I’ve had a trash jar for a year: Here’s what I’ve learned
While not everyone in the zero waste community loves the trash jar these days, I’m still a fan. The trash jar is not the end goal of zero waste, but it is a tool among many that helps us reduce our negative impact on the earth, much like an animal-product free and low animal-product diet, carpooling more often, donating to organizations we believe in, buying ethically and less frequently, and so on.
When I realized that it had been over a year since I started my first trash jar, it seemed a little surreal because it is so, so little trash. And because I’m not blind to the amount of trash in the upstream produced before products come into my life, I know it is a false impression that no other trash was produced due to my life during this past year.
I’ve had three phases of trash jar:
The largest jar which has 7 months of trash from when I was eating a 95% vegan diet and living alone, which made it feasible to make many things from scratch.
The small jar from when I was in Italy and living in someone else’s home. Here is the trash from when I was traveling and any other little bits of garbage that aren’t attributable to meal time, because I wasn’t preparing my own meals.
My jar since I’ve been back in the USA that contains some food packaging from foods like veggie mock meats that I’ve decided to try as well as other little things that came along incidentally.
So, looking back at this experiment of sorts, here is what my experience with the trash jar has taught me:
The trash jar actually serves a purpose
Even though there are other important things to do apart from reducing our household waste, reducing our household waste is still worth doing. While the actual size of a container is relatively arbitrary, using a small container still helps us be honest with ourselves about the trash we do produce. If you empty your kitchen trash can once a week and want to reduce that by composting and purchasing package free or with recyclable packaging, reducing the size of your trash container can help you visualize if your changes have made an impact.
Likewise, a black plastic trash can or another container that you simply hide away under the sink allows us to continue thinking of throwing away as a solution to waste like plastic. Using a transparent container has made it impossible for me to deny what plastic, non-recyclable or compostable trash I still create. To be blunt, my own experience and what I’ve learned speaking with others tells me that most people think we’re doing better than we are when it comes to living with a lighter impact on the earth. It helps to actually confront our consumption.
While most of us hardly think of trash as something we want around us, when I first began my trash jar, it helped change my buying habits. If I didn’t need something with trash plastic packaging, I would not use it at all. When you decide to keep your trash around instead of throwing it into unknowable abyss of ‘away’, you start to weigh the actual cost of materials like plastic; is the plastic packaging (that will exist forever) on this item worth what is inside? Do I want to look at it and keep it in my life? Is whatever is within that plastic worth the material around it? If you decide to keep things around somewhere you can’t deny them, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ doesn’t work anymore. And just because something is out of your thoughts, doesn’t mean it is no longer having a negative impact. For me, the trash jar has broken that illusion.
there aren’t rules
An annoying part of the trash jar as I’ve done it in the past is trash while you’re out and about. Do you take it home? Throw it out where you are? It still exists, regardless of if you put it in the trash or not. I used to bring it back for my trash jar, but these days less so. One exception I try to make is with receipts; even though BPA has been reevaluated as pretty safe as of late, these days I toss my receipt at the store if I remember because many printers use ink with BPA on store receipts. When I was storing receipts in the jar, I learned that they print easily 2x-3x as much receipt as any person could possibly need.
The point is that there aren’t rules about what does and what doesn’t go in your jar; generally, non-compostable, non-recyclable things that cannot be reused go in the trash jar. As a personal accountability tool, unless you generate a large amount of garbage out of the home, perhaps by buying lunch or coffees daily in to-go containers, I don’t see a reason to keep things for a trash jar unless you’re trying to be strict for the purposes of evaluating what trash you still make. On the contrary, if you keep a trash jar at home but continually buy a lot of food in disposable packaging when out of the house because ‘it doesn’t count’, you might want to reconsider.
The fat you can trim and the fat you cannot
With the trash jar, I figured out what plastic-wrapped and packaged goods I could not go without. Obviously, medicine is a must, but in my life, so are cough drops when I have a sore throat. I also prefer store-bought versions of things like hot sauce, which usually come in glass bottles but have plastic seals around the neck of the jar or bottle and inside the lid. That being said, we have to draw the line somewhere. If you want to make a difference, you have to make a change. It’s unlikely to continue living exactly the way you are living and expect change to come; doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, so if you want to make an impact, you will have to make a change, whether you make different choices or start doing something you previously weren’t.
I’ve decided to continue buying a select few products I like that I don’t have access to package free, even if they have some plastic. I did, however, stop buying (many) things with irresponsible packaging like makeup, breakfast cereal, ramen noodles (the true love of my life), sliced cheese, plastic cups of yogurt, and so on. Maybe you can’t buy glass bottled milk because you have a diary allergy or you’re vegan, so you choose soy milk in plastic lined cardboard cartons; you can still choose to try a shampoo bar. It’s not enough to think about zero waste or other problems, or even only talk about them; there are actionable things we can do every day in our own homes and lives. While we absolutely should hold industries like fast fashion accountable for their destructive practices, that doesn’t absolve us of all personal responsibility. For example, in the US most of our transportation emissions come from passenger vehicles driven by regular people; we must also hold ourselves accountable. It is fine to decide that in some things there isn’t a better solution for you personally, but making a difference requires change. We can all eat less meat. It’s not unreasonable for most of us to drive our cars less. It is unreasonable to expect change but refuse to change your habits.
Keeping all of this in mind, giving up many plastic covered things and other products harmful to the environment gave me perspective on what I did and didn’t need. Skipping out on pasta in favor of foods packaged without plastic showed me that although I really do like pasta, I can definitely eat less of that and more of other foods. Buying secondhand showed me that quality goods are quality goods, regardless of if they are used or not and that I have rarely, if ever, needed something that could not be found secondhand.
There is unnecessary garbage everywhere you look. Plastic especially, from tiny plastic resealable bags that hold extra buttons for new clothes, to plastic shipping envelopes instead of paper, non-recyclable and irresponsible uses of plastic seem to be everywhere.
We cannot all decide that eating less meat doesn’t work for us, that buying secondhand is a definite no-go for our lives, or that driving less is out of question.
Plastic is in many things, and plastic break pretty easily. One of my least favorite uses of plastic in the home is laundry baskets. Are there laundry baskets made of plastic that make it an entire year without breaking? I doubt it. Plastic has good qualities like being lightweight and inexpensive, but it’s overused. Children’s toys break, plastic spoons melt, and plastic bags rip. One of the worst qualities of plastic, and plastic-made goods is that once they break, most are not reparable. When plastic cracks, good luck finding a replacement part. The best chance we generally have is glue but even that is only a temporary fix until the object totally breaks. Other items containing plastics, headphones for example, are made so inexpensively that they’re not even possible to repair because it is so inexpensive to simply replace.
You’ve probably guessed it by now, but I think that plastic is totally overused. Disposability is a word we should prize when it comes to materials soiled by hazardous waste, like gloves and needles used in hospitals. Durability and sustainability are qualities we should prize in our clothing, housewares, and technology. My trash jars have many little bits of trash that I didn’t expect; various broken charging chords and headphones. Two pairs of sunglasses. A plastic envelope from a textbook I bought in grad school. Plastic is used too liberally and too disposably. Like any other material, plastic is a resource. The way it is created to be disposable means the resources gone into creating plastic are wasted.
We cannot all decide that eating less meat doesn’t work for us, that buying secondhand is a definite no-go for our lives, or that driving less is out of question. Zero waste is not a mason jar fueled aesthetic of pantries and potted plants next to tea diffusers. Zero waste is a tool that can help us live more consciously and reduce our negative impact on the earth. The stakes aren’t low and our consumption is not unrelated. Global climate change is a reality for our future unless change happens at all levels.
Reducing our household waste and encouraging others to do so is vitally important, even if there are other pressing issues like emissions and climate change. People who don’t care enough to use a bamboo toothbrush, pick a veggie patty at a restaurant or use paper packaged laundry powder instead of liquid detergent, aren’t going to advocate for zero waste in their communities. Unwilingness to make small changes in ones own life doesn’t indicate a likelihood of sharing it and showing it’s possible to their friends and family, let alone voting for elected officials or legislation that champions environmental issues. The trash jar is sticking around for me, and so is sharing and showing others how to reduce their waste.