How I Started Going Zero Waste

I wrote a more poetic treatise on this subject with lots of Kardashian references for another project. Until it's ready for publication, this will have to do. After reading the Sunset article about Bea Johnson, I decided to try zero waste for three weeks. The deadline wasn't arbitrary- I can barely commit to a new hairstyle, let alone new habits, and a month seemed like more than I could handle. This was when I still lived in a small suburb of Cleveland and regularly live tweeted issues of VOGUE, so I figured I could just stop after a few days if it was terrible. The idea was to attempt two waste-free days the first week, three the second week, and four days by week three. My main goal was reducing the amount of garbage created by using less, buying less, and wasting less. Barring that, I wanted to reuse whatever possible to avoid buying new things that would eventually go to landfill. Recycling was the last resort. I recorded everything I threw away for two days, as a baseline. I also tracked electricity and water consumption. Here's what I wrote:

Garbage / Consumption2016 Thoughts
1 minute to run water to drink
2 minutes running water for green tea
12 green tea packet paper bags, non compostable. Eliminate tea bags by taking jar to Emily's and filling it with leaves. I don’t think I should drink so much, but I have such a high tolerance now and all tea seems weak without this many bags in it. The tea used to help my skin, but now my sebaceous glands must be inured to its antioxidant properties. Who was Emily? I don't remember being friends with this person. Also who uses the word inured I'm so embarrassed
Cat litter bag. Instead of throwing it away, take it to my mom's and refill with litter These were actually my private notes at the time: "Mitigation, no net loss in plastic waste. Like beating your wife and then making a donation to a women's shelter after."
3 hot chocolate packets
5 paper towels
Viviscal packet. I used to have really long hair and I miss it. I got gum stuck in my hair and had to cut a huge chunk of it out so the rest of my hair had to be trimmed to match. I don't need hair to my waist again but I do want it to be longer than all of my friendsLol that I wanted it to be longer than my friends' hair
Cats are outdoor cats and wear flea collars so I never realize how filthy they are. Well my brother has been letting them in and insisting on sleeping with them (Kleenex needed, he’s allergic) plus he replaced their collars with NFL ones so they brought in, not fleas, but these weird mothlike creatures that populate wherever they sitWhat does this have to do with garbage? Also my brother isn't allergic to cats?
Drycleaning bag, three hangers, and receiptI probably drycleaned something from Forever 21
Jennie O turkey burger boxOriginally written "Jennie O'Turkey" as if it were a character from The Dubliners
Plastic from Kirkland bacon packageNobody had a Costco membership so where did this come from
Styrofoam from chicken
Local newspaper
11 pages of Paula Deen recipes that can't be made gluten free:(
Two tea bag envelopes and tagsWhere did the other ten go?
Skippy Peanut Butter jarIt wasn't even organic?!
Pasta Kids gluten free packaging
1 moldy muffin
Paper towel roll
Dairymen's milk carton
1 broken chopstick
Box from Starbucks K Cup packWe didn't drink coffee, nor did we own a Keurig
Expired Ulta coupon
Grocery receipt
Bent staple I stepped onI love my attention to detail
Lysol wipe
Avocado from ChileI forgot to add I recorded my food too
Tomatoes from MichiganThey grew in the backyard so this seems pointless
Oranges from Chile
Lunch meat from Batavia
Stale corn chipsIt's unclear whether I ate these or threw them away
Rotted onionsHope this was garbage
Filled 12 oz and 1 quart saucepan / pots halfway with water, soaked pots after cooking pasta, dumped pasta water and dishwater in sink
Left water running while washing hands
Used sprayer to rinse sink
Plastic packaging of new batteries
Takeout soda cup and straw
Drove to school, mall, grocery store, home, friend's house, home
Drove to brother's school, went home, drove back, mall, home, mall, my schoolI think I worked at the mall at the time I hope I wasn't hanging out
Band aid
Izze caps (BPA lined)This is a brand of soda you can get at Chipotle. I'm assuming I also made Chipotle garbage and just forgot to include it
Contact lens packagingI don't even wear contacts
Debit card I reported lost, when in reality it was on the kitchen counter the whole time
Used Target gift card
23 sheets of school papers
1 Icelandic krona that I gave to my brother as a souvenir but the cats chewed
11 dry, exploded, or broken pens
7 Capri Sun foil packets
Plastic oatmeal bag
Two cat beds that they refuse to use except as scratching posts, shredded
Food bag
2 ripped t-shirts
Dryer sheets and dryer lintWe didn't have a dryer so again where is this coming from
Ice cream spoons and complimentary conesThe cones had gluten so why didn't I just say no
Plastic tape from package
Plastic cap from milk

After establishing a baseline, I made a bunch of charts and calculations because Asian. This involved multiplying each water usage (minutes running or number of flushes / dishwasher loads / washing machine loads) by the appropriate flow rate (in gallons/minute) to determine the total gallons of water used. I used the number of gallons for standard (pre-1994) fixtures, even though they were newer fixtures, which presumably decreased water usage. For hot water, I multiplied water usage by flow rate (in gallons/minute) to determine total gallons of water heated. This assumes hot water heated to 140 degrees F, starting at 55 degrees. Raising the temperature of one gallon of water by 85 degrees requires 440 BTU, so to determine total energy usage, I multiplied gallons used by 440. For electricity, I recorded the hours each appliance operated and multiplied the number of hours used by the number of watts, then divided that number by 1000 to get kilowatt-hours (KWH). Each kilowatt-hour is equivalent to 3412 BTU, so I multiplied KWH by 3412 to find BTU. USDA National Nutrient Database and The Oil Drum data helped me calculate how much energy was needed to produce my food each day, which makes a lot of assumptions, but this was already nerdy enough without me harping on little details.

The only things I did to reduce trash were refuse things I didn't need and bring my own bags to the grocery store (including a lingerie bag for produce- I didn't know), or Pyrex for meat and cheese. I remember asking at the counter for stuff in my own container and they had to check with the manager if it was okay. The local ice cream shops were the nicest about putting vegan flavors in my jars. At first, people raised eyebrows I presented bags at the cash register, but they got used to it eventually. I ate differently too- mostly simple plant-based one pot meals, at home, no soda. Wrapping sandwiches in cloth instead of Cling Wrap helped. Lastly, this was the first time I tried flour sack towels instead of paper towels to clean. I was hooked. I still used synthetic chemical cleaners then though.

Note: This is summary data. I have exhaustive pdfs listing all my garbage, recycling, food (including the Ohio farms from which groceries were purchased) and steps taken to reduce waste each week- like taking cold showers, which I think I only did because Martha Stewart said she did that to improve skin tone- if anybody wants them.

Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
Garbage (# of items)
Recycling (# of items)
Water usage (minutes)
Water usage (gallons)
Water usage (BTU)
Electricity (hours)
Electricity (BTU)
Protein (grams)

Baseline week: 61.5 items of garbage per day, 28 items of recycling
Week 1: Zero items of garbage per day, 9 items of recycling
Week 2: Zero items of garbage, 2.5 items of recycling
Week 3: Zero items of garbage, 1 item of recycling
Reduction in Environmental Impact: Baseline week vs. final week
61.5-0= 61.5  
61.5/61.5=100% reduction in garbage, 28-1=27
27/28= 96.42% reduction in recycling

Baseline week: 78.4 hours of usage, 19,440.44 BTU
Week 1: 10.215 hours, 5944.3862 BTU
Week 2: 5.716 hours, 3290.679 BTU
Week 3: 10.8 hours, 2936.0593 BTU
Reduction in Environmental Impact: Baseline vs. Final Week
78.4-10.8= 67.6/78.4= 86.22% reduction in electric consumption
Baseline week: 63.5 minutes of usage, 217.5 gallons, 30,580 BTU
Week 1: 18.5 minutes, 129.5 gallons, 22,220 BTU
Week 2: 21.3 minutes, 121.3 gallons, 8213.3 BTU
Week 3: 24.5 minutes, 126.75 gallons, 11,000 BTU
Reduction in Environmental Impact: Baseline vs. Final Week
63.5-24.5 min=39 minutes/63.5 minutes= 61.4% reduction in water consumption

Baseline week: 5016.5 calories, 133.75 grams of protein, 5820.5 kcal
Week 1: 1487 calories, 89.8 grams of protein, 2005.5 kcal
Week 2: 1641.4 calories, 54.4 grams protein, 2711 kcal
Week 3: 2361.05 calories, 64.46 grams protein, 2792.67 kcal
Reduction in Environmental Impact: Baseline vs. Final Week
5820.5-2792.67 kcal= 3027.83 kcal/5820.5- 52.02% reduction in energy needed to produce my food

Here were my reflections at the time:

I thought I was fairly good about living sustainably—no meat, no plastic containers, and I’m almost always in the dark, so I was shocked to see the breadth of my environmental impact on paper. Zero waste project days required advance planning and creativity, but now that I'm accustomed to carrying around glass jars, laundry bags, and reusable shopping bags to the grocery store, it’s not difficult at all to avoid plastics and excess packaging. There is an anecdote in “The Story of Stuff” in which the writer recounts living in Bangladesh and getting a garbage can for herself.  As the weeks passed, she started noticing her garbage resurfacing around the neighborhood.  Her Pantene shampoo bottle became a toy car, with holes drilled in the sides and rods and wheels attached, and a little boy dragged it around the neighborhood with a string.  A similar incident happened while I was staying in Mongolia—I got a little bag for my garbage, and put an empty lip balm container in it.  An Altaic family used the top as a thimble, and they also used the magazines I brought to insulate their yurt.  This showed me that for some people, there truly is no such thing as “away,” and everything can be repurposed in a useful way.   
Eating vegan and locally helped me meet zero waste goals. I started sourcing foods from local farms, which meant less packaging and more reusable crates and jars. Although I did end up driving around more often to source bulk gluten-free flour, milk for my roommates (2016 note: That meant my brother and sister, that's cute), and package-free vegetables, I feel that's less of a pernicious danger than petroleum derived plastic sitting around in a landfill for thousands of years leaching chemicals, not to mention the enormous resource input used for package production.  Instead of being disconnected from my food sources, the quest for package-less food put me in touch with producers.   I developed relationships with the people giving me food, who all remembered the girl carrying apples in rags and juice in a Worcestershire sauce bottle.   
Zero waste seemed radical to the people I encountered at first— my boss thought I was drinking vodka in my glass bottle (2016 note: Ok, now I remember. I wasn't working at the mall, I was working for this evil developer. So I was hanging out at the mall that much?) and everyone said avoiding plastic was impossible. After reminding them this was the way people had done things for centuries (2016 note: I've always relished telling people when they're wrong which is probably why it's hard for me to sustain relationships), they started seeing how it made sense. Girls at work began bringing lunch in glass containers instead of plastic ones, and forks they could wash instead of disposables.  They also brought me vegan recipes, books on adopting vegan diets, and vegan burgers they made themselves.  While I don’t think I can sustain a perfectly zero waste lifestyle forever, I can definitely live without taking trash out every week, and I can absolutely stick to the vegan diet. 
Over the past two weeks, all the garbage I made fit in a little grocery bag, and I successfully managed to bypass using plastic or disposable products on the plane ride (2016 note: Wait, where did I go? Mongolia? Actually I think the lip balm story wasn't even Mongolia it was the Russian border bc that's the only visa I have) by bringing my own food and canteen. Though I thought the drastic decrease in caloric content would leave me wan and drained, I ended up feeling a lot lighter and more energetic. My cooking improved, and whereas my siblings dreaded eating my food in the past, they asked me to make vegan dishes by week three (2016 note: Almost positive this was a lie). There was a surprising variety and color in the recipes I tried during this project, and there are many more recipes I have yet to try.  In the future, I would like to focus more on eating locally, because I have only scratched the surface when it comes to the abundance of food available in our region (2016 note: Ugh how basic is my writing here. The journals of Anais Nin these are not).
I took cold showers to reduce my energy consumption these past few weeks, which aren't something I’ll ever try again (2016 note: Little did I know I'd be loving these during la canicule), and while I don’t think I’ll be timing my showers regularly, I am more conscious now about my water usage. I learned to shut the water off while washing my hair (2016 note: LOLZ now I never wash it), collect water while the shower is heating for watering plants, and use 2-liter bottles filled with stones in the toilet tank to add volume, thereby conserving water. To cut my electricity consumption, I will never go to bed without turning the smart strip off again. In future iterations of this project, I think a category on chemical usage, such as those used in cleaning products and personal care products, would be an interesting exercise, as would a clothing category in which I try wearing sustainable clothing and accessories—no leather or cotton, for instance.

It's so weird to think I'm still doing the same stuff I started as a college project, except now I have to pay bills and I'm uglier. Reading through this old journal felt like reading the first romantic texts you send during a new relationship (no green bubbles), conjuring up all these emotions and memories of excitement, anticipation, and triumphant happiness experienced in my early days of zero waste. As the title implies, this exercise helped me ease into the lifestyle, and I think it might help others too. Just try a few days a week. Don't let anyone tell you zero waste won't affect your carbon footprint- even the limited data here suggests reduction, to say nothing of the EPA's estimate that US municipal solid landfill waste was the third largest methane emission source of 2015. Also, the picture here has nothing to do with zero waste. I just like how my hair looks and how it shows the hose from a sustainable water conservation system and that I'm wearing thrifted clothes.

Paris to Go


  1. Thank you for posting this, I've been attempting zero waste for almost a year, and while I haven't gotten to total zero, the best part has been inspiring others to change, even a little bit, so I feel like I'm making even more of an impact. Reading about others trying to do the same helps keep me going, and gives me somewhere to point people to who want to start.

    1. That is so awesome that others in your life are making changes- these small collective changes definitely do have an impact. Keep it up :) It gets easier!

  2. I like how your hair looks in that photo too! The stuff of my dreams until I get sick of the length and pixie cut the lot off :p

    1. Lol you are so sweet Cindy! Thank you! I love your hair though

  3. Thank you for this, ariana! You really are an inspiration!

  4. Wow. So the charts are real serious buisiness. I thought I was overcharting, overnoting it, but you take it to another level. Room for improvement in my case. Loving the humour you put in, and of course the immense eye for detail.

    (My really curly hair has grown 8 cm in the last 10 months, water only. Somehow I think it's worth mentioning this.)

    1. Newlywed life must suit you!! I know hair experts always say growth has nothing to do with products and everything to do with genes but I don't think that's entirely true. I'm sure it's a combination of factors including diet but my hair is growing so much more now with water only than with that nasty Viviscal stuff (which is NOT vegan btw). If you're lathering your scalp in so many chemicals, obviously that's going to affect things.

      I'd love to see your charts!!

    2. Ohw, my charts are way too embarassing to publish, I have a monthly living budget chart, a clothing budget chart, a beauty budget chart (with evaluations and notes on further simplicity). My husband thinks it's a bit autistic, but for me it keeps me calm, and in charge of my mind and budget, if that makes sense.

      And you are right, I have nothing but good things to say about married life.

  5. I loved reading about your journey with zero waste - I love a chart and a challenge! My favourite zero waste decision was to plant a small orchard and vegetable garden, and to keep chickens. Getting food just steps from the backdoor greatly reduces our carbon footprint, and when we've kept chickens they take care of any scraps that don't make it into the compost (no chickens currently as the fencing needs fixing). And then of course you eat the eggs and the wonderful cycle goes on.


    1. That is so cool, it must be so rewarding to produce your own food and know exactly where it's coming from! I read about how people soak the scraps and the chickens eat everything up (even receipts I guess? the non bpa ones obviously). Thank you for sharing, I love hearing about this stuff

  6. Wow! This is impressive!
    Do you know of any zero waste blogs of families with kids where both parents work though?
    I've realised my footprint and trash size improved a lot since returning from maternity, but I just cannot find the way to work around it. I have to shop during lunch time and there are only convenience stores with packaged products nearby.
    Yesterday I was cooking lunch at 5am, before work and then did not get back from work until 7pm. You do end up reaching for ready made kids snacks then.
    I would love to learn if anyone has succeeded having zero waste lifestyle with kids under 5 and a full time job, because my morale is hitting rock bottom. I do not use chemicals etc, but plastic waste from packaging seems impossible to avoid :-(

    1. Hi Magdalena! You are amazing don't feel bad, I don't know how anybody manages kinds under five while working even without worrying about waste; I'm sure what you are doing is already amazing enough. Ready made convenience foods have their place. Not everyone can be stuck in the kitchen all night or drive super far to get bulk foods, you need your quality time with your family and I'm sure you desperately need time to yourself! Zero Waste Chef has a great post on good better and best zero waste shopping that emphasizes the need for priorities and not to get discouraged. It is so cool that you are trying to reduce your impact with all you have going on. Does being pregnant increase trash production by the way? I'm curious about this because there is a zero waster I follow on Instagram, Saba, who introduced me to a lot of new ideas, following her pregnancy and now the new baby is very interesting.

      Right now the blogs I can think of are Meredith Tested Allotment Recipes and The Rogue Ginger will be a mom soon. I asked the Zero Waste Bloggers Network and they will come up with some soon :)

    2. Oh and also

    3. Hi Magdalena,

      Ariana has already given you a great reply, and I especially agree with acknowledging that you are already doing something amazing working long hours with kids.

      Just by way of encouragement, I am a long-term single parent of two kids - now teens, but they were little when I became a single parent. My way of heading for zero waste was to grow my food - fruit, vegetables, nuts and eggs. I've learned that realistically I cannot grow all of my food all of the time, or make it to the organic shop in my lunch hour etc... You can only do what you can do, and don't be too hard on yourself, it doesn't help! I also like to buy bulk goods online packed in compostable bags - I live in the country and most things come in plastic so this is a good alternative for me. I can do the shopping out of business hours and also source things like shampoo bars wrapped in paper, face cleanser that comes in reusable glass etc... Like I said, it's not perfectly zero waste but it's the best I can do given where I live and my time commitments.

      I wonder if you have a farmer's market near you? This could be a nice family excursion on a Saturday and allow you to get some food without packaging. I tend to do baking on the weekend also, and freeze muffins etc for the kids snacks.

      Best wishes,


    4. These are all such great ideas!! If you ever have the time or interest to do a guest post... please tell me :)

  7. Wow! Thank you a thousand times for this post. I always enjoy your writing style with the sharp blend of intelligence mixed with normal conversation. Your posts are never too pretentious. Would you mind sharing an example of some of the calculations you used for say, electricity and water please? I'm part Korean too :) I love this kind of thing.-Diana

    1. Hi Diana! You are soooo sweet! I try not to be too nerdy lol. If you email me I can send you the document I can't seem to copy and paste it here really

  8. And this is why you're my favorite blogger lol...

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  10. I love your data analysis. I also appreciate that you didn't go 'cold turkey' with your zero waste. I'm focusing on decreased waste, especially getting bulk food in reusable containers, shopping locally, and beauty/care products. It's encouraging that an experiment to try it out has become such a sustainable lifestyle change.

  11. "Except now I have to pay bills and I'm uglier" lolol I cracked up at this. I love your writing.

  12. Hi Ariana!

    I found your blog a few months ago, and after watching the zero waste movement from the sidelines for a while, I've finally started making some larger lifestyle changes. What I've really appreciated in your blog posts is that is seems like a lot of research goes in to your decisions and actions. I was wondering if there are any key articles, or resources that you have found helpful in clarifying the impact that individual pro-environmental behaviours have?

    Thanks again for sharing your experience!

    1. Hi Diana! I posted a link to an mit study in my carbon offset post that showed how different lifestyles did not vary significantly in terms of emissions. However it has since been hotly debated, and after attending COP21-COP23 I think personally it’s dangerous to say the responsibility to shift towards a circular economy rests with government or industries (Darlene and LatanĂ©’s research on diffusion of responsibility in bystander intervention applies to the issue of waste, as well as the bigger issue of climate change in general: According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, consumers are responsible for more than 60 per cent of the globe's greenhouse gas emissions, and up to 80 per cent of the world's water use: Four-fifths of the impacts that can be attributed to consumers are not direct impacts, like fuel burned while driving, but secondary impacts- the environmental effects from actually producing the goods and products that we buy. Therefore it makes sense that reducing consumption would (eventually) reduce emissions. If you get a chance to watch any of the keynote speakers on the Responsible Business Forum Singapore’s website, the power of the individual to effect change is much more emphasized than in the United States- perhaps because so much manufacturing happens in Asia for export to the US. According to Dara O’Rourke at Berkeley, in 2012, 70% of the American gross domestic product was driven by consumer spending, so if we’re serious about advancing a more sustainable economy, consumers must a) consume less and b) shift spending to more environmentally responsible products where possible.

      This is just my own personal opinion but after attending climate change conferences and working in sustainability in government I feel that governments will always put economic interests ahead of social or environmental ones so it doesn’t make sense to me to wait on them to change things. There’s an interesting episode of Freakonomics radio that talked about how the government ignored the early civil rights activists until Rosa Parks sparked what was initially a consumer movement - a boycott of the buses. When they lost all that income, then change started to happen. I wonder if that’s why fracking activism has made little leeway politically- consumers want cheap natural gas and as long as they’re still demanding it, governments and industry won’t change (there is also a freakonomics radio episode about that). But if we look historically, consumer movements starting with individual choices led to reform before political lobbies did (Nike in the 90s, Pepsi offering healthier options today, the changes in labor laws after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle). Individual choices like going vegan definitely help fight climate change:

      I hope this makes sense sorry I’m rambling haha, but beyond emissions I think there is a moral obligation to consume less in general, because our environmental problems largely stem from greed and if people’s attitudes change there would be no need for governments and industry to intervene.