusable bag with her to purchase a
loaf of bread; the good folks at Saffron Bakery promised to reuse the plastic
bag her loaf came out of. And instead of buying a half gallon of ice cream in a
non-recyclable container, she'd go out for a walk and a cone when she got the
was a way of keeping me from overindulging. It forced me to get on my bike and
go get things more often," says Carson. "If I was in the mood for
something, I had to go get it. It forced me to eat healthier."
even went camping with a group of friends during the experiment, and apart from
a s'more out of the community supply and the plastic from a 20-pound bag of
ice, she managed to do the entire trip waste free.
to Greenville for her mother's birthday the next weekend wasn't so easy. When
she let the folks at a coffee shop know that she was going to stay awhile, they
still served her drink in Styrofoam, instead of a reusable ceramic mug. To make
matters worse, the only creamer in sight was in individual plastic containers.
waste on-the-go, a zero-waste kit became a necessity for the participants. Brad
Sale, an environmental educator at Old Santee Canal Park in Moncks Corner,
brought his own plate and cup when he went to eat at Subway. They didn't
flinch, building his sandwich right on the plate, sans paper and plastic.
"I just acted like it's what I normally do, which it will be from now
on," says Sale.
everyone carried their own napkins and to-go plastic containers for leftovers.
But biodegradable items like peach pits and banana peels don't break down well
in an oxygen-starved landfill, and even the sugar cane- and corn-based cups and
cutlery used at earth-conscious restaurants won't decompose if they're just
tossed in the trash.
going to live waste free, you need a compost bin, a fact that the members of
our zero waste challenge were well aware of. From vacuum scraps to human hair,
spoiled leftovers to paper napkins (accidentally used of course), the backyard
decomposition piles of the participants received a heavy load over the two
Zichichi is a stay-at-home mom and a geographic information systems programmer.
She normally goes the extra mile when it comes to her baby; Zichichi uses
washable cloth diapers and breast-feeds her child. But finding a substitute for
throw-away baby wipes? No, thanks. "I couldn't bring myself to dry them
out and recycle them," she says.
the most dedicated, eliminating trash completely simply wasn't feasible. >From a
new cell phone to iPod earphones, tampons to wax-lined dog food bags, there are
many things that just can't be recycled — you have no choice but to toss
them into the trash. You can't even buy a lickable stamp at the post office
Behind the Scenes
down by person, the average South Carolinian generates 6.4 pounds of trash a
day; 1.8 pounds more than the national average. Each of the zero-waste
participants was able to fit their personally generated trash into a gallon bag
for the two weeks. But that doesn't take into account all of the waste that is
created during the production of the goods the participants used. Some
estimates state that for every can of trash generated on the consumption end,
there's as much as 70 times that waste created during production.
waste that you've generated and waste that's generated on your behalf,"
says Alec Cooley, a Charleston-based project manager with the National
participated in the challenge and found himself at a recycling conference where
he was served a box lunch in a non-recyclable container, in which all the food
items were wrapped in plastic, along with the typical plastic-wrapped
silverware and napkin. He says that we've developed a culture where everything
is disposable and perceived as having no value, a luxury that won't last much
bottles are made out of petroleum, and that's oil that's not being used to make
other things, including gasoline," he says. "So why not recycle it,
or better yet, refill an old bottle and use that water to make gas cheaper? We
have a finite matter of resources. If we decide to squander them by using
something once and then throwing it away, that's a resource we no longer have
to use in other ways or otherwise leave for the next generation."
many business owners continue to use disposables because up front, they're
still the cheapest option available. But even big companies like Walmart are
finding that packaging products efficiently ultimately saves money — less
unnecessary plastic means more product fits on the truck, adding up to savings
in shipping and energy costs.
you hear about that, it just makes sense. You're almost surprised that every
company doesn't have someone managing sustainability and conservation," says
Jonathan Lamb, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service and a
zero-waste participant. "You can save so much money with simple
County is staring a big trash monster in the eye this year. We're faced with
the decision of whether or not to renew a 20-year contract with the
incinerator, where nearly 80 percent of our household waste is burned and
converted to electricity. The health, air quality, and mercury-releasing
effects of that facility have been well-reported, and are concerns shared by
citizens and government alike.
because we rely on the incinerator to handle so much of our waste, taking the
trash that otherwise would have been burned and transferring it to a landfill
is also problematic. It would require us to either haul waste to neighboring
counties or construct a new landfill. The latter is questionable because of our
proximity to sea-level and the high water table. It's also less-than-popular
with the potential neighbors of any new Mt. Trashmores.
response to public input during the incinerator debate, County Council voted to
establish a Green Ribbon Committee earlier this summer. Over 60 applications
were received, and by November, the members should be chosen and an outside consultant
decided upon. After that, the Committee will begin discussing how to best move
forward on the solid waste issue.
the four 'R's — reduce, reuse, recycle, and rethink. It's a whole new
thought process of what we're trying to do," says Councilwoman Colleen
Condon. "I think we're going to be seeing lots of changes."
emphasizes that even while disposable products seem cheaper on the front end,
businesses, particularly restaurants, that have switched to recycling and
reusable products see significant savings when they're able to reduce or
eliminate dumpster fees. Restaurants and bars like Monza and Raval that utilize
Fisher Recycling, a local pick-up service, echo those claims.
the City of Charleston adopting its own Green Committee (separate from the
County entity), could comprehensive waste reduction, even zero waste, be a
possibility here? A recently adopted resolution by the City of Austin, Texas,
calls for zero waste (or darn close) by 2040. Their plan calls for banning
problem products and packaging, encouraging composting in homes and schools,
and "pay as you throw" incentives to discourage putting recyclables
into the waste stream.
recycling rate is currently at 30 percent. Ideas like city-wide recycling
pick-ups for businesses, currently offered only privately, would likely be the
first to come to the table.
each need to take personal responsibility and learn to conserve again,"
says the Recycling Coalition's Cooley. "That doesn't mean we have to do
extreme things like carry our own plates and utensils to a restaurant, but it
does mean moving beyond the 'throw it away' mentality."
try it yourself? In addition to avoiding non-recyclables, a zero-waste kit and
a compost bin are essential.
what we kept on hand:
drink bottle/coffee mug
plastic container for leftovers/bulk items at store
bag for produce
"We don't have a waste problem, we have a resource