How This Woman Fit A Year’s Worth Of Trash Into A Mason Jar—And You Can, Too

You don’t have to make huge sacrifices to live the zero-waste lifestyle. Here are 6 ways to get started.

August 12, 2016
mason jar waste
Photograph courtesy of Kathryn Kellogg

Kathryn Kellogg, blogger at Going Zero Waste, fit all of her garbage into a mason jar last year. And no, she doesn’t forage all her own berries, live off-grid, or spend hours making coconut oil from scratch. She has an office job and a car, and she eats out all the time. She lives the normal life of a modern 20-something—just a little differently.

(On just a quarter-acre of land, you can produce fresh, organic food for a family of four—year-round. Rodale's The Backyard Homestead shows you how; get your copy today.)

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“I always say the zero waste lifestyle is two ticks to the left. I do everything exactly the same as everyone else, just slightly adjusted,” says Kellogg, who lives in California with her boyfriend and her fluffy white husky. A “zero-waste” lifestyle doesn’t mean you don’t ever create trash. Rather, it means that you’re diverting your garbage away from landfills by recycling, upcycling, and, especially, precycling, which simply means making smart shopping choices that keep waste from being created in the first place.

Related: How To Recycle Anything

“I actually hate the term ‘zero-waste,’” Kellogg says. “It implies you get to nothing,” and getting to absolute zero is pretty much impossible unless you’re willing to completely rethink your life.

But drastically reducing your personal consumption of disposables is another thing entirely, and Kellogg proves it doesn’t require any huge sacrifices. All it takes is a little mindfulness. “I wish you could follow me around for a day and see how little time I spend on this,” she says. “It’s about reframing the way you think. It’s taking two seconds to think, ‘Is there a better way?’ After awhile, it becomes habit.”

mason jar waste
Photograph courtesy of KATHRYN KELLOGG

 

Still have your doubts? Here’s how she does it, and how you can become a zero-waster, too:

1. Shop Smarter

“People always get so caught up thinking about food when it comes to zero-waste, but there are so many options,” Kellogg says. “Food is actually at the bottom of the list in terms of difficulty, especially if you want to eat a plant-based, non-processed diet.” The first step is to buy as much as possible at the farmers' market, where you can pack loose produce into your own cloth bags and glass jars. For occasional cheese and meat, Kellogg takes her own glass containers to the local butcher who happily fills them for her. She still buys dry goods like flour and sugar in paper bags, which are compostable, and shops at a bulk store for things like pasta and rice where, again, she takes her own containers.

Even if you don’t have easy access to a bulk store or co-op, many items in the supermarket come in glass, aluminum, or paper, which are easy to recycle, and you can skip the plastic produce bags and put your apples and broccoli in your own sack. Buying cheese and meat without some sort of plastic waste is more challenging if you don’t have a friendly neighborhood butcher willing to accommodate you, but there’s no harm in asking at the supermarket deli counter if they’ll pop your block of cheddar into a glass container instead of the standard plastic baggie. (Here's how to stock your freezer with the healthiest local meat.)

 

Related: 7 Surprising Ways To Recycle Plastic

Another key step is to simply buy less. “I don’t have a house full of processed food that lasts for months,” Kellogg says. “I cook from scratch, which actually simplifies things. When you buy food that goes bad quicker, you only purchase what you need.” And when you don’t bring a whole trunk full of groceries home every week, you don’t have as many options, so you cook what you have and use everything up. Cooking big batches ahead of time and making use of the freezer helps save time, too.

 

A photo posted by Kathryn K (@going.zero.waste) on

 

2. Compost Everything

Adding kitchen scraps to the compost pile is an obvious first step, but a zero-waster doesn’t just stop there. At work, Kellogg keeps her food waste in a jar in the office freezer and takes it home to empty in her personal compost bin. She’s also big on composting dog poop in her backyard (in a separate pile). When she walks her dog, Nala, she’ll pick up the poop using compostable, flushable bags, and then simply flushes them away (having gotten the OK from the local wastewater treatment facility).

3. Bring Your Own Plate

Don’t think being zero waste means you can never ever eat in a restaurant again—let alone get takeout. You just have to think ahead. When getting food to-go from a food truck or the cafe down the street from her office, Kellogg simply takes her own plate. On weekends, she takes a mixing bowl to the local doughnut shop and comes home with a half-dozen iced rings. When eating out, she’ll ask for no straw with her drink and bring her own cloth napkin to the restaurant. She also keeps a mason jar in her bag for leftovers, and if she does use a paper napkin, she’ll take it home to be composted. “A lot of people tell me they get weird looks when they take their own container, but in my experience, most people think it’s awesome. I’ve been doing it for a year and a half and have only been told no twice,” she says. 

 

A photo posted by Kathryn K (@going.zero.waste) on

4. Get More Dish Towels

Paper towels pile up into a ton of waste, not to mention they’re expensive and all-around bad for the environment. Cloth towels are the way to go, and not just for cleaning up spills. You can use them to wrap sandwiches for a packed lunch and for all your household cleaning. Kellogg also uses cloth napkins at home and carries a handkerchief instead of tissues.

5. Learn To DIY—Within Limits

Kellogg makes her own coconut oil soap and shampoo bars because they’re cheap and cut back on packaging. The same goes for her homemade green cleaning products. But for other things it’s just not worth it to go the DIY route—measurinig shelf life against time commitment is one of Kellogg’s personal rules for sustainability. “I won’t make my own mayo, for example, because it takes too much time and it goes bad too quickly. Plus, I can buy it in glass, which is 100 percent recyclable,” she says.

6. Remember That It’s Not About Being Perfect

You don’t have to move to a tiny house without electricity or eat only food you’ve grown and harvested yourself to have a positive impact on the planet. It’s impractical to think that everyone could—or should—live like 19th century homesteaders. But we can collectively alter our relationship to “stuff” and how we choose to consume and dispose of it. Kellogg wrote an awesome response on Instagram to criticisms that her zero waste efforts don’t go far enough. “I'm just a human doing my best to make this world a little less wasteful,” she writes. “So don't be discouraged if anyone tells you you're not doing enough. EVERY. BIT. MATTERS.”