Deb Seymour remembers the moment she realized we’re in big trouble.
It was 1970-something, and she was around six years old. Twice a week she would climb behind the couch in her San Francisco home and watch the garbage trucks pull up to collect everything her family had thrown in the trash.
Then one day, she asked her parents the question.
“I asked my parents, ‘Mommy and Daddy, where does the garbage go?’”
“They take it away and put it in a hole.”
“What happens when the hole fills up?”
“They dig another hole.”
The idea of holes filling up with garbage didn’t sit well with six-year-old Seymour. She started learning more about our environmental impact on the earth, and then she started asking more questions. If her family drove a smaller car, could they use less gasoline? Could she shop at thrift stores instead of buying new? Could she convince her family and neighbors to start recycling?
Now, Seymour lives in Seattle, where she’s part of a growing zero-waste movement. Made more popular in recent years by blogger and author Bea Johnson, the movement’s battle cry of “reduce, reuse, recycle” has inspired many to use cloth grocery bags, buy food in bulk using reusable containers, and to cut down on single-use products such as paper coffee cups and plastic cutlery.
But Seymour, like Johnson, has pushed herself past that. She composts and grows her own vegetables. She drives an electric car and has invested in a community solar panel project. Overall, she strives to produce as little solid waste as she possibly can.
But sometimes it seems like single-use plastic and unwanted packaging is her nemesis.
“We use it for five seconds and then it sits for 1,000 years,” Seymour said.
Seymour tracks her trash consumption with jars, a technique made more popular by Johnson. In 2017, all of Seymour's garbage — waste that couldn't be recycled or composted — fit into 13 jars. The contents of the jars were mostly small, tough-to-avoid items: tape from packages, fruit stickers, medication packaging, a broken CD.
But Seymour didn’t get to 13 jars a year overnight. She’s been consciously working on cutting down her trash output for a decade now, starting with downsizing her trash cans. Month by month, year by year, she challenged herself to consume less and less unsustainable materials until she got everything into a jar.
“I figured if I had less space to put garbage in, maybe I would make less garbage,” she said. “It was a game.”
For someone striving to live a zero-waste life, Seattle’s not a bad place to be. Curbside composting is standard. Plastic bags are banned in stores. And the city’s residents collectively recycle or compost about 60 percent of their waste, a number that’s higher than average.
But that means 40 percent of the city’s trash is still heading for landfills, and some of that is organic waste that releases methane and carbon monoxide as it slowly rots.
Reducing the solid waste that ends up in landfills goes hand-in-hand with a much bigger goal for the city of Seattle: to be carbon neutral by 2050. But efforts are stalled as the city experiences historic growth, with emissions from vehicles and buildings proving to be the most troubling offenders.
Outside of Seattle, local efforts to reduce emissions and waste aren’t given as much attention — but they’re happening nonetheless. But Karen May, project manager for King County Solid Waste, said that 33 percent of what goes into King County landfills is compostable food waste. And though she said there are efforts in place to convert gasses into energy, May wants to see that percentage greatly reduced over the next few years.
“From farm to plate, there are a lot of natural resources being used,” May said. “On average, American households toss about a quarter of the food they buy.”
She said that’s like going grocery shopping, then leaving one of your four grocery bags behind in the parking lot.
Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, has worked on campaigns to ban plastic bags and increase producer responsibility for products’ footprints. She said that to create a society that’s truly environmentally responsible, we might have to look to the past.
“To a large extent, success would look like going back to our grandparents' time,” she said. “There was much less waste back then.”
But how much of a difference will one consumer's actions really make, especially when emissions from buildings and vehicles seem so daunting? Trim said early-adopters of zero-waste efforts — like Seymour — can have a bigger impact than they might guess.
“They’re helping sort of pull everyone else along as well,” she said. “They’re showing that it can be done. That is extremely valuable for the overall effort.”
Instagram is ground zero for zero waste.Take a look through the site's #zerowaste hashtag and you'll see a lot of artfully-arranged glass jars holding things like organic oats and quinoa. A lot of veggie-heavy meals nestled snugly into steel lunch boxes. A lot of reusable coffee mugs.
The aesthetic is often minimalist and drenched in bright light. It looks great. Inspiring, even. For a moment, you might imagine that reusable coffee mugs and steel lunch boxes can help you be a more organized person with a cleaner, more minimalist house.
Seymour said she loves Instagram, but she hasn’t really bought into the zero-waste aesthetic. Her walls aren’t painted Instagram-chic white, and her home is filled with books, artwork and knickknacks. More than anything, she wants to let people know — through her blog and her Instagram feed — that there’s no such thing doing zero-waste wrong.
“There is no such thing as a bad zero-waster,” she said. “The only thing that’s bad is someone who isn’t trying at all.”
Seymour credits Instagram with one very important thing: The platform has connected her with a supportive network of locals working on reducing waste in their own lives. She’s part of Seattle Zero Waste, a growing group of eco-conscious consumers who meet up regularly to share tips and encouragement.
That’s how she met Stephanie Wall, another Seattle resident who found her way to zero-waste through Bea Johnson’s blog. As a new mom, she said her first line of defense against waste and unnecessary consumption is to think carefully about what she brings into her home in the first place — notably when it comes to baby accessories.
“While we do have enough stuff, I don’t feel like I’ve got baby stuff coming out of my ears,” Wall said. She relied on Buy Nothing groups for some necessities and said she doesn’t feel guilty about re-gifting anything her family can't use.
Wall said she’d like to see our economy become more circular when it comes to both production and consumption — one reason why she always shops stores like Goodwill first and looks for products that are minimally packaged or packaged with compostable material.
“If they would think in terms of circular economy versus a linear economy, that would make a huge difference,” Wall said. “Cradle to cradle instead of cradle to grave.”
April Dickinson, another Seattle Zero Waste group member, can attest that living a zero-waste life isn’t always easy. And striving for perfection is a fast way to burn out fast.
“Zero waste really doesn’t mean zero,” Dickinson said. “It’s more of a mindset of how can we get to a place where we’re creating less waste.”
She said that at first, trying to grocery shop for food that wasn’t wrapped in single-use plastic was tough, especially since one of her young sons wanted granola bars and fruit snacks.
“I just tried to explain to him these things are made of plastic,” she said. “It hurts the environment, it hurts the earth.”
But she also knows that she’s privileged to have more free time to seek out less-convenient options and to shop at stores where buying food from bulk bins and shopping for eco-friendly items such as local produce is even an option.
“Not everyone can afford to shop at PCC, or there might not be one near them,” Dickinson said.
Stores with more zero-waste options tend to be clustered in higher-income areas with greater percentages of white residents, as are many farmers markets. That’s just one of many examples of how environmentalism is often easier and more accessible for the upper-middle-class.
Seymour advocates being patient with yourself and realizing that we’re all limited by the constraints of our lives and society. She said it can be helpful to start by making just one small change until it becomes habit.
And don't forget to keep things realistic.
“We’re never going to get to 100 percent zero waste,” Seymour said. “You know why? Because we’re humans, and we poop and we pee and we need clothes … When we say zero waste, I think we should say close to zero waste.”
So what’s a good first step we can all take to create less waste? We asked experts and zero-wasters to weigh in on small, manageable changes that add up in the long run.
Give up bottled water
Trim said many consumers don’t trust the water that comes out of their tap, and they end up buying bottled water at the store. But here in the Pacific Northwest, we don’t have much to worry about. “We have some of the cleanest drinking water in the world here in the Pacific Northwest,” Trim said.
Getting food scraps and other compostable items out of landfills and into commercial compost facilities will cut down on gas emissions from decomposition. “If people could really work hard to get their food waste out of their garbage, that’s really a great step,” Trim said.
Go reusable in little ways
Grocery bags, coffee cups, straws, cutlery, produce bags — our experts said any one of these things is a great opportunity to substitute reusable products for single-use. (Or, in the case of produce bags and straws, to just go without entirely.) Seymour brings a milk crate to the store instead of reusable grocery bags.
Think about small purchases you can make sustainable
Seymour said she’s giving house guests compostable bamboo toothbrushes this year as part of a zero-waste gift bag. Other changes you might try include shopping second-hand stores or buying local food or local products when possible.
Downsize your garbage can
The zero-wasters we talked to said downsizing their garbage bins was a great way to consciously produce less trash. “Make it a bit of a game with yourself,” Seymour said. “Don’t compete with the rest of us zero wasters. Compete with yourself.”
Audit your trash for a week
If you’re not sure exactly where to start, consider a trash audit. That’s not nearly as strange as it sounds; it’s basically just keeping track of what’s in your garbage for a week so you can identify habits you might be able to change. For Dickinson, it was snack packaging — and she solved the problem by cutting back on chips and granola bars. “You’re auditing not only your trash but also your habits,” Dickinson said.