I Challenged Myself To Go Trash-Free For A Month. Here's What Happened

Photo: @phoebelapine

When we saw that chef, author, and mbg class instructor Phoebe Lapine was challenging herself to cut down on the trash she makes in and out of the kitchen, we knew we’d have to snag some of her tips. Here is her advice for anyone looking to be a little kinder to the planet, just in time for Thanksgiving dinner prep.

I’ve found great success in making sweeping changes in my life by focusing on one problem area for one month at a time.

Back in 2015, when I used this strategy to embark on an official "wellness project," that involved everything from turning my hydration habits upside down, to switching my beauty products to naturals, to revamping my morning routine. But one area I didn’t tackle? My trash.

When you try to live greener, you end up living healthier, and vice versa.

Of course, by making some healthier upgrades along the way during my yearlong wellness odyssey—getting a water filter for my tap, using less toxic chemicals on my skin, shopping more at the farmers market—I ended up sweeping away a few toes from my carbon footprint in the process.

Still, I knew I had a long way to go before I could fit all my trash into one mason jar, as trail-blazing green goddesses before me have. And since Mother Nature seemed to have finally lost her patience with us, there seemed like no better time than the present.

So I declared October my official No Waste Month.

This was partially hyperbole. My partner and I live in a small rental apartment in New York City without a backyard and with a dog who must poop on the sidewalk. There was only so much I was willing to do in the name of no waste.

You have to diagnose the problem before you can start finding solutions.

Instead, our goal was to use one trash bag for the entire month. It was a far cry from one mason jar, but it was certainly a baby step from what we’ve produced in the past. And more importantly, it was a goal we could (and did!) succeed at.

One of the biggest benefits of the month was knowing exactly where my trash habits currently stand. After all, you have to diagnose the problem before you can start finding solutions.

At the end of the month, when I finally sifted through my one trash bag like a sleazy private detective (a la Matt Dillon circa 1996), I was amazed to see my entire month of packaged food consumption in review and only slightly disgusted by the leftover spaghetti I had accidentally scraped in there on day two.

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Here are a few things I learned during my month of less waste, and ways I'm going to keep my green(er) lifestyle going.

1. Look before you toss.

As a lesson in awareness, No Waste Month proved to be incredibly successful. I overthought my choices every time I approached a trash can. I did more research on tea bag packets than I’ve ever been motivated to do. And I proved through my own example that we’d all probably create less waste if we simply took the time to learn what we could and couldn’t recycle.

Some things required a quick Google search, but most of the time the information was written right on the back of the package. You just need to take the time to look.

2. Embrace inconvenience.

I vowed to get my mail-order shipping addiction under control during No Waste Month. But alas, I can’t quit you, Amazon Prime.

As much as those packaged food wrappers added up, they paled in comparison to the quantity of waste created from retail purchases and the extravagance of having them delivered to my door.

Living greener means buying less stuff and returning to the days when it was harder to do so at the click of a button. Unfortunately, when you shop online, you never know what kind of packaging your purchase will come in, so there’s no way to avoid bubble mailers and packing peanuts. Where we do have agency over is not using those materials ourselves. Choose envelopes made from recycled paper at the FedEx store, and avoid those bubbles at all costs.

But more importantly, put that Amazon Prime membership on hold for a month and try to remember what it was actually like to walk or drive to the store when you want something. A tall order for the holiday season, I know. So start getting those gifts out of the way now!

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3. Use a countertop compost system.

Most of us don’t take the trash out when it’s full. We usually do it when it SMELLS.

The beauty of composting is fewer unnecessary garbage bags. And when you remember to scrape your spaghetti into the right bin, it also means you can search through the trash for secrets without getting rotten tomato sauce all over your hands.

I use a small countertop bin with a charcoal filter that absorbs the smell. If you don’t have a backyard, or your town or city doesn’t have food waste collection (we got it only recently in Brooklyn), investigate drop-off locations near your home. Most farmers markets collect compost, and in the meantime, you can store the bags in your freezer. Better yet, siphon away some of those scraps and use them to make recycled veggie stock!

If composting isn’t in the cards, you can at least prolong your trash bag by using baking soda or counter spray to combat whatever smelly foods you’ve put in there.

4. Don’t use plastic baggies for your produce.

One of the benefits of buying raw ingredients is avoiding the toxic plastics that touch your food when it’s prepackaged. If you’re buying 5 pounds of tomatoes and want to keep them together, or one very dirty, wet head of lettuce, maybe there’s a need. But otherwise, do yourself and the environment a favor, and just let all your produce coexist together like one big happy family in your (reusable) shopping bag. You’re going to wash it all when you get home anyway, right?

5. If you do, save soft plastics for recycling.

In New York state, large retailers are required by law to recycle soft plastic. Yes, New Yorkers, you can save your plastic grocery bags, mailer sleeves, non-food soiled plastic wrapping, and bring them into a drop-off location. Newspaper bags, dry cleaning plastic, and thin plastic film from notecards, tea boxes, prepackaged cheese, household items, pet food, juice packs, the things starred above, etc., are also fair game. Many other states no doubt have similar options. It’s worth checking out.

We have begun a recycling bag just for soft plastics. It doesn’t take up much space once compressed, and since there’s no odor, we have to bring them into a recycling location only once every few months.

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6. Buy meat/seafood from the butcher or seafood counter.

I was shocked by how much waste I was creating cooking simple meals from whole ingredients. This easy sheet pan dinner contributed a plastic sleeve from the chicken (Whole Foods doesn’t include poultry at the butcher counter), netting from a bag of lemons, a twist tie and plastic tag from the kale, and a plastic bottle topper from the red curry.

When I can, I try to buy meat and seafood from the counter instead of the case, where they’re usually housed in a plastic package. Some butcher paper is compostable; others contain plastic. Make sure to check your city requirements before tossing it in a compost bin. But either way, you’ll have less plastic in your life. Better yet, shop from the farmers market to avoid stickers and packaging altogether!

7. Be willing to reuse in weird, unexpected ways.

Certain things we throw away have a reusable function. Rubber bands from produce are a perfect example. I created a space in my kitchen drawer for these and saved them. They came in very handy when I was throwing away something particularly smelly, like the aforementioned plastic sleeve that housed raw chicken. I rinsed it out, carefully folded it up, and then used a rubber band to secure it into a tight wad. No odor!

8. Reduce waste on the move.

A little preparation can go a long way, be it a reusable water bottle or a brown bag lunch from home. You can ask for no straw with your drink and seek out take-away meals that use greener packaging. Even when they don’t, make sure to ASK about whether they recycle.

And lastly, try to put your bottles, containers, and utensils in the correct bucket, even if it means walking a few extra city blocks until you find a blue bin. We often give ourselves a free pass when we’re away from home, and just looking at my own mindless tossing on the move, I know we can all do better.

Next up? Check out Phoebe's top tips for using up all your food scraps.

Phoebe Lapine

Food Writer
Phoebe Lapine is a food and health writer, gluten-free chef, wellness personality, culinary instructor, and speaker, born and raised in New York City, where she continues to live and eat. On her award-winning blog, Feed Me Phoebe, she shares recipes for healthy comfort food and insights about balanced lifestyle choices beyond what’s on your plate. Her forthcoming memoir, The Wellness Project, chronicles her journey with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and how she finally found the middle ground between health and hedonism by making one lifestyle change, one month at a time. Connect with Phoebe on Instagram and Facebook for more creative clean recipes and inspiration.
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