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The average American is responsible for producing 4.4 pounds of trash daily. Collectively, that’s enough for the United States to generate an astounding 700,000 tons of waste each day. Lauren Singer did not want to be part of this statistic. So she decided to stop producing trash.
Over the past five years, the 25-year-old has been able to fit all of her trash into a single mason jar. (Yes, you read that correctly.) After watching a classmate repeatedly throw away the plastic products from her lunch each day in her environmental studies capstone course at New York University, the entrepreneur was inspired to adopt a plastic-free, zero-waste lifestyle. But it’s not as crazy — or difficult — as it sounds.
Singer, who runs the lifestyle blog Trash Is for Tossers, is on a mission to make living sustainably doable. Part of that includes making and selling her own toxin-free cleaning products at her company, The Simply Co., which she launched through a Kickstarter campaign after leaving her job as sustainability manager at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. Her zero-waste pop-up store, Package Free, opens in Williamsburg on May 1.
MTV News chatted with the activist about what she carries around in her (reusable) bag, the biggest misconceptions about her waste-free life (no, she’s not a crunchy hippie), and the small steps you can take that will actually make a big impact on our environment — no mason jar required.
[ Editor's note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.]
You live a zero-waste life in New York City. What exactly does that mean? What inspired you to make this lifestyle change?
Lauren Singer: To me, living a zero-waste lifestyle just means not sending any trash to landfills. So not throwing anything on the ground, not putting anything in a trash can, not having a trash can — basically avoiding the fact of regarding something as non-usable.
The reason why I did that was because I always cared about the environment growing up. I really loved playing outside and my favorite books were The Swiss Family Robinson and The Boxcar Children. I had this obsession with the idea of living off of the land and finding things on the ground to make into a home. So that kind of led me to study environmental science at school and when I was studying, it was primarily based on political choices that help or hinder sustainable development. A lot of the things I was studying were things like sociology or business and how the entire planet was screwed. And I would get really depressed. I would try to tell people not to do things, like “don’t drink non-organic milk because you’re going to get sick” or “stop buying non-sustainable meat because of factory farming,” and I would basically scare the shit out of everyone and isolate them because it would make them feel like their choices were bad. And no one wants to feel like the things they’re doing on a daily basis are bad.
I wasn’t really looking at myself at all. I had started getting into activism against the oil and gas industry. I saw the documentary Gasland and it’s the same type of thing — every piece of information you see about environmentalism or sustainability comes from a place of negativity. It comes from a place of “we’re fucked, things aren’t getting better, people are bad.” It propagates this downhill spiral and you just feel like shit any time you hear something about sustainability. For me, everything kind of changed when I realized that even though I care about sustainability, I wasn’t actually living that way.
A turning point for me was when I saw that there was a girl who was using a lot of trash and a lot of plastic in one of my classes and she was throwing it all away. I thought it was really hypocritical that someone who was studying environmental science would also be creating a huge amount of waste. But then I looked at my own life and realized that I was just as bad and, hypocritically, I was protesting against the gas and oil industry, but I was subsidizing them through the use of plastic products. I was all about the environment, but I was a total polluter. So that’s how I kind of decided to go zero waste and started reevaluating the way I was living as a means to propagate positive environmental change.
You’ve been able to fit five years' worth of waste into a single mason jar. One word: How?
Singer: The biggest thing is just preparing. Once you have all the tools that you need to live a zero-waste lifestyle — the reusable bag and cups, the silverware that you carry with you, the napkin, all of those things — the next step is putting that into practice and preparing yourself for situations that could potentially be wasteful. I know that if I’m going to be running around all day then I have to bring my reusable coffee cup because obviously, if I need coffee on the go, I’m not going to need a single-use, disposable cup. It’s taking a second, thinking about my day, thinking about what I’m doing, and then thinking about the tools that I’ll need to reduce waste.
But a lot of it was just simple changing. Like composting was a really big one. Buying food from the farmers' market. Learning how to shop in bulk. One of the biggest barriers I think people face is a lack of information when actually, in most places in the United States, it’s possible to live a zero-waste lifestyle. It’s just people don’t know what resources are available to them because they haven’t done the legwork or they don’t know what to look for. When I first started living this lifestyle, I didn’t even know that composting was possible in New York City and then I realized that it was really easy and possible. So that was a huge change. Learning that there was a huge, really amazing bulk store was a change for me. There were all these things that I found after doing research. But when people hear “zero waste” they think, Oh, I don’t have anything in my community. The reality is that they probably do — they just don’t know it.
Have friends and family been supportive of your zero-waste journey?
Singer: When I first started, no one knew. And I think that speaks to just how normal living this zero-waste lifestyle is. It’s abnormal in the sense that a lot of people aren’t doing it. But it’s normal in the sense that the changes aren’t obvious or that alien. The biggest changes I made were not using single-use cups when I go get coffee or saying no to disposables or buying clothes secondhand, but those are things that are outright obvious to people. So it took a long time for my family to even realize what I was doing. And when I started bringing mason jars to put leftovers in during the holidays, they were like, “OK, what’s happening?” That’s kind of the moment also when I learned how to shift my narrative from “You have to do this” — which is isolating and off-putting — to “This is what I do.” I do it for myself because it’s what makes me feel happy, what my values are aligned with. But if you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it or care about it, but this is for me. When I switched that narrative, people would look at me and say, “Oh, she’s doing this. That makes sense. I’m going to try this now,” as opposed to me making people feel horrible about decisions they thought were right.
My family started responding better to my environmental actions when I stopped telling them about what was happening and what to do, and I started choosing things and impacting my own life and living my values. My friends and family have been super supportive. They all do little things now in their everyday life to reduce their waste. They think about their trash more. My whole family uses my laundry detergent from my company. My mom eats organic now and she never did [before]. One of my best friends actually learned about zero waste just through spending time with me and now she’s taken it and has made her office more waste-friendly and lives a very close-to-zero-waste lifestyle. I’ve never told her to do it. I’ve never pressured her to do anything, but I’ve invited her into my life and shown her how I go to farmers' markets and told her how I save money. Those things alone — being healthy and saving money — were incentive enough for her to go zero-waste.
What are the most challenging parts of producing zero waste and what are the most rewarding — other than, obviously, helping the environment?
Singer: I think the hardest thing is that people don’t know where to start. What I always say is that the best place to start is just to start. Look at your waste that you’re producing, find something that you’re throwing away prevalently, and just find the tools to reduce it. That’s kind of why I opened up my new store called Package Free Shop, and it’s basically everything you need to live a zero-waste lifestyle. So if you find yourself using a crap-ton of single-use plastic water bottles, we have reusable water bottles. That’s the best solution for you, and you can come in and buy it. And if you use it, you’ll exponentially reduce your waste and save money. I think the best place to start in eliminating that barrier, like “this is too hard,” is pick one thing, accomplish it, and integrate it into your life. And then pick something else. It’s all about the baby steps.
The rewarding aspects are really different for every person. For me, it’s so much more than environmental impact. Even if you don’t give a shit about the environment, living a zero-waste lifestyle really helps you to save money and eat healthier. Those two points alone are reason enough for people to at least give this a try. Who doesn’t want to feel better and who doesn’t want to save money?
What are the biggest misconceptions other people have about you and/or this lifestyle?
Singer: The biggest one is that you have to sacrifice to live this lifestyle and that’s just not true at all. I’ve gained so much [from] living this way — everything from having financial freedom, to feeling empowered to start my own business, to saving money on clothing, to having a more diverse wardrobe because I learned how to shop secondhand, to feeling healthier because I eat sustainable, local, seasonal food. It’s the empowerment. I’m living the life that I want to live instead of living the life that society tells me to live based on consumer pushing. That’s been one of the best things.
I also think that people think those who live a zero-waste lifestyle have to be a certain demographic — that you have to be this stereotypical tree-hugging hippie or have a certain aesthetic to care about the environment, but what I try to show through what I do and through the store that I’ve opened and Simply Co. is that anyone can take simple steps to reduce their waste. I really believe that regardless of who you are or what you care about or how much money you make, everyone can take steps. Another misconception is that living sustainably is exclusionary or too expensive for most people — that it’s only something that rich white people can accomplish. When people think of sustainability, their mind unfortunately goes to Whole Foods, which people have this preconception that it’s exclusionary and expensive. There’s such a wide range of options for living a sustainable lifestyle. There are farmers' markets, buying in bulk, there’s meal planning. When I was starting my business, I didn’t have a job. I had no other income. I saved a little bit of money through making smart purchasing decisions through food and making my own products. I was surviving on basically $40 a week, plus obviously rent, but you really don’t need to spend money to live sustainably. In fact, this is an ideal lifestyle for people who don’t have access to a capital resource.
You have your own company, The Simply Co., where you make and sell sustainable cleaning products. What prompted you to do this?
Singer: I started Simply Co. because I had been making my own products for a really long time and I knew that they worked. When I was at my job at the DEP, I realized a lot of people were asking me about the products I was making and they felt they didn’t have the time or the ability to make them themselves. They wanted access to sustainable products like the ones that I was making. I just couldn’t suggest anything on the shelves because they were all not transparent enough for me and didn’t align with what I thought a truly pure or natural cleaning product should be. I did more research in that industry and found that it’s not legally required in the United States for cleaning-product manufacturers to disclose all of their ingredients in their product packaging, which I thought was horrible and terrifying. So I wanted to take a stand and have my own form of protest through creating a business and providing people with a product that I know works and that I feel we all deserve. I launched Simply Co. through a Kickstarter to provide people with the most safe and effective laundry detergent out there.
For young people who maybe aren’t ready to commit to a 100 percent zero-waste lifestyle, what are some smaller ways that they can make a personal impact?
Singer: It’s really figuring out what your biggest issues of waste are, but I think that everyone can carry a reusable bag. Everyone can use a reusable water bottle. They’re not expensive — they’re a lot cheaper. For buying 10 water bottles, you can buy a reusable water bottle. Everyone can say no to plastic straws and say no to single-use plastic bags. There are so many things that we can do in our everyday lives that require no capital commitment — it’s just refusing things that are single-use disposable. And the next step after that is investing in the long-term, multi-use replacements and just utilizing those. All of these little things really do have a long-term, positive impact. People think that one person can’t make a difference, but the amount of waste that one person generates per year is incredible. Over the course of not making trash over the past five years, I’ve eliminated thousands of pounds from trash in landfills or prevented thousands of pounds of trash from ending up in landfills. If that’s not significant, I don’t know what is.