By Lissa Schneckenburger
Lissa is a musician, parent, and activist based in Brattleboro, VT.
Her latest single “Labor On” was inspired by the climate justice
movement and is available online at www.lissafiddle.com
Last year (what now seems like a pre-pandemic lifetime ago) my family embarked on a Zero Waste Challenge & Letter Writing Campaign. Inspired by a 99% Invisible episode called “National Sword,” our challenge was to go two weeks without putting anything in our trash can or recycling bin, and write letters to amplify our cause. We decided to turn it into a public Facebook event so that others could do the challenge with us and share ideas, tips, feedback, and frustrations (check it out). Why go broke trying every variety of biodegradable dental floss, when you can divide and share notes, right? We did a lot of reusing, and simply not buying stuff, but it was still REALLY HARD! Everyone should do a challenge like this with their family and friends at least once- not only as a way to cut down on waste, but also to experience how infuriating it is on a personal level, and then channel that frustration into contacting companies and policy makers who can make wide spread change. The idea that companies can fill our homes with trash in the form of packaging, empties, and single use items without the responsibility of cleaning it up is ludicrous. Putting pressure on businesses and our representatives to do better, and alleviate that burden from consumers and taxpayers, is crucial.
Contrary to what you’ll find when you google “zero waste,” you don’t have to BUY anything to get onboard. If you’re on a budget and have the time, you can make natural body care products in reusable containers that you’ve salvaged from the recycling bin. However, I’m a full time musician and a parent so my recipe for homemade chapstick is still hanging on the fridge unused. As a friend put it recently- I’m all for zero waste living, but as a feminist I’m not interested in being stuck in the kitchen all day by myself either. In other words, make sure you have collaborators on your zero waste journey- both within your household and out in the world.
The heroes in our zero waste story are the menders and fixers! People who help us hold on to the beautiful old things that we love, rather than throwing them out and buying new ones. These heroes helped fix my scissors, suitcase, bike, lamp, and several outfits for next to nothing! It is worth getting to know your local tailor, cobbler, and hardware store workers because keeping and fixing your old things is the name of the game. Menders are sometimes hard to find in the modern world so once you do, hold on to them and give them LOTS of business and appreciation! I’m especially grateful for Mindel and Morse Builders, Mariachi Shoe Repair, On the Mend blog and sewing shop and SO many friends at the Brattleboro Time Trade for their dedication to helping us keep loving what we already have.
The surprising thing is that it was actually generosity that contributed the most to our family’s trash pile. Like when a friend sent an unexpected gift in the mail that was packed in bubble wrap, or generously brought us take-out in a plastic container, or dropped off some homemade treats wrapped in saran wrap, or when they gave out plastic goody bags at a school event. Paying attention to the stream of trash coming into our house also coincidentally made me pay attention to how lucky we are to have such great friends and neighbors. This is why it is SO important to have conversations about waste, and write letters to people who can change our system in a major way. I learned that going zero waste is a long and slow process that absolutely will not be achieved overnight (or even in two weeks). I have to remember to be patient with myself (and society) as my family and friends learn new habits.
OK, so we didn’t completely achieve our goal- we ended our two week challenge with a small pile of trash- but this challenge was just the beginning, and I know we will be digesting and incorporating all that we learned into our daily lives for a long time to come. Zero waste living is a growing world-wide movement, and there are lots of resources online if you’re interested in learning more. I especially enjoy participating in zero waste Facebook groups, where no matter what my issue is, there are always plenty of people willing to brainstorm creative solutions and keep things out of the landfill. (Holes in your tights? Cut them into hair ties! Rug falling apart? Turn it into garden mulch!) I’ve included a list of tips and ideas from our challenge to get you started, and I wish you the best of luck on your zero waste journey.
- The podcast that inspired our challenge
- Buy Nothing Project
- Loop, a mail in shopping system that allows you to buy products in reusable containers and then send them back to be refilled when they’re empty. Great if you have no local bulk bins in your area, but generally WAY too expensive for my budget, and not enough product choices or companies who are participating yet.
- Terracycle connects you to companies who recycle their packaging once you’ve emptied it. Great for especially difficult things to recycle like toothpaste tubes or plastic candy wrappers, however it seems like the program is so popular that I was put on a waiting list for every product that I was interested in, and I haven’t actually been able to use it yet..…
- In my search for zero waste items to give out on Halloween, I finally found sugar free Glee Gum– the only treat NOT wrapped in plastic!
- The BC drug store London Drugs is collecting used candy wrappers to research how they might be recycled in the future. Wouldn’t it be cool if everyone had a local drug store that was so conscientious?
- I’m a huge fan of Freecycle, it’s a great way to give the things you don’t want to people who will give them a second life.
- For those that have a TimeTrade organization in their town, it can be a great way to barter goods and services and cut down on potential waste that might be generated in our regular economy (I found a bike fixer, electrician, and furniture repairer in my local Brattleboro Time Trade).
- For the bakers out there reusable pie crust shields are available at most stores that sell kitchen stuff. I no longer have to use tin foil for shielding my crust in the oven!
- There are many blogs and web sites out there on the topic of zero waste, Zero Waste Home is one that I really like.
- Catalog Choice can help you cut down on #junkmail, and it is free or by donation. I also had a friend suggest simply putting your junk mail into one of the return envelopes that it comes with, and returning it to the sender.
- The Story of Stuff is an awesome educational and activism resource.
- Many zero waste kitchen hacks are time consuming, but making yogurt and cottage cheese are not so bad, they might even seem like a magical science experiment if you do them with your kids for the first time.
- Inspiring stories abound!
- Why it’s important to remember to not just punish ourselves with all this zero waste stuff, but make a racket and tell some big corporations and policy makers as well!
- Here is one of the letters I wrote during the challenge, please feel free to plagiarize and reuse, or write your own!
- Zero Waste Cartel– definitely on the expensive side, but it’s a good place to find compostable bandaids, toothbrushes, and grooming products if you can’t find anything locally or aren’t able to make your own (I really liked their Humby Organics deodorant).
- Some folks found that wooden biodegradable toothbrushes tend to be a little TOO biodegradable and start falling apart before they’re done with them, so a recycled #preservetoothbrush that can be sent back to the manufacturer to be recycled again is another good option.
- Toothpaste Bite Bits had mixed reviews, but personally I LOVE THEM! I’m a subscriber, and I keep hoping that my local coop will just start selling them in the bulk section.
- Dental Lace is made from biodegradable silk, and came in a pretty glass reusable container, but doesn’t feel comfortable on the gums and is super breakable so not a great choice- don’t bother!
- Green Tea Organic floss by @radius_usa is also made out of biodegradable silk, and it comes in a compostable cardboard container. This definitely gets my vote!
- The jury is out on making menstrual cycles more sustainable. One friend swears by the natural rubber Keeper, another adores Thinx underwear, and I prefer to go with cloth pads (available at many coops, Whole Foods Markets, or you can make your own).
- Elate for makeup products sold in reusable packaging
- For antiperspirant that comes in reusable containers, I haven’t tried Myro Deodorant yet but it looks like the right idea.
- Check out The Earthling Co. for lots of zero waste body care products (lotions, shampoo and conditioner bars, and soaps).
- I really love the make up sold by Bee You Organics. It all comes in reusable containers that you can send back to the company when they’re empty. I’m hoping that my local coop will sell their products soon so we can save on the cost of shipping.
- LunaRoots: great lipsticks and make up all sold in compostable or reusable containers.
- Julie’s Bicycle is a London based charity that supports the creative community to act on climate change and environmental sustainability. They believe that the creative community is uniquely placed to transform the conversation around climate change and translate it into action.
- Sustainable Touring Arts Coalition is a great resource for touring artists who want to make their work and creativity more sustainable.
- Lula Wiles, Laura Cortese, and Lake Street Dive are all touring artists who I love and appreciate both for their amazing music and career bad-assery, as well as for their commitment to sustainable travel and environmental stewardship. (Here’s a great interview with Laura Cortese about sustainable touring, and another great article by Isa Burke from Lula Wiles.)
- Eco Craft by Susan Wasinger is one of my favorite books on crafting with reused and re purposed materials. She has lots of inspiring and creative ideas for how to keep all kinds of materials out of the landfill.
- My family was very inspired by the robot sculptures in the windows of Gallery in The Woods, and have made several of our own as whimsical up cycled gifts.
- Crayola Color Cycle– Through this initiative, students in K-12 schools across the continental United States and parts of Canada can collect and repurpose used Crayola markers. I wrote to the company for more specifics on how and where the markers are recycled, but I’m still waiting to hear back.
- Market 32 collects plastic bags for recycling that aren’t included in our regular town recycling program.
- Brown Computer Solutions will take your old electronics (computers, iPhones, etc) and recycle them!
- VPR did a great piece on where our state’s recycling goes (it is different from state to state). This article continues to have a huge affect on my family’s purchasing habits so definitely check it out.
- The Community Barn Architecture Firm in Middlebury VT had a great idea for reusing old legos- they filled their street level window boxes with them so that folks could stop and build something fun on their way by!
- Everyone at the Brattleboro coop was very sympathetic to our cause, and happy to fill our zero waste product requests in almost every department. Their selection of zero waste products continues to grow.
- The Brattleboro Dump Swap is a great place to bring things you don’t want any more, and pick up gently used items that you might need.