Is A Zero Waste Lifestyle in New York City Possible?
In honor of Earth Day, my family and I are going to do our best for one year to turn our home into a zero waste household.
Many Earth Days have passed where I haven't changed a thing about my lifestyle. This goes against the fact that I firmly believe every person on this ailing planet has a responsibility to do something about it. Notice the disconnect? It's very uncomfortable.
I'm not alone in my ability to believe one thing but not behave accordingly. I know I'm not the worst offender out there but I also believe I could do much more. It may be extreme to make Zero Waste a goal, but I think we have to aim high in order to make make the kinds of changes that will stick.
We aim above the mark to hit the mark. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
How environmentally friendly is your lifestyle? Do you find yourself wishing it were easier?
Want to see your Greendex Score? *See Below
I'll share our experiences here on a regular basis, for better or worse, so here's what you can expect:
- Photos of our current trash and periodic check-ins as we reduce.
- Inspiration for finding your own way to reduce the amount of trash you create on a weekly basis.
- Our experiences finding ways to get around (living without) our Amazon deliveries, Vitacost orders, wholesale club shopping, local grocery store visits.
- Figuring out the composting opportunities in our neighborhood.
- How our kids are contributing (or not contributing) to the project.
- How NYC municipal services support us gives a forecast on how NYC can hold up under their own initiative to be a zero waste city by 2030 - are they really committed or is it lip service?
Why didn't we do this before?
I have some long held beliefs about what type of person can live along contemporary environmental dictates. Some of them are questionable, perhaps downright wrong.
Here are the long held beliefs, perhaps erroneous:
I think only people who can shop at Whole Foods can lead environmentally friendly lives. I think it's hard to find a way to compost food waste in most NYC neighborhoods. I think you need a car to get to stores that sell food in bulk. And how am I going to find a butcher who will sell me things and put into my own reusable containers like the one in Harlem? And how inconvenient will it be not to have Ziploc bags, foil, parchment paper? Or to make and wash our own cloth napkins? Our lives are already so time pressed, how can we make time to recycle things properly so that they don't go into the waste stream? Also, will the impact of being zero waste fall almost entirely on me, the one who is in charge of most of the domestic duties?
In 2008, I watched a documentary called No Impact Man about a fellow New Yorker who wanted to create a lifestyle around his environmental values. Something about that documentary really stayed with me but we had just had a baby and were living in a rapidly gentrifying section of Brooklyn. We had no family help and a colicky infant so it was all we could do to get through each day. I did try cloth diaper service for 6 months where someone picked up our used diapers weekly, however when we moved that company didn't have service in our new neighborhood. Of course, we shopped in the local farmer's market totes in hand and did our best in so many other small ways.
Later I would follow a family in California, the Zero Waste Home. She did an experiment for her family, a goal of zero waste in one year. I thought she did a splendid job and she aimed to make the lifestyle look very stylish, which I admit is part of the appeal. I read her tips and found I was only able to apply a few to our lives in NYC. Again, by the time I was following her I had two kids (the second one was not colicky at all, but I had two!) and was living in Washington Heights, ordering food from Fresh Direct (on average3-4 boxes of food per week, the shame of all that cardboard!), but having little ones without family help and having a very tight budget while I started my small business in personal organizing, it seemed impossible to take on a more environmentally aware lifestyle.
Meanwhile, I had all these ideals, like making my own bread, recycling objects and textiles for art projects, tote bags galore for shopping, sewing my own pillows, creating my own cleaning supplies from vinegar and borax. All these things take more time than I have to spend, but I tried anyway, believing it helped in some way.
Books that made me think heavy thoughts on my journey to make zero waste include: the Story of Stuff, Garbology, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, Food Waste, Life at Home in the 21st Century, Buying In, Your Money or Your Life, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, Stuffocation and many more. There seemed to be a movement emerging and strengthening in numbers, the minimalists or people who chose "voluntary simplicity", small space living, downsizing or downshifting (in the UK). I explored this online the past four years as well and found plenty of people wanting to rid their lives of things so that they could focus on creating a life they want to live.
We are a sick culture, and I believe that art can help. - Alice Walker,
Years of observing artists from around the world trying to make sense of connection between humans and their things, conceptual art made from trash from the ocean, landfills, commercial construction building sites has made me believe that what Alice Walker was right in saying art is a kind of medicine.
Finally, trying this family experiment at this time in life feels right, the kids are old enough to understand and help out. We used to live in a Manhattan neighborhood in a building with a lot of problems with basic services, trash on the sidewalks, very little green space or decent shopping, and no real sense of community. Once we moved to the Bronx, we felt an instant upgrade in all the seemingly minor things, more green, more birds, more light, better shopping, less garbage, more diversity, two bathrooms for the four of us and still within walking distance of the train.
Once I began organizing other people, I realized that the more effective I was in helping people unload their unwanted possessions the more I caused even greater amounts of trash to enter the waste stream. Despite my best efforts to persuade clients to sort their goods and donate to thrift stores or recycle electronics, an enormous amount of it went into apartment building trash rooms. My clients wanted desperately to have the space we created together by unloading their extra things. And while I feel exhilarated in helping others free themselves from excess and find space in their home, I felt a shadow over the type of work that I do.
The shadow of guilt for not being more eco in my own habits, became more than a spectre once I helped others deal with their surplus. It grew into a guilt with heft.
I began to worry that the organization I brought into other people's lives would not be sustainable because we are such hyper consumers.
I also believe that if we had no such activity - the organizing of our many many things - everyone would be happier and more involved in the things that make up a good life. Community, families, civic duties, making good food, art making, growing gardens, befriending others and connecting over all the good things we make and see and do.
Did I just promote a way of life in which personal organizers are no longer necessary? I believe I did. Wholeheartedly.
*Conducted by the National Geographic Society and GlobeScan since 2008, the Greendex report explored environmental attitudes and behaviors among 17,000 consumers in 17 countries through an online survey that asks questions relating to housing, transportation, food, and consumer goods. (Learn more about how Greendex is created.)