Learning from My "Zero-Waste" Fails (and Small Successes)

Last week another dire report came out about how we are overheating the planet with our incessant burning of fossil fuels. Policy change does not seem politically feasible, and the only way I seem to feel any better about all of this is to do something about it (in any small way) — I know my actions have little impact. It just seems better to do something. Not purchasing disposable items in the first place eliminates the energy to make new items, reduces trash and pollution.

I've been convinced by Hum of the City and Trash Is For Tossers (and many others) that the Zero Waste lifestyle is possible — I want to live at least a "low waste" lifestyle, so I decided to try out a few things. It's been harder than I expected to change our habits, my family is not always amenable to these changes, and some of the waste-free options are not great. We are still throwing out a large kitchen-size trash bag full of landfill waste per week, plus recycling.

But I've had some success, too, and I might as well also tell you what's worked so far while I'm bemoaning my failures and false starts.

First, the Fails

All of my zero-waste fails have been in the kitchen. I tried replacing liquid dish detergent (Method was my vice of choice) with a bar of soap that I bought package-free at the farmers' market. It had a citronella component, some broken egg shells, and generally was a hardy bar of soap that worked pretty well: it sudsed up when wet, had a mild abrasive quality — OK for prepping plates and glasses for the dishwasher and for lightly soiled pots and pans. However, on pans with burned on food or grease it didn't help much, and after a few days the soap started to turn to mush. My husband hated it. Eventually we switched back to liquid detergent.

Sponges (plastic) and scrubbers (steel wool) should be easily replaced, I thought — after all, our great grandmothers had to keep their pots and pans clean too, right? I bought a bamboo scrubber and a steel chain-mail scrubber, as well as a bunch of cotton cloths (these turned out to be a great paper towel replacement). The cloths were too big for washing dishes — they just flopped over my hands and didn't get grime off the pans very well. The chain mail works fine on iron skillets but leaves all other pans (steel and aluminum) just as dirty as before I spent 20 minutes scouring them.

Dishwasher detergent cannot really be replaced with a package-free option, so instead I chose a lower-waste option: Seventh Generation powder. I thought I'd get more out of it, and the cardboard package would be less wasteful than the plastic container (faulty logic?) — but the quality of this detergent is much lower than the liquid stuff I'd been using before. It left white grains of detergent on otherwise clean dishes. Not worth it.


Composting is an ongoing battle. I do it religiously but my family often forgets to. I've seen coffee grounds, vegetable odds and ends, and stale bread in the trash that I would have put in the compost bin. I feel that we would cut our trash in half if everyone in my household composted!

A friend suggested that we keep a smallish bin right outside the door so that no one has to go outside to place compost in the pile — I think this might work and I'm going to try it.

Hand soap bars — for the bathroom, we had been using a bar of soap I bought at the farmers' market until it turned to mush and gunked up the sink drain. After I cleared the clog, I threw out the soap mush and unwrapped a new bar of Dove soap, which has been working fine in the metal soap dish I bought for the counter. Hopefully soon I will find a bar of soap that doesn't dissolve in a matter of weeks (and is not wrapped in plastic)!

Not Attempted

Again, we recycle, but as we all know, plastic can only be repurposed so many times before it ends up in a landfill. There are still many aspects of life that seem harder to transition to the zero-waste way:

Toothbrushes and toothpaste — supposedly I can recycle this stuff with Terracycle but this seems like a lot of work. Making my own seems like a decent idea, but the kids' dentist insists that fluoride is helping them fight cavities, so I haven't even tried it.

Tissues for the family — I've switched to handkerchiefs but they refuse to use them. 

Other bathroom stuff:
- Dandruff shampoo for kids and husband — this does not exist package-free.
- Hair gel for me and husband — I've successfully transitioned to bar shampoo and conditioner, but it seems impossible to find a good package-free hair-gel option (I have not tried aloe but will at some point). At least we can recycle the containers.
- Tampons and pads — I am scared of the zero-waste options available, I have to admit.
- Contact lens solution — yes, I could just wear glasses, but I prefer contacts. 
- Moisturizer — I guess I could use a homemade version, but I haven't found a place to buy the ingredients in bulk, so what's the point?

Food packaging:
- Meat — we buy frozen meat from the farmers' market, and it comes in plastic packaging. I've asked the farmers if they can package instead in butcher paper, and they said no, because of health regulations.
- Fish — we buy either frozen fish at the supermarket or fresh fish at the farmers' market, and both come prepackaged in plastic.
- Cheese — I have a plan to try buying cheese using my own containers from a local store with a cheese counter. I know that they cut their cheese from large blocks, so they should be able to let me buy it using my own mason jars and such, but I haven't tried it yet. 
- Canned beans — my child who eats beans only eats canned beans (yes, I've tried to replicate the "canned" flavor by simmering dried beans with lots of salt, some spices, and even sugar, but he has rejected them). As canned beans are one of the only foods he eats that he can make himself, I'm reluctant to stop buying canned beans. Plus, the cans are recyclable.
- Condiments and spices — there are no stores that sell these items in bulk. At least we can recycle the containers.
- All sorts of other things that I have yet to figure out how to buy in bulk or without unrecycleable packaging: cocoa powder (plastic ziplock bag), butter (plastic-coated wrappers), baking chocolate (aluminum foil), breakfast cereal (plastic inner bag), etc.


I have been putting a lot of effort into transitioning to a low-waste lifestyle, so at least there's something to show for it:

Shampoo, conditioner bars for me — the Meow Meow bar is fantastic, and I got this handmade conditioner from a seller on Etsy.

Cloth handkerchiefs for me — I love these and they have eliminated tissues for me. When I have a cold, I might go through three a day.

Cloth rags for the whole family — this has been a resounding success, actually! The kids and my husband have all successfully transitioned from paper towels to cloths and rags, and don't complain anymore about it at all.

Cloth napkins for us all — I keep clean rolled up napkins in a basket on the dining-room table, and if they're still rather clean we put them on our chairs for the next meal.

Reusable zippered bags for kids' lunches and storing items in the fridge. These Nordic by Nature bags have worked really well for us. (A great step forward after I left plastic wrap behind!)

Milk delivery from Crescent Ridge with reusable glass bottles, and homemade yogurt and ricotta cheese.

Homemade bread (of course) for the most part, and I wrap it in cloth napkins for the few days it lasts in my house!

Bulk items bought using my own containers (at Whole Foods):
- nuts
- dried fruit
- rolled oats
- dried beans

Any advice from the zero-waste life success stories? What else can I learn from my failures?


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