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When The Trash Starts Piling up: Going Waste Free for a Week

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By Sarah Krichel

There’s this catchy alliteration everyone knows. It’s the one you pride yourself in when you throw your empty Coca-Cola can into the recycling slot in a Toronto garbage bin, or when you return your glass bottles to a beer store. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

But I’ve always thought that humans are primarily selfish. My pessimistic mentality started with the suit-wearing, briefcase-holding capitalist on Lakeshore Avenue West, taking the last sip of his Starbucks macchiato. As he approached the recycling bin on the sidewalk, I had a glimpse of hope.

I was on the 501 streetcar and turned my head to see if the cup’s next stop was the recycling bin. Instead, I saw it laying on the sidewalk, inches away from the bin. I took a sip of my still-warm black coffee from my tall silver mug and as I swallowed, I felt good about doing my part in supplying a helping hand to the ground I call home. I try to take a travel mug wherever I go, I bring my own tote bags to grocery stores and I even shame those pesky plastic bottle users.

Then I learned I’m a complete fucking hypocrite.

North America is the highest-ranked continent for both waste consumption and production. According to a 2011 study from Environment Canada, the average person produces about 4 lbs of solid waste every day—that’s 1,344 lbs per year, which makes for about 30 million tonnes of collective waste annually. Comparatively, Americans produce slightly more waste per person (4.62 lbs daily). Those in Mexico only produce half of that, at 2.2 lbs.

The amount of plastic floating around in the ocean outnumbers the marine population by a 6:1 ratio, which might be even more concerning. Scientists have also found that every documented species of sea turtle has consumed plastic, and one million birds are killed annually because of garbage.

I may have been carrying around a travel mug, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t still contributing to those statistics.

One afternoon, amidst all of the environmental horror stories on my Facebook feed, I came across a video of a girl who was able to fit all of the trash she produced over a six-year period into a single mason jar. For a brief second, humanity seemed to have rekindled some sort of environmentally-friendly flame.

The zero-trash, zero-waste movement (or minimalism on crack, as it’s been previously labelled) is not as well-known as other environmental initiatives, like veganism or composting. The goal seems simple enough: reduce your waste production as much as you can. Plastic bags, packaged products, wrappers, disposable hygienic items, you name it—the consumption of these items are factored out of your day-to-day life.

So, for seven days, I tried to live waste-free. From Monday to Monday, I would be cutting back my consumption rates by a huge amount. As a student who spends two hours of my day commuting, I’m out of my house by 7 a.m. and on campus for 17 hours every day, give or take.

It’s not easy for me to prepare meals each the morning, so I eat out at least three times a day and I buy those packaged double-chocolate vegan cookies from Balzac’s on a regular basis.

On my very first day of trying to be waste-free, I learned that living this type of lifestyle is a gradual process. I already had my top two necessities, toothpaste and eyeliner, but I ran out of shampoo, conditioner and body wash.

I was faced with two choices: to make my products or buy them. It was a classic dilemma of time vs. money. Mondays are always complete chaos for me and I couldn’t find any ingredients in my refrigerator or cabinet to make products. But what I did find was 20 minutes to spare. I ended up at LUSH in the Eaton Centre.

“What products do you have that aren’t packaged?” I asked an employee with a sleek buzzcut and facial piercings.

“Wait, why do you ask?” she replied enthusiastically. I went on to explain my seven-day waste-free challenge, and she pointed me towards their eco-friendly offers. We spent the next 20 minutes ranting about how difficult it is to shop ethically, whether it be packaged hygienic products or Grail sneakers that have suede on them. The worst.

Going waste-free is about more than feeling like a rich hippie—it’s about dismantling a culture that has developed through a market-based economy. A 2012 Forbes article pointed out that a rise in recycling rates is incorrectly perceived as environmentally productive. As a result, consumers have reached a dead-end mentality, assuming mass consumption of recyclable packaged products is a positive contribution to the environment.

“On the surface, it’s still a good idea both to recycle waste and to design products and packaging with the idea of recycling them in a closed loop,” Amy Westervelt from Forbes writes. “Unfortunately, in its modern-day incarnation, recycling has also given the manufacturers of disposable items a way to essentially market overconsumption as environmentalism.”

The answer to the paradoxical lifestyle of survival and simultaneous environmentalism is the first “R” in that catchy three-word slogan: reduce.

But students in Toronto are often hungry and on a budget, and it’s important to acknowledge those who are struggling to pay for tuition, textbooks, housing, phone bills and everything else that drools for dollar signs.

Courtney Hayes, third-year environmental and urban sustainability (EUS) student, says growing up with animated films such as Fern Gully and Princess Mononoke, both with themes of coexisting with nature and being environmentally conscious, influenced her to make more of an effort regarding her consumption choices.

She became a vegetarian three years ago and recently chose to go vegan. Two months ago, on New Year’s Eve, she made the decision to gradually adopt a waste-free lifestyle when she started to make drastic changes.

As a student, she said the key to maintaining her lifestyle is time management. Hayes spends her Sunday and Monday evenings preparing tupperware containers of veggies, rice, chili and curry that help get her through the week.

For me, the growling in my stomach for vegan and fresh bulk foods was indicative of one thing: privilege plays a big role in successfully living a zero-waste life.

I was at the Loblaws on Carlton and Church streets, ready to start my “ethical” shopping trip. As I walked through the vegetable aisle, the main thing on my mind was how much easier it would be to just buy my usual excessively packaged avocado sushi (it was on sale that day).

Instead, I had to look past the price tag. Clueless, confused and in search of packageless products, I was limited to two sections: fresh produce and bulk. Everything else in the store was either wrapped in paper or plastic, so I left with flax seeds, almonds and a big head of lettuce. This isn’t my usual go-to meal, per se. In the long run, bulk-buying is collectively cheaper, but the impact on my wallet was heavier in the moment and it was hard to ignore that.

Most days, I woke up frustrated, thinking about how hungry I was going to be all day because of not having time to cook a decent meal or go shopping. The thought of having to eat another bowl of overly sweet, soggy oatmeal or bland almonds for lunch gave me a headache.

On top of that,  I wouldn’t go anywhere without my oversized tote bag filled with my collection of various sized containers and cutlery.

I was prepared for the unexpected, but it felt like I was carrying around a kitchen.

Despite my efforts, I struggled to find  support for this  kind of lifestyle at local grocery stores and restaurants—both on and off campus. My containers remained empty.

Toronto is often looked at as a progressive city, but it is environmentally behind compared to other Canadian cities, like Vancouver and Montreal, which have waste-free grocery stores where shoppers bring in their own containers and bags when buying ethically sourced produce.

One of the waste-free community’s biggest internet inspirations is Bea Johnson, a French, California-based, zero-waste blogger.

Johnson told CCTV America that she, along with her entire family, saved approximately 40 per cent of their usual expenditures in a year by living entirely waste-free. It’s surprising, based on the assumption that cheap, quick food can’t be purchased because of its paper and foil packaging. But because overall consumption is decreased by bulk-buying and cooking in large amounts, waste-free ends up being a cheaper route.

The fact remains that bulk-buying and reusing household items comes to a lesser dollar amount spent. However, most hungry and broke students would probably pick a burger off the McDonald’s dollar-menu instead of scavenging for the nearest bulk store.

Sammy Tangir, a fourth-year EUS student, research assistant at Ryerson and program leader at Evergreen Brick Works, agrees that privilege plays a role, but says that people can still try to make small changes.

Tangir gets up out of bed every day around 6:30 a.m. Her first instinct is to grab her tooth powder from the bathroom shelf. It’s tough to reduce waste when you live with your parents’ habits, she says, but she makes do wherever she can. She takes a drop of the natural concoction and rubs it onto the wet bristles of her toothbrush. After she’s dressed, she grabs an empty glass jar, fills it with herbal tea, and heads to class.

Before I went to bed on my second night, I showered and used my package-free shampoo and conditioner bars for the first time. The shampoo was foamier than I expected, but the conditioner dried out my hair. Although it was pricier, I could see myself making a permanent switch, replacing my usual Aussie bottled shampoo and conditioner. The next morning, apprehensive about the incessant growling of my stomach for the day to come, I grabbed the only things I could—a banana, an apple and a clementine—and ran out the door, but I had to go back because I forgot my travel mug, which proved to be the weapon of the week.

According to Karina Maynard, sustainability engagement coordinator at Ryerson, the campus has taken big initiatives to implement environmentally conscious movements. In 2012, the Sustainability Matters program was created to unify operations and empower the community to be more sustainable. Since then, organic bins have been added to the ServiceHub, there has been increased bicycle parking, more electronic record-keeping and the establishment of a rooftop farm that provides hyper-local food to the school’s food services and community.

Maynard believes students can individually assess their situation and decide what ways are best for them to be environmentally conscious. She suggests alternative means of transportation, changes in diet and taking small steps towards living waste-free. “The important thing is to realize that we are part of an ecosystem and we have to work together and do our part to ensure a sustainable future,” she says. 

On Feb. 7, Tangir, who makes her own deodorant, lip balms and toothpaste, held a workshop in collaboration with the Environment and Urban Sustainability Students’ Association to teach students how to make homemade products.

Tangir says that there is a sense of empowerment when people come together to create their own products, and realize they don’t need to rely on corporations.

It’s Friday morning and my seven days are coming to an end. “Almost there,” I think to myself. I’m on my way to meet a friend at Kipling Station and I can’t help but feel torn when I show my plastic Metropass to the bus driver. The thought is soon overshadowed by my main concern for the day: food.

I walk down Gould Street on my way to The Eyeopener office to drop off a few things before heading back down the stairs towards Balzac’s, travel mug in hand. So far so good.

As the week went on, I felt less like I was doing something productive and more like I was stepping over laser beams. Everything seemed riddled with uncertainty. Can I use the napkin wrapped around my cutlery at breakfast? Can I eat popcorn that my colleague made from a plastic-wrapped bag? Even though I didn’t buy it, would it encourage the packaged and processed foods culture and further support the demand for it? Before I managed to calm my trashless confusion, I looked down at my Balzac’s purchase and realized I inadvertently bought a double-chocolate vegan cookie, wrapped conveniently in plastic. Dammit, Sarah!

I’m not alone in the struggle amongst some students who face these types of challenges daily. If you have zero time to cook, like myself, it’s difficult to ensure zero waste from your rapid meal provider. If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far, it’s that you can’t control everyone’s actions.
Only you have a say in what you choose to consume. Sometimes slip-ups happen. And that’s okay.

Hayes has a refreshing mindset to offer. “I feel like everyone is inherently good,” she says. “Voting with your dollar, being able to push for change, supporting companies that are ethical and more zero-waste friendly … just keep pushing everyday for things to get a little bit better.”

It’s 12 hours after my last day, and I feel an odd mixture of liberation and guilt. The ease of ordering a tinfoil-wrapped sweet potato burrito from the Burrito Boyz on Dundas St. is too familiar, but my first bite in is unexpectedly tainted by shame. I finish my burrito and then toss the soggy foil into the garbage can. My culpable fingers curl as I walk out of the restaurant, but I’m mentally still there, visualizing the silver, crumpled ball making its way into an unsustainable landfill. And I can’t help but feel sad.

It may not be evident, but we owe the planet our promise to challenge our consumerist attitudes and take whatever action is within arm’s reach. Carry around a travel mug. Grab your reusable tote bag. Bring your own cutlery to school. Do what you can. You have an opportunity to help the ground you call home—don’t let it go waste. 

And for the love of God, please stop buying plastic water bottles.

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