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Zero Wasters?

Posted: Wed Oct 10, 2018 5:27 pm
by Jin+Guice
Is anyone an active participant in the Zero Waste movement? I'm referring to the movement promoted by Bea Johnson (I think she's the biggest Zero Waster, she's how I found out about it).

Briefly, Johnson claims to throw out a small mason jars worth of material every year. There are a lot of pictures of her posing with her mason jar of waste and it appears to be mainly labels.

I decided to try to give zero waste a go this year and found it hard and depressing. Most of my waste is food waste so I started composting, which I'd failed at several times before. After a few months of smelly food scraps piling up in my composter I bought some internet worms and the ate the food almost over night. Now all organic waste is composted. However, food packaging still produces an inordinate amount of waste. I've been trying to systematically eliminate this.

My first effort was to dig two giant gardens, but I'm a pretty terrible gardner so the short term effect has been negligible. I hope this will change in the future. I saved a few plastic produce bags and now either reuse them or don't use a bag at all. I bring a backpack to the supermarket. I get nuts and some other grains from the bulk section at the hippie stores. These were easy wins. Everything else has proved more difficult.

Pretty much the only way to eliminate waste for "processed" (I'm talking about stuff like cheese, bread, tofu, almond milk and peanut butter) is to make it yourself. This is very time consuming and it's often difficult to get the ingredients involved. For example, I tried to make mozzarella, which I failed at, but also all of the specialty ingredients (retin and citric acid) came in plastic containers.

I'm now questioning whether relatively minor gains are worth the hassle and the expense. Buying bulk noodles is 4 times as expensive and requires a special trip to whole foods.

OTOH, I'm still throwing out a giant garbage can worth of trash and a recycling bins worth of recyclables every 2 to 3 weeks. I find this highly depressing.

I'm not a huge fan of blaming "society" for not being able to get ahead, but goddamn, we ('Merica) are committed to throwing shit out. Example: I was just buying some salt from the hippie co-op's bulk spices section. I had to put the salt in a plastic bag (could've brought my own and can reuse this one), removed from a plastic container (do they reuse these?) with a plastic spoon.

The zero-waste movement is also problematic from a systems perspective. Johnson has been criticized for flying around the world to speak about her no trash movement. While zero wasters do occasionally open up bulk food stores, little about production or other supply chain waist is discussed. I really do think Johnson and the zero waste movement are trying to make the world a better place, but I think their failures show how far we are from an actual solution to the problems industrialism has created.

Re: Zero Wasters?

Posted: Wed Oct 10, 2018 7:33 pm
by Kriegsspiel
Jin+Guice wrote:
Wed Oct 10, 2018 5:27 pm
The zero-waste movement is also problematic from a systems perspective. Johnson has been criticized for flying around the world to speak about her no trash movement.
Definitely a WTF-able point, in the age of the internet.

Re: Zero Wasters?

Posted: Wed Oct 10, 2018 11:05 pm
by Clarice
I got interested in the subject for a while - ended up driving around a lot in the search of bulk foods in fancy stores that would weigh your glass jars separately, avoiding stores that have pre-packed foods, etc. IOW, wasting gasoline and money instead of plastic - not practical; does not solve anything big picture-wise. I would say - consume less, eat less, buy less clothing and other staff. Everything else is a gimmick.

Re: Zero Wasters?

Posted: Thu Oct 11, 2018 1:20 am
by EMJ
Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Refuse even buying or using is primary. Recycle is last because its easiest, but also least important.

Re: Zero Wasters?

Posted: Thu Oct 11, 2018 6:34 am
by Chris
I decided to try going low-waste for 2017 as an experiment. Being in the ERE mindset already helped a lot, as food waste is low, generation of new product packaging is low, and most "stuff" I get rid of is donated or eBay'd. At the end of last year, I managed to keep landfill waste down to one 13-gal per month. And yes, I too have found the food packaging is a primary contributor. In terms of bulk, paperboard makes up the majority of my food packaging. All that is recycled now (including milk cartons). HDPE plastic bag liners (like the kind in cereal boxes) are also recyclable, although not at the curbside.

As far as reducing recyclables, recycling metals is the most impactful, and the easiest. Recycling plastic films is low on the effort-to-impact scale. They don't recycle well, but also cost very little in terms of energy to produce.

Re: Zero Wasters?

Posted: Thu Oct 11, 2018 6:57 am
by vexed87
Kriegsspiel wrote:
Wed Oct 10, 2018 7:33 pm
Definitely a WTF-able point, in the age of the internet.
It's fair enough to call out hypocrisy, but...

No one needs reminding that recycling aluminium and paper has a carbon footprint.

Carbon emissions are not part of the agenda of zero-plastic-waste movement, even if it should be. Gotta remember that most are never going to reach the wheaton levels required to make our society sustainable. Depending who you ask, our society and the word sustainable can be considered diametrically opposed.

In order to reach a true zero waste society, rather than outsourcing the waste to others, we needs to revert to organic subsistence farming. There's no other way around it.

Re: Zero Wasters?

Posted: Thu Oct 11, 2018 7:48 am
by jacob
I've read the book and even watched a couple of talks. One of the handful of FB groups I'm in is a zero-waste group, so I'm definitely interested.

Personal experiences: I would say I'm where Chris is at although we're doing this on an ongoing basis. ERE is quite compatible with zero-waste. I buy almost everything used (ebay, craigslist) and sell stuff I don't use. I repair my own things and sometimes people give me their broken stuff too. We (two adults + dog) generate about three of those 13 gal trash cans (I think ... not sure about the size) per month and it's exclusively plastic wrapping, [tomato] cans, and food containers. Note that Illinois does not recycle (not even cans or paper) so everything goes into the trash. Food scraps and non-color paper/cardboard is composted (we have a worm bin). Wood cutoffs from the woodshop is burned or composted. However, we haven't bothered with the "bring your own containers" thing. First and foremost because I think it wouldn't go over well at Aldi... There's actually an app that shows stores that accept this method of shopping. Would it surprise anyone to know that we're mainly talking Whole Foods and the likes? However, we mostly, but not always, do not put every single type of vegetable we buy in its own plastic bag or use plastic bags at all. Also, we've been using for a couple of months($). It does come in cardboard boxes, but I can use those for shipping or composting. We bring tote bags for the most part. We do DIY a lot of condiments and do basic household chemistry. This takes some effort but I would say the effort is worth it: detergent, shower cleaner, thousand island dressing, remoulade, pickles, creme fraiche, jam, ... We buy staples in 5-20lbs bags and keep them in 5 gal buckets with gamma-seal lids (there's a picture of it somewhere on the forum).

($) You can change your mix from the default and thus target produce that's as cheap as you could otherwise go out and buy it.

Bea Johnson notes in her book that going zero-waste also means that they've cut their previous expenses approximately in half just from diligently trying to avoid trash. Mostly when people come from the personal finance or simple living angle, they're mainly trying to save money and then as a side-effect they also generate less trash. It shouldn't be surprising that if you come from the angle of eliminating trash, you'll also generate more savings ... but it is, and it's kinda cool.

My impression that people in the zero-waste movement mainly look(*) at waste from a personal perspective and hope that the systems-waste will take care of itself. These points are brought up somewhat often. For example, does it really reduce waste if I buy leave the cardboard container of the cornflakes in the store so they have to throw it out there instead of me taking it home and throwing it out in my own trash. Not directly, obviously, but it might spur the supermarket to change their delivery system [to bulk]. Similarly, if I sell my clothes before it's used up so I don't have it throw it out but instead donate to Goodwill or sell it... then someone else will get final-wear out of it. I think those issues are complainypants issues because at least it shows that one is paying attention to the problem instead of just trashing stuff and buying something new.

(*) And probably with an emphasis on look here. Out of sight, out of mind. It's very much about exactly how much YOU put in a landfill. Not so much about what goes in the landfill in general or the amount of CO2 that's emitted trying to avoid you throwing out a plastic toothbrush by importing a bamboo toothbrush airmailed in from New Zealand or something. One way to avoid any kind of personal food-waste would be to eat out all the time. That would be an acceptable solution to some zero-wasters, as the kitchen waste now belongs to the restaurant, but of course not all.

Also, the thing about flying ... it's not like the zero-waste movement tells everyone to go buy more airline tickets. However, if a few people have to spread the word, we have to accept that the standard way of doing it is unfortunately still to fly somewhere and stand on a stage. For example, an argument to post less things on facebook should ironically but optimally be posted on facebook because that's where the relevant target group would see it. Buying an "quit facebook" ad in the newspapers would not have the same impact. This is not hypocritical.

I commend the effort. If everybody did it, it would change the way we buy food... more or less back to the pre-supermarket days. Food really seems like the biggest change. Not wasting stuff is basically just being thrifty. However, it's quite likely that I think this way because I'm used to being thrifty when it comes to things whereas I can't imagine not buying most of my food from shelves in supermarkets.

Re: Zero Wasters?

Posted: Thu Oct 11, 2018 10:19 am
by Jin+Guice
I agree that ERE is extremely commensurate with a lower waste lifestyle. My trash is almost exclusively food waste. Next on the list would be boxes from internet packages or clothes. These are both very low and I usually recycle the boxes by using them as a weed barrier in my yard, which I recently mulched. If beating 98% of first worlders was my goal here (I am surprisingly satisfied by this in the work/ save realm) then I'd be happy. What gets me is 1) how much trash I'm still generating and 2) how difficult it is to reduce the amount I'm currently generating.

@Jacob, interesting point about the flights and supply chain. This again highlights how difficult it is to truly come anywhere near zero-waste in our current society.

I live in a sort of weird grocery area. My neighborhood was the hood until circa 2004 and has rapidly gentrified since then. The first grocery store built in the neighborhood is targeted at crust punks/ train hoppers. The newer grocery stores are a (bullshit) food co-op and a fancy upscale grocery store. Also within biking distance is a small local chain grocery store in the FQ and the "liberal dream" (low prices, emphasis on local food, local minority operated) grocery store. My shopping strategy used to be going to Costco (near my work) and then supplementing with Walmart. Both of these require me to drive. My new strategy has been to walk/ bike to several nearby grocery stores. This is much more time consuming and expensive.

So now I'm trying to decide between the old and new strategy or a mixed strategy. This has lead to questions like, is it worth it to pay 4x more for something to eliminate a plastic bag or container? What about 8x? What about 2x?

It's amazing the impact physically feeling/ seeing something has. I don't really feel that bad when I take a long distance flight because I don't see the impact, even though I'm aware of the impact. I feel a lot more pain when I attempt to buy something without a bag and end up having to grab one.

Re: Zero Wasters?

Posted: Thu Oct 11, 2018 10:34 am
by theanimal
jacob wrote:
Thu Oct 11, 2018 7:48 am
Note that Illinois does not recycle (not even cans or paper) so everything goes into the trash
This isn't true. It may be just where you're at but every neighborhood I lived in growing up and those nearby have had recycling since I've been alive (25 yrs). Plastics, cans, paper..the whole shebang.

Edit: Unless you are talking about the end result. I now see there are claims that the city recycles less than 9 percent of recyclable goods.

Re: Zero Wasters?

Posted: Thu Oct 11, 2018 10:48 am
by jacob
I save all [internet] boxes and padded/big envelopes because I use them to ship(*) things back out again. I can't remember when we last paid for envelopes or packaging material and we do use it. There's also silly tips like this: ... abels.html At one point I was saving tomato cans with the aim of building furniture out of them. If you remove the lids and stack them and then hotglue them together (use a hairdryer or heatgun to hide the glue on the inside and make it look nice), they provide quite a bit of compression strength (think tables) or building shelf units out of cardboard boxes (if you don't reinforce them, they eventually collapse due to humidity). I also "recycle" wood in that I'll take apart furniture I previously built and use the pieces.

(*) Thus ignoring transportation costs :?

Basically, this is level 6.5 thinking: ... Levels.jpg

Indeed, it's practically impossible to completely extract oneself from the consumer system. Examples are and ... yless_Man) ... I think Mark Boyle has mellowed a bit and do a few transactions involving money now.

I prefer a mixed strategy that focuses both on the spending side and the resource waste which means I consider both. I think the zero-waste people sometimes get too focused on "plastic" and ignore their higher spending in the process. The frugal people similarly sometimes get too focused on spending as little as possible and in the process generate too much waste, but e.g. buying junk that will be thrown out/can't be used by the next generation.

Ideally, I prefer to neither spend money nor resources. I consider that a win. Upcycling in space and time is an even bigger win. Kinda goes with the whole systems-optimization thing. Also see for another example of someone who spends about the same as me. Focusing on the systems-resource waste means that I will NOT donate my plastic toothbrush to Goodwill and special-order a wooden one made halfway around the world.

So my doing that does exert some pressure on the complexity of the consumer system which changes it ever so slightly. However, being complex, it means it's never just one thing changing. All I can do is change the supply and demand curves at the very margin. I can tell other people how I do it and if they do it too, then the combined effort changes a somewhat larger margin.

I do think that movements like zero-waste and FIRE have a lot of potential. Consider the impact of 100,000 people saving half their paycheck of say $50,000. That's enough to buy one midcap company ... per year. Although relative to the thousands of companies that exist, it's small potatoes ... but it's bigger than zero and it has to start somewhere.

Re: Zero Wasters?

Posted: Thu Oct 11, 2018 11:44 am
by black_son_of_gray
Well a couple threads over, @jacob made a point to the effect of (correct me if I am wrong): Money spent by a low-expense/low-waste-generating person will probably be entering the pockets of a high-expense/high-waste-generating person (i.e. "average consumer"), and on down the line as the money ricochets throughout the economy, ultimately leading to "average" levels of waste-generation and inefficiency. From that logic, it would seem that the ultimate focus on curtailing waste must be rooted in spending at little money as possible - not only because it directly generates less waste, but also because it prevents others to generating waste as well.

This ties into what is, for me, this is the most deliciously subversive act of ERE: To only half participate in the economy. I have a lot of respect for people like Boyle - I really admire what they are doing. But being outside of the money economy won't change it. It is a renunciation, but the church is not reformed by apostates. In ERE, one accumulates capital without demanding commensurately more from that capital. It's almost like turning standard flows of income<->expenses into open loops where income comes into a black hole and doesn't leave again. We need to figure out a way to do that with waste - which to my mind means up-cycling or packaging that is low-energy/non-fossil-fuel-to-produce and 100% biodegradable (e.g. there are some interesting developments in using mushrooms for packaging, etc.).

Re: Zero Wasters?

Posted: Thu Oct 11, 2018 11:56 am
by Stahlmann
joined few groups on FB back then.
probably they're new fancy subculture as for now being green or environmental isn't fancy enough.

still way too ridiculous for extreme folks.

edit: just checked. somebody finally raised discussion on having kids vs. lifetime tricks on saving carbon footprint :lol:

Re: Zero Wasters?

Posted: Thu Oct 11, 2018 12:21 pm
by suomalainen

Re: Zero Wasters?

Posted: Thu Oct 11, 2018 2:00 pm
by jacob
black_son_of_gray wrote:
Thu Oct 11, 2018 11:44 am
This ties into what is, for me, this is the most deliciously subversive act of ERE: To only half participate in the economy.
One might say the impedance [in the coupling between the given person and the system] is higher.

Re: Zero Wasters?

Posted: Thu Oct 11, 2018 6:21 pm
by 7Wannabe5
I wanted to like the "Zero Waste Home" book, but I didn't. However, I only read the first couple chapters, so possible it eventually became more interesting. I mean, she details winning a prize sponsored by a processed food company, flying with her son to accept the award, and then making a point of returning the trophy, so they can use it again the following year, without even a hint of humorous note that she is aware of the inherent irony.

I say this even though I generally very much enjoy books in the "extreme challenge" genre. In most of these books, the author starts with the rigid linear challenge, and then experiences both personal failure and conceptual growth. For instance, I much preferred "Processed: My City Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food" , because as she conducted her experiment, Megan Kimble researched many questions related to the history and function and current state of food processing, and changed her mind about some of her own previously conceived notions. In comparison, Johnson's book is more like somebody's memoir about achieving "ideal" weight through application of a certain diet.

I could even suggest some arguments in favor of packaging. For instance, when goods are sold as bulk commodities, the maker's or grower's mark is lost along with the incentive to make such a mark stand apart from the crowd in terms of quality. Also, most producers are far more aware of the bottom line than the typical consumer, so often packaging represents less expense (waste) than the damage to the goods that might, on average, otherwise occur during transport, or even the cost of feeding human labor enough kcalories worth of potatoes to package the goods in some alternate fashion. For instance, I could have, in theory, paid my teenage help to fashion recycled packaging from dumpster retrieved boxes for all the used books I shipped out from my relatively tiny business, but only if I paid them even less than minimum wage.

Re: Zero Wasters?

Posted: Thu Oct 11, 2018 6:56 pm
by IlliniDave
jacob wrote:
Thu Oct 11, 2018 7:48 am
Note that Illinois does not recycle (not even cans or paper) so everything goes into the trash. Food scraps and non-color paper/cardboard is composted (we have a worm bin).
That must be a Chicago thing. In my old/future hometown both the city and county do curbside (or back alley in older neighborhoods) recycling and have for 30+ years.

Re: Zero Wasters?

Posted: Thu Oct 11, 2018 7:38 pm
by jacob
@iDave - We've been told by two sets of neighbors that there's no recycling, but surprise surprise... According to the city's (not Chicago) website, one can pick up special bags from city hall which are to be placed next to the regular trashcans.

Re: Zero Wasters?

Posted: Thu Oct 11, 2018 8:31 pm
by theanimal
Dan Price (Radical Simplicity) another figure who is low on the totem pole of spending. Last I read he was at $5k, living in his hobbit hole.

Re: Zero Wasters?

Posted: Thu Oct 11, 2018 11:33 pm
by Jin+Guice
@7w5, this is a better way of saying what bothered me about it too. They have some great ideas, and their stuff about how recycling isn't that great and kind of obscures the actual problem is important. However, they have never apply this kind of thinking to their movement. I agree it's interesting to see someone do an extreme challenge. There isn't much discussion about the point of diminishing returns or what kinds of trash might be better than others or setting up a system where we don't need to create so much trash. It's interesting that she was able to eliminate all trash, but how do I get close to this without devoting my life to it? That story about the award is a perfect example of the problems of the movement. This happens all the time, someone gets a pet way of doing things and takes it to the extreme without considering the environment that created the conditions. Then it becomes a religion to them and their blind to ways which they might not be solving the overall problem or perhaps even inadvertently worsening it. Perhaps it's just another manifestation of our hyper specialization.

I do really like the idea of zero waste and the intent behind it. I'd like to come as close to zero waste as possible, but I do wish I knew where the effort was best spent and that our current environment wasn't so stacked against reusables.

In terms of more durable goods (mostly thinking clothes here, but other things could apply) do y'all BIFL or get cheap used stuff? Which do you think is better? Will you BIFL new or only used?

Re: Zero Wasters?

Posted: Fri Oct 12, 2018 7:18 am
by jacob
Jin+Guice wrote:
Thu Oct 11, 2018 11:33 pm
This happens all the time, someone gets a pet way of doing things and takes it to the extreme without considering the environment that created the conditions. Then it becomes a religion to them and their blind to ways which they might not be solving the overall problem or perhaps even inadvertently worsening it. Perhaps it's just another manifestation of our hyper specialization.
Isn't that how every religion or ideology works? Or perhaps more accurately how every idea works when humans pursue it religiously or ideologically?

There is, however, also something to be said for those ideas or beliefs when they are pursued at the beginning at the sigmoid curve of return on effort rather than the end when it becomes "a thing". In the grand scheme of things, if someone at the end of the curve emitting a giant load of waste by flying to return an award by hand can inspire 10,000 humans to cut 10 pounds of waste out at the beginning of the curve, then in the grand scheme of things, the math works out. Recall that most humans don't tend to overthink such matters. They just follow and get inspired to make a few efforts themselves.

In that sense, the impact of an idea should not be judged by who promotes it but by how it is followed.

As for clothes, what really kills it is dry tumbling. It's easier to start by eliminating that and replace it with line drying before going into details about what lasts longer.