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Living without garbage ...
one year at a time

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What is the zero garbage challenge?

My name is Rose, and I live in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In the middle of 2008, I had an idea.  Would it be possible to live without producing garbage? Could I go for a year without throwing anything away?  It seemed like an interesting challenge, so I made one basic rule:

I can throw nothing away that will end up in a landfill. 

Recycling, reusing, and composting are all okay.  If I end up with something that cannot be recycled, reused or composted, I have to keep it.  I call these items ‘non-garbage.’

The idea was to add a feedback loop that had been missing.  I used to just make my garbage disappear by putting it in a bag and setting it on the curb.  But now I have a constant feedback of my consumption and production of waste.

On December 31, 2008. I threw away my last bag of garbage.  

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Why I created the challenge

Why did I even start to think about reducing my trash?  For one thing, I like to challenge my assumptions about how things are supposed to be.  I wanted to challenge the assumption that it’s okay and correct to package my waste in plastic bags and send it off to someone else’s land to be buried - or to end up in a river or ocean.

I was also trying to alleviate this growing stress inside myself about our impact in the world. Everywhere I turned, I heard more bad news.   

I learned a bit about our consumption and waste stream, and what I learned disturbed me. The average American throws away more than 4 pounds of garbage per day.

I learned a term called Planned Obsolescence, which means that things are designed to be used up and thrown away.  According to Annie Leonard, a garbage expert, 99% of what we purchase ends up in a landfill within 6 months.

Then I found some information about the Pacific Garbage Patch.  I care a lot about our waterways.  This really caught my attention.  And of course garbage is not limited to the Pacific. There is garbage in all of our oceans.  It is changing the dynamics of our ocean ecosystems in ways that we still don’t understand.  I learned that 80% of garbage in the oceans comes from land.  Well if that’s true, then that’s our garbage.  That’s my garbage.  I was really starting to feel terrible.

One thing I knew is that I would not succeed at any real change if I was driven by guilt.  Maybe guilt works for some people as an incentive, but personally, guilt just stops me in my tracks and keeps me from taking any action at all. 

I decided to let go of my guilt and take some positive actions instead. 

How to live without garbage

1. Transition to non-disposable products

First, I had to find replacements for everything that I used to throw away.  I searched for replacements for deodorant, toothpaste, dog food, plastic bags, and lots more. 

I gave away of all of my disposable stuff, including everything that I thought could possibly break within the next year, like my vacuum cleaner and my automatic cat feeders.

I had to figure out what to eat, since so much of our food is wrapped in a layer of packaging. No more packaged salad, no more almond milk in tetra packs, no more packaged cheese … just to name a few. 

I have included on this website all of my ideas (so far) for replacing disposable items.  There are so many possibilities - it just takes a little imagination!

2. Change Habits

I learned that if I want to change a habit, I have to train myself.  If I forget a cloth grocery bag, I make myself buy another.  If I forget a travel mug or water bottle, I do without or buy another. If I forget a container and I’m eating out, I have to eat all of the food or find a creative way to get my leftovers home. Through repeated training, I almost never forget these items anymore.  

3. Attentive shopping

I have learned to avoid garbage by shopping well.  I try to preempt the garbage.  I buy in bulk, buy local, buy second-hand, and I’m always on the lookout for an item that does not come in plastic.

4. Composting

About half of all household garbage is compostable.  If you want to take just one step toward reducing your garbage, then build a compost pile.  It’s easier than you think!

5. Recycle, recycle, recycle

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