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You’ve seen the images — those super compelling, impressive photographs of someone’s years’ worth of trash, crammed into a tiny 16-oz mason jar.
I’m one of those people. I never expected to become a leader in the zero-waste movement — an extreme form of sustainable living in which you produce little to no trash. And if you had told me a decade ago that I’d be an environmentalist, I probably would have laughed because I didn’t grow up in a household that prioritized sustainability. I didn’t even know what recycling was until I was in college — and, quite frankly, when I finally learned about recycling, I didn’t even really care.
But almost 10 years ago, in college, I had a breast cancer scare, and my hormones were completely out of whack (my estrogen levels were extremely high). I started researching ways to balance my hormones, and what I found was pretty frightening. I wrongfully assumed that every product on the shelf had been tested for safety; as it turns out, many, many household products that we use daily contain endocrine disruptors that interfere with our hormones.
I started making small changes to try to improve my health. I avoided single-use plastics like coffee cups and disposable water bottles. I made my own cleaning products (who knew a one-part water, one-part vinegar solution could clean virtually everything?!).
Next, I turned to my diet. At the time, I’m pretty sure I lived on chocolate-chip pancakes, marshmallows, and sweet tea. I took a long, hard look at my budget and eating habits, and I began prioritizing whole, plant-based foods. I went to the farmers’ market (because it was cheaper than my local grocery store) and procured recipes directly from the farmers themselves.
It wasn’t until I uprooted my life in Pennsylvania to move to California in 2014 (my now-husband had asked me to move in with him) that it all clicked for me: These lifestyle changes weren’t only better for my health, but they were also better for the planet. I saw San Francisco’s severe litter problem and, for the first time in my life, made the connection between my habits and their effect on the environment. More than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans each year, and I became transfixed by the idea of saving money, helping the planet, and living a healthier life.
It started small, but it soon evolved into something that consumed my life. That one homemade household cleaner led to other homemade products — deodorant, toothpaste, lip balm, and rosewater toner. I quickly found out that there’s a more sustainable way of doing anything, regardless of area or activity.
If you like to go to concerts, it can be made more sustainable: Research arenas that are powered by solar panels or have LED lights installed. Or bring your own aluminum cup for drinks.
If you like makeup and beauty, it can be made more sustainable: Buy beauty products with packaging that can be recycled or composted (or better yet, packageless products).
If you like cooking, it can be made more sustainable: Adopt a plant-based diet, eat locally sourced ingredients, and support farmers who use regenerative agricultural practices.
One of my biggest struggles in going zero-waste was reconciling my love for fashion with a more sustainable way of living. I used to have a bit of a shopping problem. My closet was stuffed to the brim. Once, my college roommate asked me to count how many dresses I owned — the number sat above 200. The way I was consuming clothing was utterly unsustainable. And on a macro scale, the industry itself is unsustainable (according to the EPA, in 2017, 11.2 million tons of textile waste ended up in landfills; a lot of this waste is driven by fast fashion and micro trends).
The most helpful thing I’ve done was to implement a 30-day buy ban. I’ve found that when I put time and distance between me and what I want — even for just a few days — I can better determine if this piece will genuinely add value to my life and not, say, wind up in the donation box at the end of the year. I also reevaluated what I love and absolutely detest, like anything polyester. Made from plastic, polyester sheds microplastic particles (700,000, in fact, according to this study) into our waterways every time it’s washed. Now, when I’m not purchasing secondhand, I exclusively wear garments made from natural materials like cotton, wool, and TENCEL™ — a type of cellulose fibers made from sustainably sourced wood pulp (read: completely zero-waste) — that is not only soft to the touch, but is also comfortable and breathable. And since it's certified compostable and biodegradable, by wearing clothing made from 100% TENCEL™-branded fibers, I know I'm not contributing to landfill waste.
To be completely honest, I don't think you have to have a bare-bones wardrobe for it to be sustainable. Last year, I counted how many pieces of clothing I owned (excluding socks, underwear, pajamas, and workout gear) and I have about 140 pieces. I still have work to do when it comes to making my wardrobe more versatile so I'm able to mix and match and streamline my getting-dressed process, but I'm really proud of how far I've come. A lot of it boils down to being selective: The majority of my closet staples are from sustainable designers and I sprinkle in one or two trend-driven pieces from vintage stores.
The great thing about fashion is that it's cyclical, so I would rather buy into larger trends that have more staying power than super-niche trends (like that brief period last summer when everyone though those tiny sunglasses were cool). A trend I did pick up on last year was fringe. When I found a vintage leather fringe jacket that fit like a glove, I had to snap it up. I expect the jacket to be "in" for at least several years, and when it does go out of style, it's such a cool piece that I plan to keep it — and wait for the trend to reemerge a few years later.
Trends aren't necessarily bad, but I do think it's important to find the ones that are aligned with your personal style, so the pieces are less of one-season wonders and more statement-making staples (I know that sounds contradictory). And there are a ton of clothing rental services now, too, which I think is another great way to experience trends while being more environmentally conscious.
It’s taken me a long time to master my wardrobe, but I’m still not perfect. And I guess that’s the other really beautiful thing about living a sustainable, zero-waste lifestyle. There’s no such thing as perfect. It’s impossible to not leave a footprint on this planet — every choice has an impact of some kind, but it’s up to each individual to determine whether it’s a positive one or a negative one.
For a long time, I thought only “a certain type of person” — the stereotypical hemp-wearing, bike-riding hippie — could be an environmentalist, but I’ve realized the Earth needs all of us to be one, to make decisions that are as sustainable as possible. Ultimately, zero-waste living goes beyond how much trash fits in a mason jar. At its core, it’s a minimalist, frugal way of living. It’s the idea of wasting nothing and using everything over and over again. It’s about repairing what’s broken instead of discarding it and buying a replacement. It’s about consuming less, using less, and being more conscious of where items come from and where they’re going. It gives you the tools to cut out the excess and focus on what’s important.
For me, it’s a beautiful way of living.