A Year Of My Family's Trash Fits Into One Jar. Here's How

Photo: Katelin Leblond

To celebrate Earth Day, we're highlighting a woman who's brought her passion for the environment to life with a seriously impressive green feat—her family of four produces almost no garbage. Katelin and fellow zero-waster Tara Smith-Arnsdorf are blogging about their trash-free journey over at PAREdown. Here's a glimpse into her story:

I was first exposed to a zero-waste lifestyle in January 2014, with a YouTube clip of a woman who—along with her family—produces less than a quart-size jar of trash annually.

Back then I would have described myself as environmentally conscious—I "cared" about what my family and I were doing to the planet. I write cared in quotation marks simply because that's all I was doing: caring. I wasn't acting. I felt paralyzed by the enormity of the problem, so my attitude was one of overwhelmed hopelessness. I was only one person, so how could my actions ever actually contribute to any sort of solution?

Zero-waste living became the practical answer I was searching for.

On Earth Day last year, my family made the decision to live without a garbage can.

As soon as I turned off the video, I was compelled to start taking the first steps toward cutting down on my own trash consumption.

At the time, my family of four was going through a large black bag of trash a week, so the idea of going zero-waste felt like a formidable challenge. We started small by setting achievable, stepping-stone goals. At first, we worked to cut our trash in half by refusing single-use plastics and excess packaging, simplifying our home, and changing our consumption mindset.

Within a year, we'd reduced our trash from a large black garbage bag weekly to a grocery bag biweekly. Watching our trash rapidly diminish with each curbside pickup was all the motivation we needed to keep going.

Soon enough, we cut this down to a liter biweekly. Then, on Earth Day last year, my family made the decision to live without a garbage can.

We no longer haul the garbage to the curb—all of our trash from the last year fits into a single jar.

We were able to get to this point by following the five R's—a philosophy designed by Bea Johnson, the woman from that video clip that started it all. When followed in order, these five steps can help anyone create a home that sends barely any trash to the landfill:

Refuse

Refuse everything you don't need—start learning to say no to freebies and single-use items (think: single-use paper coffee cups, plastic straws and cutlery, and take-out food packaging). By using these items, we contribute to the demand for them and condone a wasteful mindset.

Our jar of trash Photo: Katelin Leblond

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Reduce

This basically is about changing your mindset from one of consumption to conservation, which can be really difficult for a lot of people (including me!).

I've tried to reduce the amount of items in my home to only ones that hold sentimental value. While I could still stand to reduce more of my wardrobe, I've started to only buy clothes from secondhand shops.

Reuse

Reuse everything you can by finding a second life for household items you would otherwise throw away. This can be really fun—I especially love all the creative ways to reuse old bottles. They're great for storing shampoo and conditioner, oil and vinegar, and dried food from bulk bins.

Our dining room, furnished with pieces we bought secondhand or reimagined with paint Photo: Katelin Leblond

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Related Class

Recycle

Anything you can't refuse, reduce, or reuse should be recycled.

Rot

Compost the rest! We are lucky to live in a city that provides biweekly compost pickup, making this R the easiest for our family.

A typical grocery haul Photo: Katelin Leblond

Prior to living zero-waste, I navigated the grocery store aisles on autopilot. I purchased pre-washed produce in plastic bags, meat and dairy wrapped in unnecessary packaging, and bought into all of the consumer marketing telling me what processed snacks to get for my kids.

Eliminating trash forces you to wake up and make more-conscious choices—I now go to the grocery store armed with reusable totes, bulk bags, and a large container or two for meat and bakery items. I buy unpackaged produce, dried goods from bulk bins, and loose items that would otherwise go to waste, like single bananas. My children get involved by making a game out of finding the pieces of produce without stickers.

At first, one of the most difficult things to give up was "kid" food—those sugary snacks that come in bright packaging. Though I knew my two kids were better off without it, I worried that they wouldn't understand and think I was depriving them of treats. Looking back, I see that I was fussing over a non-issue. My kids didn’t bat an eye, and were happy to gobble up plates of fresh fruit and vegetables at snack time.

Snack time for my kids Photo: Katelin Leblond

Going zero-waste has had its ups and downs, but overall the decision to live simply has brought our family so much more than what we gave up.

Since choosing to live simply, I've been able to transition into part-time work as a zero-waste blogger and stay home with my children while they're young. I'm passionate about what I'm doing, and I believe I am a being the absolute best role model I can be for my children.

This lifestyle shift has also given me a newfound gratitude for the simple things. Items like cartons of ice creams and new clothes—ones that used to make their way into my family's shopping cart all the time—are now luxuries that feel special.

Our pantry Photo: Katelin Leblond

I love the idealism of the zero-waste movement—the idea that living simply can be something to aspire to. It represents the desire to opt out of consumerism, and drop the notion that you have to keep up with the Joneses.

Some people may argue that trying to go completely waste-free is too extreme—too difficult in today's materialistic culture. But I believe that you must be extreme to get your cause noticed. And, as the saying goes, if it doesn't challenge you, it won't change you.

Keep reading for more accounts of incredible eco-feats:

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