When Erika Larson goes grocery shopping, she brings a few extra supplies: a sturdy woven basket, several small cotton drawstring bags and a glass jar or two.
On a recent trip to the Wedge Community Co-op, she carried her basket to the bulk bins, where she loaded up on organic dried penne, scooping up enough to fill one of the cotton bags. Once she gets home, she’ll dump the penne into a reusable glass container, then wash and re-use the cotton bag.
Larson, a Minneapolis massage therapist, calls herself a “zero waster.” In an effort to contribute as little as possible to local landfills and incinerators, she avoids plastics and packaging by buying her shampoo in a bar, her deodorant in a glass jar, and her clothes secondhand.
She carries a travel mug, a reusable glass or metal straw, a cloth hankie and a set of silverware around with her everywhere, so she isn’t tempted to pick up anything disposable. She recycles, composts everything she can and tries to buy in glass or metal instead of plastic, which generally can’t be recycled repeatedly.
“I think just taking care of the place where we’re living is important,” Larson said. “Seeing some of the models that they’re running on what the world will look like in 80 years is really scary. If you have a way to change it, it should happen right now.”
Larson is part of the budding zero-waste community in Minnesota, which is built on environmental ethos and a desire to have as little impact on the Earth as possible.
While the concept of zero waste has been around for decades, it’s recently been gaining traction as more people become willing to change what they eat, buy, wear and use for everything from toiletries to cleaning supplies. In the past two years, more than 80 Twin Cities families have signed up for a “zero waste challenge” run by Hennepin County to see if they can drastically reduce their trash.
The practice is spreading through courses and workshops at food co-ops and wellness centers, as well as on Instagram, where posters tag beautifully composed photos of packaging-free shopping hauls. More than 900,000 posts have been hashtagged #zerowaste so far on the social platform.
Many have been inspired by Bea Johnson, the French-born author of 2013’s “Zero Waste Home” and self-described zero-waste lifestyle guru, who can fit a year’s worth of her California family’s trash in a single quart Mason jar.
Meredith Hanson isn’t trying to limit to a quart jar the amount of trash her family of five generates in a year. Her goal is a single kitchen garbage bag.
That alone would be impressive, considering that the average American generates 3 pounds of trash a day, not including what ends up in the recycling bin, according to the EPA. For a family of four, that adds up to 4,320 pounds, or nearly 200 kitchen-sized garbage bags’ worth, of garbage a year.
To cut down on trash, Hanson has been making package-free snacks for her kids — including coming up with a recipe for a childhood mainstay: crackers.
“We make wheat crackers and it’s actually surprisingly easy,” said Hanson, a stay-at-home mom and home-school teacher near Afton. “I just use a pizza cutter to cut them into rectangles. Fresh crackers taste really good.”
Just add kids
But Hanson and other Twin Citians have learned that being a parent and working to live a zero-waste lifestyle presents unique challenges.
“Kids make a lot of garbage,” said Jenna Bergendahl, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Minneapolis. “The diapers and the messes and ruined clothing, food they’re not eating. … ”
Bergendahl, who blogs about her efforts with Hanson and another local mom at Zeroish.org, made a New Year’s resolution to limit her family of five’s trash to one kitchen bag each season. So far, she’s on track, despite having to turn to disposable diapers instead of cloth when her washing machine broke.
She said Hennepin County’s curbside composting program has been a great help. The program, available in Minneapolis and several other cities, picks up residents’ food scraps, used paper towels, pizza boxes and other organics each week. (About 30 percent of what ends up in the trash can is organic material, according to the county, which uses the completed compost in landscaping and road construction projects.)
Bergendahl also joined the Minneapolis Toy Library, which allows her family to check out different toys every few weeks rather than buying new ones. And instead of getting ice cream in a standard plastic-lined paper tub, which can’t be recycled or composted, her family only has this treat at an ice cream shop — and everyone orders an edible cone.
When Amber Haukedahl, a Minneapolis biologist, decided to go zero-waste, she started with a trash audit.
“I went through my trash, room by room,” said Haukedahl, to see what was in the wastebaskets and garbage cans and whether that waste could be eliminated. Then she did Google searches for sustainable replacements for the dental floss, toothbrushes and plastic cling wrap she’d found.
To her surprise, it was fairly easy to swap out many of the things that she had been tossing out, including biodegradable silk floss, a compostable bamboo toothbrush and reusable beeswax paper instead of cling wrap.
(Even though sustainable products are more expensive, many zero-wasters say they end up saving money largely because they buy less and cook from scratch.)
But Haukedahl’s husband was not on board with the homemade toothpaste that his wife concocted. And, despite her efforts, her dog would only eat food that’s sold in non-recyclable packaging.
“You can’t really pressure someone into living this lifestyle,” Haukedahl said. “It’s a little bit of a give-and-take in our household.”
Erica Pearson is a freelance writer who lives in Minneapolis. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.