Food waste is a huge problem, but tackling it can be easier said than done. To put my money where my mouth is, I tried not to create any trash for an entire month. Read on to see how it went and what I learned along the way.

Jessica Ball, M.S., R.D.
January 01, 2020
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In 2019, 83% of Americans agreed that food waste is important to them. However, like many topics related to sustainability, it's hard to back up good intentions with action. I really wanted to do something to reduce my food waste and took it a step further and tried not to create any garbage for a whole month. Here's what I learned and my takeaways for kicking trash to the curb.

Rules of the Challenge

It turns out not creating any trash was not going to be realistic for me (and what is the point of sustainability if it's not, well, sustainable?). So, I set some ground rules. First off, I still recycled and composted things as I typically would, as (ideally) those things are not truly wasted. If you are unsure if recycling is available in your area, it is worth a Google or call to your local waste management agency. Luckily for me, my landlord requires that we compost and has a bin set up for us (check out our handy Composting 101 page to help you get started at home, if you're not already).

There are still certain things that I knew couldn't be recycled or composted that would inevitably be wasted during the month (looking at you, twisty ties and rubber bands on vegetables). For this reason, I decided that while my dream goal was no trash, I would limit my trash for the month to one old takeout container. Just like that, I was ready to take on the 30-Day Zero Waste Challenge.

Week 1: The Honeymoon Phase

Week 1, Day 1. How hard could it be? Well, apparently harder than I thought. I forgot my flour container for the grocery store (I already buy most pantry staples in bulk at our local co-op grocery store) and had to use a plastic bag. Recoverable, but not necessarily off to a strong start. However, I was still feeling very optimistic and was determined to adapt. Later in the week, I managed to remember a Stasher Bag for bulk-bin dry rice and a mesh bag for produce. Keeping a stash of reusable bags and containers in my car for spontaneous trips to the store was going to be key.

The only other major hiccup in my week was Halloween candy wrappers (you can probably see several Reese's wrappers in the picture below). While I can't resist a classic peanut butter cup, I knew that there would be challenges to every season—whether it was a vacation, out-of-town guests or another holiday. I just had to start, be flexible and try my best.

On Friday of the first week, I spilled my coffee. To avoid a sticky desk for the next 25 days, I caved and used a wipe to clean it up. A co-worker reminded me about the stash of dishrags we have in the Test Kitchen (next time). I realize I needed to think quickly on my feet and also probably needed a small trash container for the office. The next day I brought in a Mason jar. Like I said, no waste at all wasn't going to be realistic, but I felt like I could hang my hat on a few small containers. Not to mention, it would keep me honest.

Week 2: The Nitty-Gritty

Week 2 started with hosting a party over the weekend. However, on a high from being 25% of the way there, I was careful to reuse my plastic cup and recycle it at the end of the night (a glass would have been even better, but we didn't have enough for everyone).

The next day, I went out for dinner with my boyfriend. It was a blast, until we had to face the leftovers. I let him take them home so the containers weren't associated with my no-waste challenge. To really go all in, I could have brought a reusable or recyclable container from home to fill, but I didn't think that far in advance.

It was getting harder to reconcile my efforts with all the waste around me. I have three roommates and a boyfriend with a pet. There would inevitably be some waste that I was involved in creating, but did it count if they threw it out? Is that cheating? Needless to say, the start of Week 2 got a little existential for me. I resigned to be as mindful as I could about my waste and not stress about controlling every potential source of trash for the month.

On Day 11, I picked up my first winter community supported agriculture (CSA) pickup through our local Intervale Community Farm. I was definitely geekily excited to be showered in so many veggies, especially in Vermont in November. A CSA is a great option to cut down on food waste. Bring your own reusable bags and, voilà, no waste while supporting local businesses and farmers. Even with roommates to help me get through all of the veg, we only had so much freezer space to save peels, pits and stems we wouldn't eat or cook with for making stock. This made it clear that composting would be a crucial part of not creating food waste this month.

Full disclosure, on Day 13, I cheated. The bathroom needed to be deep-cleaned (did I mention I have three roommates?). So, I used two Magic Erasers and threw them right in the trash. Yes, I felt guilty. But filling my containers to the brim on Day 13 didn't feel like a great option either. After confessing to a few close confidants, I decided to just move on. I have been really focused on food- and kitchen-related waste, so this was a wake-up call that my house-cleaning methods could use some greening up.

We are all human; it was bound to happen. Giving yourself the flexibility to be more eco-friendly in a way that fits into your life is key, especially as you get started.

Week 3: Autopilot

To kick off Week 3, there was a film festival at my climbing gym. It was a night filled with food, drinks, friends, dogs and great movies. Much like the party last week, I reused and recycled my plastic cup and used a compostable plate. You could say, at this point, I was feeling like a zero-waste pro (barring a few setbacks in previous weeks).

Halfway through the week, I splurged on a reusable salad container (I was feeling inspired by the Best Meal-Prep Containers for Work Lunches; buy it on amazon.com, $20). Though it is a super-cute container and I would go on to use it regularly throughout the rest of the challenge, it got me thinking. How much money was I going to spend on supplies, containers and compostable things so that I could do this challenge? It's unfortunate that cost can be a barrier to entry for people who want to pursue sustainable practices. However, there are plenty of cost-free ways to pursue sustainability, from what you do with your food scraps to what you eat in the first place. For more, check out How Your Food Choices Can Help Fight Climate Change.

On Day 18, the batteries in my computer mouse died. They could fit in the jar, but was there a way to reuse or recycle them? Turns out, they can be recycled but only if you bring them to a specific recycling center that accepts them (at least in Vermont). Lucky for me, the Test Kitchen already had a stash going that they were planning to bring to the recycling center, so I jumped on the bandwagon (and switched to rechargeable batteries, lesson learned).

Week 4: Going Forward

The last week flew by. Maybe this was becoming second nature, or maybe I was just busier. As the last days of the challenge came to a close, I reflected on why I set out to complete this challenge and what I learned from the process. I don't think I'll continue to keep a Mason jar of trash at my desk (or in my kitchen), but this has shown me that it is definitely not impossible to waste very little.

For me, I found that awareness was half the battle. With a little more planning, I could have probably wasted even less, done it more cheaply and avoided a few of my few slip-ups. Hindsight is 20/20, but it was eye-opening to see where my blind spots were. Going forward, I will be more intentional about composting and recycling the right way. By the "right way," I mean rinsing recyclables and composting more than just food (paper towels, tissues, etc.) I know, this is kind of a drag and takes more time, but it ensures that your efforts to help keep the planet healthy are doing what you think they are.

Lessons Learned

As daunting as it sounded from the beginning, the 30-Day Zero Waste Challenge felt like a success when it was all said and done. Though there were slip-ups and difficulties, I came out of it with a few takeaways that will help me reduce the waste I produce in the long term.

A little awareness goes a long way. I was able to cut down on a significant amount of waste nearly immediately just by thinking about it.

Planning is crucial for success. Half of the battle was trying to be prepared enough to avoid situations where wasting is common, like bringing lunch to work or going to the grocery store. Now, I keep reusable bags and a few food-storage containers in my car, and ask not to receive utensils or napkins when I order delivery. Little tweaks may look different for everyone, but it is important to look at what you are throwing in the trash, and when, for inspiration on how you can cut waste.

It can get expensive. This is an unfortunate consequence of sustainable, waste-free choices not being as mainstream (yet). Investing in reusable bags and containers, is just that, an investment. Ideally, these items will last you for years to come, even if they are a bit more expensive up front. To slash your spending, skip the fancy glass, state-of-the-art food containers or buy them on sale. You can also repurpose to-go containers from restaurants, so long as they are reusable.

You don't have to be perfect, nobody is. My biggest takeaway from this challenge is that change comes from a lot of people imperfectly pursuing what they care about. There are bound to be things you did not expect or failures along the way, but all you can do is your best. Even cutting out one plastic bag a day can add up over the course of the year, especially since the average American goes through over 1,500 annually. Hopefully this inspires you and gives you permission to take a step, no matter how small, toward keeping our planet cleaner, healthier and happier.