Zero waste: Getting to zero

One of Matt's lunches: green onion pancakes, beans, orange

One of Matt’s lunches: green onion pancakes, beans, orange

I have mentioned, off and on, that in the wake of my visit to the dump we have been attempting to move our household toward zero waste. Apparently, like the biking, this is now a happening thing. (Since when am I tuned into the zeitgeist?) The City and County of San Francisco has the same zero waste goal, scheduled for 2020.

People approach zero waste in different ways. The easiest definition of zero-waste is to send nothing into the landfill. There is sometimes an assumption that substituting recyclable packaging is fine. I didn’t make that assumption. Evidently I like to make things difficult for myself.

This is a pretty typical haul from the cheese shop: hummus, salad cheese, crackers.

This is a pretty typical haul from the cheese shop: hummus, salad cheese, crackers.

I’ve since learned that we started somewhat ahead of the average American household. We swapped paper towels out for rags long ago and have always used cloth napkins and reusable lunch containers. But we now shop exclusively with cloth bags and our own glass jars, and we have become the kind of people who bring our own tableware to restaurants that use disposables. None of these changes was especially difficult, although it felt weird to do something different at first.

I go to the cafeteria once every two weeks, but my plate is recognized nonetheless.

I go to the cafeteria once every two weeks, but my plate is recognized nonetheless.

Zero waste efforts make you instantly recognizable. When I walk into the office cafeteria with my china plate, the sandwich guy immediately starts heating up falafel. When I go by the local cheese shop, the owner waves (“Look, it’s the woman who brings her own beeswax wrappers! On a bike!”) It can feel a little like the over-examined life. Mostly it’s good, though.

Sending as little as possible to the landfill (in San Francisco, the black bin) is a given in a zero waste household. Here in San Francisco, that means all soft plastics are basically out. Although Recology will take rigid plastics in the recycling bin, virtually all “recycled” rigid plastics are down-cycled—they get one more use as lumber or fleece then go directly to the landfill. So we don’t buy those either.

This was a week of landfill-bound waste last month, but it's dropped since then.

This was a week of landfill-bound waste last month, but it’s dropped since then.

Our progress on landfill-bound waste has been pretty dramatic; most weeks, it easily fits into one of the old quart-sized Ziploc bags I keep finding around the house even now. Most of what’s left is preschool foam sticker art (which is being very slowly phased out at our request) and medical waste (e.g. bandages the kids come home with, and my new waste-nemesis, dental floss).

Sustainable preschool art is a continuing battle.

Sustainable preschool art is a continuing battle.

After my visit to Recology, I also viewed recycling (the blue bin) as a last-resort option. Recycling is energy-intensive at best and involves massive transportation costs because most recycling on the west coast is sent to China. And although paper can be recycled a few times, it degrades to a lower quality product each time–printer paper to paper bags to toilet paper– then it goes to the landfill too. Glass and metal are really recycled, but expensive to melt and reform. But when there appear to be no other alternatives, glass, metal, and low-quality compostable paper are the types of packaging we choose.

Minimizing our recycling has been very hard. We both have office jobs, our kids come home with papers from school, and junk mail is horribly persistent. However we are definitely producing less: on a good week our recycling barely covers the bottom of the blue bin.

Happily, composting (the green bin) is universally acclaimed.  San Francisco has municipal compost pickup so we were already keeping food waste separated, but we started including odds and ends we hadn’t previously realized we could compost (e.g. hair, dryer lint, floor sweepings, waxed-paper butter wrappers). Food-soiled paper is compostable as well. We’re not yet at the point that I begrudge an occasional pizza box.

This is part of the "jar" section of Rainbow Grocery's bulk zone.

This is part of the “jar” section of Rainbow Grocery’s bulk zone: miso, tahini, nut butters, salsa.

However we don’t buy processed food because virtually none of it can be bought in bulk (this is evidently a quick way to lose weight). I find myself getting irritable when manufacturers expect me to take responsibility for dealing with their packaging or things they make that break. I wonder now why I once accepted the responsibility for disposing of whatever a retailer chose to throw at me. And it seems crazy, after only a few months, to buy something in a container that is used only once, to carry an item from one place to another, after which the container is put in a landfill until roughly the end of time. It is something I had never considered before this year, and now it seems like madness.

I'll say this, though: our fridge looks awesome.

I’ll say this, though: our fridge looks awesome.

Overall we’re getting pretty crunchy over here, which honestly has never been a personal aspiration. The homesteading, back-to-the-land ethos of traditional hippies appeals to an urbanist like me about as much as firewalking. So I have been surprised at the response of people when they see me shopping, which is largely fascination. I’m frequently quizzed: “How do you store greens?” (Answer: in a glass jar in the fridge, they keep for over a week that way. Berries, too.) The idea of reducing waste seems universally appealing. I’m not really sure why.

This is not something we can do all at once. The bathroom is still challenging—contact lens solution, toothbrushes, toothpaste, dental floss. Matt and the kids pick up a lot of disposable packaging when they go out solo. There is a lot of meal planning. It’s a change, and change can be hard. Even so I feel no urge to go back to the way we were.


Filed under San Francisco, zero waste

14 responses to “Zero waste: Getting to zero

  1. ken

    We are just back in the UK after 2 weeks vacation in Palo Alto. What struck me immediately was the waste at breakfast in the hotel – here in the UK breakfast is served on crockery with metal cutlery. As I watched every morning it struck me that it was totally unnecessary – the maid who stood around most of the time keeping things topped up could easliy run a dishwasher at the same time. However I did overhear a conversation in a local cafe in which may have explained it – one person was arguing against the use of disposable plates, plastic cutlery etc, and the other replied that washing dishes used a precious resource – water!!!!! Trouble is that when you multiply the paper & plastic used per day in each hotel by the number of hotels (and the transport miles keeping them supplied) it is a really big number.
    Pizza is the same – large ones were on special so I would have had to pay $4 more to get a smaller pizza in a smaller box??
    Then there was the shopowner who was moaning about the price of gas (ours is about twice the price of yours). Turns out he lives 45 miles from his job and he drives a truck that is lucky to get 16mpg – he was pretty astounded that my car does equivalent 52 US mpg and that I usually cycle 15 miles each way to work.
    You are fairly unique in some ways, hopefully you are the vanguard for people treading more lightly on our planet in your area, I’m trying to do the same in my locale.

    PS, I’m not picking up on the US, we have a long way to go here in the UK too, strangely I can remember a time in the early 60’s when things came in bulk and nothing was wasted, we just need to get back there 😉


  2. Jonathan R

    Great post, but one bemused question: I was last in San Francisco in 2001 and remember putting the toilet paper in the toilet after use. Has the city changed its policy to require used TP to be sent to the landfill instead?

    • Sorry, lack of clarity there: the remains of what comes out of sewage treatment plants (biosolids) are typically either landfilled or used as fertilizer, depending on the locale. So I’ve been assuming that at least some used toilet paper is ultimately landfilled.

      (Either is better than what coastal cities used to do with biosolids, which was to dump them in the nearest body of water.)

  3. Bee’s wax wrappers? That sounds cool – any chance of details (or a review)?

    I love the fact that I started reading your blog while looking for more inspiration to be more about biking, less about driving (a goal that is sadly derailed due to health issues) but am now looking for more ways to reduce the waste stream from out house – so thank you!!

    • I may someday get to the point of reviewing them, but in the meantime, here are a couple of options.
      For the crafty, a DIY tutorial:
      For the lazy (like me), a small business in Canada that will do it for you:

      We got some for our anniversary and use them in lieu of everything that people typically use plastic wrap for: cheese, cut avocado halves, covering food in the fridge, etc. (they’re easily the best way to store cheese I’ve ever found; the picture with our shopping shows them in use). The wraps are not ideal for freezing–they get a little stiff–but can manage that too.

      I hope that you’re back in good health soon, too.

  4. RD Frazier

    I seemed to recall an article in Sunset Magazine about a family that was doing the same thing. For all I know maybe it was yours. My initial feeling when reading that article and your blog post was that it was a little extreme and “over-the-top”. However, as you mention you may be on the bleeding edge of what may become mainstream in the years to come. Keep of the good work!

  5. Jim

    What are you using yo blow your nose? We’re about the same as you volume of waste-wise, but Kleenex are a prob. I use an old cloth napkin but (tmi time) I get the blems. Pooh.

    • Flannel handkerchiefs. Kids love ’em.

    • We stopped using Kleenex a year ago and switched to cotton or linen hankies, which in addition to cutting down on our waste stream had the unexpected effect of keeping our noses from getting chapped when we caught colds. I had no idea how rough Kleenex really is (even the “lotion” ones). I found a vendor on Etsy that sells vintage ones and is happy to oblige my “minimal packaging and no plastic” request for shipping, and has affordable pricing. With the amount of Kleenex we used to go through we are saving money at this point (even with my large collection of hankies…which allows me to have a few clean ones with me at all time and to not stress if I haven’t done laundry for awhile…)

  6. woodenmonkey

    Josette – The Etsy shop I buy from is There are lots of other Etsy shops that carry hankies as well, I just have had good experiences with Lisa (the shop owner).

    Whenever I buy online I request “Minimal packaging please – extra points for no plastic!” It doesn’t always work, but I’ve had more luck (but by no means total success) with Etsy shops.

  7. Laura

    I work for California EPA, and in our building cafeteria, it’s not at all unusual for employees to pop down with their own ceramic (or whatever) bowls and plates. So, you’re not entirely alone, at least on that front!

  8. So pleased to find you, and I’ll be following! I’m struggling with floss currently. And my love of pre grated cheese – so convenient. Doesn’t help that locally I don’t have a deli. I like being able to walk for all my groceries. But there is a deli near work, I just need to get my act together. Drop by my blog if you have a minute, esp Wednesdays when I update on my zero waste attempts and weigh in the week’s waste.

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