Zero-Waste Challenge, Day One Confessions

By Sher Warkentin in Thinking Sustainably

A zero-waste challenge is exactly what it sounds like: a test to see how little waste you can create. My family decided to take the challenge for a day, and though we didn’t manage to be 100 percent successful, it was an eye-opening experience.

Can You Really Be Waste Free?

Though it’s challenging, it’s not impossible to create zero waste, especially if you’re single. As a family of four, with one child still in diapers, it’s a lot more difficult. In the day we spent on our zero-waste challenge, we managed to reduce our trash by 90 percent just by being more mindful.

Paper, Paper Everywhere

I knew going into this that my biggest problem area in waste creation is paper. With two small kids and a dog, mess is inevitable, and when you have to wipe up a spilled smoothie before it becomes a snack for the dog, you reach for the first thing you can—often a paper towel. I knew I had to nix this habit, so I removed the paper towel roll, put it away for the day, and replaced it with dish towels.

Replace paper towels with reusable kitchen towels.

Despite keeping towels and washcloths handy, I’ll admit there were a few sticky situations that arose due to lack of preparation. A few times I had to use baby wipes, which ultimately made up the majority of the day’s trash.

You have to be prepared in order to clean kid messes without waste.

The Leftovers

Food waste is another big problem at our house. Luckily fruit and vegetable scraps can be recycled in our city’s green yard bins. Although I know this, I’m often lazy about separating it. For the zero-waste challenge, I placed a container on the counter above the trash to collect scraps, which was easy and convenient enough that I would use it every day. Some items, like the strawberry tops I used to infuse water, could be repurposed.

Use a container to collect food scraps for recycling or compost.

The Bad Wrap-per

Food wrappers and ziptop bags are another area of weakness at our house. I’m constantly packing snacks to take while we’re on the go, and the habit creates a lot of unnecessary plastic waste. For our zero-waste challenge, I swapped out the plastic baggies for reusable bags. They are easy to use and can even be put in the washer, but I’ll definitely be investing in a second set to avoid having to keep up with washing.

The Great Straw Debate

One of the hardest lessons of the day came when my kids requested that I make smoothies. I was super excited to give them a healthy after-school snack until I started pouring into the cups and realized what came next: the straws. Plastic straws aren’t recyclable. To avoid the waste, I scrounged our cabinets to find some reusable straws from drinking cups, but both kids we’re having trouble drinking out of them without the ability to bend the straw towards their mouths. While I tried to explain the reason for avoiding plastic straws, I didn’t make any headway with my “hangry” kids, and we ended up with two plastic straws in the trash. Reusable bendy straws are definitely a worthwhile investment.

Lessons Learned

This was our trash at the end of a regular day before taking a zero-waste challenge:

Before taking the challenge we filled the trash can daily.

And this was it after our waste-free day:

The zero waste challenge cut our trash dramatically.

When I compared the amount of trash at the end of a regular day versus the day of our zero-waste challenge, I was shocked to see the difference a little awareness made. Our trash was dramatically reduced by the end of the daylong challenge, and it didn’t even feel like I had made any major changes to my normal routine. The only challenge I found was dealing with those harried Mom moments without creating extra waste, but in retrospect it’s easy to see how some preparation and investment in reusable supplies would make even those moments waste-free.

I decided to extend the challenge to a full week and hopefully beyond. I was much more aware of waste as I shopped in the grocery store and, though I couldn’t avoid packaging entirely, I did make more conscious decisions about my purchases. I’ve started checking out apps like Zero Waste Home’s Bulk, which can help you find local stores that sell items without packaging. Any way you can minimize waste makes a difference, especially when you consider that most people contribute an average of 4.4 pounds of trash to landfills daily.

If you’re looking for ways to reduce waste in your home, try a challenge of your own. Armed with more awareness and some reusable alternatives you can significantly reduce your family’s waste. Just make sure to share your favorite tips with us on Twitter.

Image source: Sher Warkentin

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Why It’s Good

Taking a zero-waste challenge might seem too hard, especially with kids and pets at home, but the truth is, it's much easier than you think. It will open your eyes to the small, simple changes you can make that will make a tremendous difference in your carbon footprint.