The air inside the Package Free shop in Brooklyn is thick with incense. It’s early Monday evening and there are two customers: one is chatting with the cashier, explaining how she wants to become zero-waste, the other roams the shop, inspecting merchandise on display. Bamboo toilet paper, wooden toilet brushes, mesh bags, stainless steel coffee cups and silicone menstrual cups are on show.
The Williamsburg store, its aim to provide sustainable alternatives to disposable and plastic items, first opened as a pop-up in the summer but reopened permanently last month – an indication of the growing interest in low-waste and zero-waste lifestyles.
In 2014, Americans sent 169million tons of garbage to landfills out of the total 258million tons of trash generated. That’s compared to the 82.5million tons of garbage sent to landfills in 1960 out of 88.1million tons of trash being generated, according to the EPA.
The zero-waste movement, as it is today, began in 2008 with California mother-of-two Bea Johnson who came across the term zero-waste in reference to industrial practices.
‘When I saw that term, the lightbulb went off in my head and I decided, well this is what we should be doing,’ Bea, now 43, told DailyMail.com. ‘There was no guide on how to live a zero-waste lifestyle. There were no blogs, no books, nothing. So I had to test a lot of things. We tested a lot of extremes.’
Some of the extremes they attempted included replacing toilet paper with moss and swapping out shampoo for baking soda and apple cider vinegar, neither of which worked.
Because there was no information about how to live their new lifestyle in the beginning, the Johnsons had to test a lot of extreme alternatives, including replacing toilet paper with moss, which didn’t work. Bea and Scott, now 54, are pictured with their two sons Leo, now 16, (far left) and Max, now 17, (far right) and their dog Zizou in 2012
The Package Free shop (pictured) in Brooklyn is devoted to helping people live low-waste and zero-waste lifestyles by offering sustainable alternatives to disposable and plastic household items. It opened as a pop-up over the summer but reopened earlier this month
Lauren Singer, 26, has been living zero-waste for five years. When she first decided she wanted to change her lifestyle in 2012, Bea Johnson’s blog was one of the only resources available, so Lauren decided to start her own blog, Trash is for Tossers, to document her journey and give tips
During the process, Bea, who is a native of France, ran a blog called Zero Waste Home. In 2013 she published a book with the same name to encourage and inspire others to follow her ‘Five Rs’ to a zero-waste lifestyle: refuse what they do not need, reduce what they do need, reuse what they have, recycle what cannot be refused, reduced or reused and finally, to rot, or compost, food scraps.
Little did she realize at the time that she was inspiring a movement.
Since her blog, zero-waste has become a common phrase, prompting many others to attempt to live low-waste or zero-waste. People have since started numerous blogs and Facebook groups where people ask questions and offer advice about how to generate no trash.
Lifestyle changes often involve buying secondhand, homemaking products such as toothpaste and laundry detergent and buying groceries without packaging by bringing containers from home. For dry foods like fruits and vegetables, that means cloth bags or jars, but for wet foods like meat and cheese, that means going to the deli counters and asking for food to be put into stainless steel containers or jars without any plastic wrapping.
Bea and her family have eliminated so many items that the only things remaining are the basic necessities, even their clothes. She has only 15 items in her wardrobe and her two sons Max, 17 and Leo, 16, each have seven t-shirts, two long-sleeve t-shirts, three pairs of pants and two pairs of shorts.
The family installed a gray water system so water from their showers, bathroom sinks and washing machine would be reused to water their property and all their books were donated to their public library.
‘Everything in our house has a function and everything has been thought of, has been questioned,’ Bea said. ‘The digital world has been extremely helpful. We no longer have photos… We’ve had them all scanned because at one point I asked myself, if there was a fire what would I be afraid of losing in my home? And I realized that it was my pictures.
‘Pictures are not replaceable. Everything else is. You know, whatever jacket or items or dishes, anything you have in your home is replaceable, just look on eBay. But photos are not. And that’s really the only thing I was afraid of losing, so we used a service to have all our photos scanned.’
Bea and her family have eliminated anything unnecessary from their home. She said: ‘Everything in our house has a function and everything has been thought of, has been questioned’
Bea said: ‘It surprises a lot of people that our home is white. We’ve been criticized for that… Everyone should do what they want to do, but out of luck, when you paint your interior white, then it stays lighter longer’
On the opposite coast, in New York, Lauren Singer, 26, has turned her zero-waste life into a job. It’s been five years since she had an epiphany about how much trash she produced and started her Trash is for Tossers blog, which was followed by a sustainable cleaning supply company called The Simply Co. Now she’s the co-founder of Package Free.
‘So many people are like, “oh my god, I have to change the fabric of my being” and I’m like, no that’s bull****,’ Lauren said. ‘You don’t have to change anything about yourself except for your choices. And that’s really easy. It’s really easy to say no. It’s really easy to do swap outs. It’s just having the education and the willpower and the positive attitude to do it.
‘It wasn’t all at once. It was one step at a time. Let me integrate this, let me have it become normal and then I’ll go on to the next thing.’
‘I started small. You cannot go zero-waste in a weekend or a month. It took me months and months and months. Still in my life there’s certain things that I’m trying to find alternatives to. And people – writers, so many journalists will be like, I tried zero-waste for a week and this is what happened. Well that’s crazy. It’s like saying I’m going to lose 50 pounds this week and here’s what happened. You can’t change your entire life’s habits in a really short amount of time. It’s a process.’
Lauren (pictured) went on from her blog to start a sustainable cleaning supply company called The Simply Co and this year opened Package Free in Williamsburg
Lauren Singer (right) co-founded Package Free with Daniel Silverstein (left), a zero-waste clothing designer in New York City
Though some people might question how easy it is to live the zero-waste lifestyle, Lauren said: ‘Anything can be hard. Going to sleep at 10 o’clock can be hard or you know, drinking water can be really hard. So for me, it was more like maintaining a positive attitude and being excited’
Lauren said: ‘I started this when I was 21, had a boyfriend in college, had a full time job, didn’t have money, and it enriched my life tremendously. So I think for me, it was just finding that knowledge and having that drive to learn. It just took time, it wasn’t hard’
Maria Cusumano, 26, works for a compost collection service in Raleigh, North Carolina, and runs a blog called East Coast Zero. She has been practicing a zero-waste lifestyle for two years, but views it more as a goal as opposed to a rule.
‘I don’t think anyone’s ever completely zero-waste,’ Maria said. ‘We’re all going to still consume and create trash… I operate under the definition that zero-waste is a total commitment to pursue zero-waste creation or generation. So imperfection is just kind of built into that, that it’s just like a goal and a lifestyle change. Just like you could eat really clean and healthy, but sometimes you’re still going to eat some cake.
‘I still will purchase a few items in plastic because I don’t have access to these items otherwise or to make them would be too much. I try to make as much as I can and I try to bring things as package free as often as I can, but there are times when I have to buy what’s available and affordable, because you know, got to fit it into the budget.’
Aliza Riemenschneider, 36, a digital marketing analyst and mother of two in Linden, New Jersey, has been working on minimalizing her and her family’s waste creation for 10 years, though she wouldn’t say she is living a zero-waste lifestyle. She is pictured with her husband David, 37, and their two children aged two and six years old
Aliza Riemenschneider, 36, agrees. The digital marketing analyst and mother of two in Linden, New Jersey, has been minimalizing her waste creation for 10 years and recently started and joined several Facebook groups dedicated to working towards living a zero-waste lifestyle, though she wouldn’t necessarily call herself zero-waste.
‘I think that labels are boring and dangerous, actually, because I think that it’s something that we use then to judge other people by,’ Aliza said. ‘So I don’t really want to label my lifestyle. It’s certainly not zero-waste because nobody can be. Journey to zero-waste is more accurate, but doesn’t have the same ring to it. I would just say that I’m mindful about the things that I do and the things that I use and how I use them. It’s just a way of living and making decisions.
‘We don’t live zero-waste because that’s virtually impossible for anyone to do,’ she said. ‘Just being human means you’re creating waste. Even if we are living in the woods eating berries, every human creates waste. It’s just at different levels.
‘The original concept [for the Facebook groups] was journey to zero-waste and every person who is part of any of these groups is interested in placing themselves on the spectrum of this journey to zero-waste. But absolute zero-waste is not an option. It’s not possible. But everyone who’s part of these [Facebook] groups pretty much agrees that the goal should be as close to zero-waste as is possible for each of us.’
Maria Cusumano, 26, in Raleigh, North Carolina, has been living a zero-waste lifestyle for two years, but views the lifestyle as more of a goal than a rule. When she first decided she wanted to live zero-waste, her fiance Alex Karagiannis, 26, wasn’t incredibly enthusiastic, but as Maria has implemented small changes slowly, he’s come around to the lifestyle
To avoid certain chemicals and minimize the amount of non-recycleable packaging she and Alex purchase, Maria makes some of her own personal products including deodorant and toothpaste. She is pictured with the ingredients for her toothpaste
Alex hasn’t switched from using store-bought toothpaste to Maria’s homemade toothpaste (pictured) yet, but he does love to use her homemade deodorant
For the self-proclaimed experts such as Bea and Lauren, they produce so little trash that they can fit it all into a 16oz jar or smaller, which they claim isn’t as difficult as it might seem.
‘Honestly, anything is hard if you make it hard,’ Lauren said. ‘I think propagating the narrative and saying hard and zero-waste in the same sentence almost kind of creates that alignment… Even if you say not hard with something, you still have that connotation. And anything can be hard. Going to sleep at 10 o’clock can be hard or you know, drinking water can be really hard. So for me, it was more like maintaining a positive attitude and being excited.
‘The most difficult thing really was that I was the second person to put this out on the internet and I didn’t have the tools available to just easily do this. But for me I think that’s what made it so possible for me, because I’m like a die-hard researcher. It feeds me to learn about things that I don’t know and realize that I’m doing something wrong.
‘It almost made me look at the entire fabric of who I was and re-evaluate it. And I think that was really exciting and motivating for me. So I think a lot of people get caught up in the really zoomed out thought that oh, I have to change my whole life, this is so hard or oh this is so expensive or all of these things that like, these are just preconceived narratives that have no basis in reality.
‘I started this when I was 21, had a boyfriend in college, had a full time job, didn’t have money, and it enriched my life tremendously. So I think for me, it was just finding that knowledge and having that drive to learn. It just took time, it wasn’t hard.’
As the woman who started the movement, Bea Johnson agrees that for her, the hardest part was finding a system that worked for her family in the beginning when there were no other resources.
‘To us now it’s completely normal and automatic,’ she said. ‘There is nothing that is difficult about it. What was difficult was when we got started to find a system that worked for us… It took us about two years to figure out, to test all the extremes, to test all the options and then to find out what worked. So actually I decided to write a book to provide all the solutions so people can adopt a zero-waste lifestyle faster than it took us.’
Matt and Michele Nielsen, both 28, first decided to work towards being zero-waste in Matt’s first year of grad school at Princeton University. The couple have two young daughters, Madeleine, 4, and Lydia, nine months
Michele was inspired to become zero-waste three years ago because during their first winter in Princeton, she got tired of taking the trash out in the cold to the dumpster with Madeleine, who was eight months old at the time
But even with the help of Bea’s book, making the lifestyle change and decreasing waste takes a long time. Michele Nielsen, 28, read Bea’s book when she and her husband Matt, 28, first agreed to try to be zero-waste three years ago. Michele checked the book out from the library and would read a chapter at a time, implement some of the ideas and ‘four months later be like, okay, I can read the next part. Because there’s so much information in such a small book. It’s such an awesome resource’.
‘At first I thought zero-waste was about being detail oriented and how I realize it isn’t so much that,’ the mother-of-two in Princeton, New Jersey said. ‘It took me a while to figure out a process that works for us. Something I worry about when other people do it is, they hit the ground running, they want it to be perfect right from the start and I found it’s really easy to burn out that way. So what we ended up doing is, we focus on what we can easily do… We focus on one little thing at a time.’
For Maria Cusumano, the key has been keeping the transition to zero-waste slow so that her fiancé, Alex Karagiannis, 26, can come around to appreciate the lifestyle change in his own time.
‘At first he was very apprehensive, but I made sure all of the changes were a slow progression and convenient for him,’ Maria said. ‘That seemed to be the key and now I’d say he’s been on board with pretty much everything I’ve tried to implement inside the home… If there’s something that he’s not quite up to taking on, we find a way to either push it off or find a way to meet us halfway.’
Though the Nielsens try to generate as little waste as possible by shopping at the farmer’s market and not using plastic bags, among other things, Matt refuses to give up chips, so they are still generating some trash. They are pictured at the Princeton Farmer’s Market
Michele said: ‘I think the biggest thing really is to not focus on what you can’t do… Like if you really can’t live without chips like my husband, or if there’s something you’re just not comfortable with switching, like toothpaste or something, that’s okay’
There are still things that Alex won’t give up on, like half and half for his coffee, so the couple compromise by buying the largest container, which is usually a carton with plastic lining.
‘There are still things like the half and half that can’t change, but we all have little things here and there.’
In Michele’s case, her husband didn’t have many issues with switching to a zero-waste lifestyle, though he refuses to give up chips and store-bought toothpaste.
‘I don’t see that going anywhere, but I don’t stress about those things going in our trash cans. As long as we only take our trash out once a week, we’re doing pretty good,’ she said. ‘It’s not something like, oh, we’re making mistakes. It’s like, oh, we’re making a big different by doing this.
‘I think the biggest thing really is to not focus on what you can’t do… Like if you really can’t live without chips like my husband, or if there’s something you’re just not comfortable with switching, like toothpaste or something, that’s okay.’
The important thing to remember, Michele said, is that starting a zero-waste lifestyle doesn’t require drastic changes.
‘There are so many small things that people do like bringing your own cup when you get your coffee… and if you use reusable bags, you honestly cut down so much trash. And that takes very little effort… It doesn’t really matter as long as you’re cutting down something small and it can make a big impact. And that’s one thing I really love about it. Even if you remember once, you’re still keeping something out of the trash. You don’t have to be consistent about it. It’s a very forgiving process.’
However, people can get distracted by the displays of 16oz jars with only a year’s worth of garbage inside. While Michele appreciates what the more famous zero-waste practitioners do and how they represent the movement, she said it can hinder people’s understanding.
‘I wish [the amount of trash being kept out of landfills] was the visual for zero-waste, not how much can I stuff in my jar. What they do is really inspiring. I don’t begrudge them for doing that, it’s just there’s this other – what we’re trying to do is keep stuff out, not necessarily measure how much we’re putting in.’
Compromise has been the key for Maria and Alex to adopt their lifestyle, which was mostly Maria’s idea. She said: ‘If there’s something that he’s not quite up to taking on, we find a way to either push it off or find a way to meet us halfway’
Pictured is Maria and Alex’s carefully-labelled recycling bin that separates certain plastics from the rest of the recycling from their landfill trash, which they try to keep at a minimum
Though everyone practices a zero-waste lifestyle differently, the lifestyle often involves buying secondhand, homemaking products such as toothpaste and laundry detergent and buying groceries without packaging by bringing containers from home to store foods in. Pictured is a shelf of Maria and Alex’s pantry filled with jars of foods they’ve bought in bulk
Most of Maria and Alex’s house is zero-waste, however Alex refuses to give up half and half for his coffee. To compromise, they buy as big a container as they can. The inside of their fridge is pictured
Michele was inspired to make the lifestyle change to zero-waste in the winter of her husband Matt’s first year of graduate school at Princeton University three years ago. The couple had already adopted a minimalist lifestyle as a compromise, because, as Michele put it: ‘I’m ADHD and my husband… has to have everything very clean and orderly. He’s a perfectionist’.
‘I told him one day: “I’m not going to clean and you have to have it clean, so let’s just get rid of everything so we don’t have to clean and you can have your stuff clean”. And that was our compromise… To live with each other we had to do minimalism because our lifestyles are so different.’
Michele’s thought process for becoming zero-waste was a similar compromise. Because of where their apartment complex was, Michele would have to walk two blocks to the dumpster in order to take out the trash, while also bringing along her eldest daughter who was only eight months old at the time.
‘I’m trekking her outside in this freaking cold weather two blocks to dump our trash out,’ Michele said. ‘There has to be an easier way to do this because this was so ridiculous. So my husband came home that night and I was like, okay, I know we’ve been doing minimalism for a while. I want to try something new and try to minimize our trash. And that was kind of how we started the whole thing, because I was like, this is just not working.’
Aliza and her husband David, 37, have been minimalizing their family’s waste for seven years, from when the couple moved back to the US after spending three years in Israel for Aliza to go to graduate school.
‘When I got back to the United States, I felt more empowered to make informed consumer decisions,’ she said.
She and her family started using cloth dish towels instead of paper towels and cloth napkins instead of paper napkins. They also compost and do clothing swaps or buy their clothes secondhand, though David has to buy his clothes custom made because he is ‘six-foot six and thin… He’s an impossible size’.
She also had her children, now two and six, in disposable diapers because they were living in Brooklyn at the time and doing their laundry at the laundromat and she figured ‘it would be kind of rude to be washing poop-stained diapers in shared laundry facilities’.
‘Nobody’s perfect,’ she added. ‘It’s just – it’s not a matter of zero-waste, it’s a matter of staying on the journey.’
Maria and Alex use traditional razors that can be readily reloaded with recyclable blades and Maria uses an ‘alum stone’ (center right) for deodorant
Though Maria has switched to using a bamboo toothbrush and homemade toothpaste, Alex still uses a plastic toothbrush and store-bought toothpaste
Of course, that journey looks different for each person, though many have experienced some form of awkwardness or pushback when their friends or family ask about their lifestyle.
Maria said: ‘You might have people who judge or make comments or make you feel uncomfortable for the lifestyle that you choose to live… If you go out to a place and you ask for something without packaging, people who aren’t familiar with what a zero-waste lifestyle entails kind of look at you like you have three heads,’ she chuckled. ‘So sometimes it’s a little challenging to get around that.’
For Bea and Michele, however, it was explaining it to family – particularly their parents – that they didn’t want more ‘stuff’ sent to them for birthdays or holidays.
At the first Thanksgiving and Christmas after Lauren decided to become zero-waste, her mom’s side of the family teased her about it at first. Once they realized that she was actually changing her lifestyle
‘Once they realized that this wasn’t just some kind of bull***t thing that I was doing… they started getting on board. They started buying organic food and composting and recycling and doing all these things that they never did before and it was really because I was not pushy, I wasn’t judgmental of them because the Christmas before, I made a ton of trash.
‘It was and it was just like, I’ve discovered this new way to live, I’m going to do it. If you’re on board, here it is, if not, I’m going to do what I want to do. And they really respected that and I think that’s the attitude that makes it successful for me and for my life. It’s not putting that pressure on other people to change but saying this is how I live, if you want to learn about it, I’m available. If not, I’m not going to judge you for the way that you choose to live.’
However, Lauren does warn about the dangers of having so much information and so many resources online, because it can be difficult to weed through everything, especially where peoples’ experiences or intentions may not be as clear.
‘It’s all about being a conscious consumer and knowing what you’re buying, knowing the values of what you’re buying, knowing the larger impacts of what you’re doing and overall just increasing your consciousness around your consumption,’ Lauren said.
‘I just think anything that gets big is dangerous and I would say the best thing that you could ever do is just do your homework. Do your research. Know the brands you’re buying from, know the people you’re listening to. Understand their values and their motivations… And that might take more time, but there’s very little that we need so urgently that we can’t wait for information.’
That awareness is one of the biggest reasons that Aliza and her family decided to reduce their waste as well. It’s something Aliza said she hopes others will be more aware of as well.
‘I wish that people would stir themselves from this lovely sleep that we’ve all been able to lull ourselves into because we have such comfortable lives here in America and everything is made very easy for us. And we’ve sort of become sleepy and we’ve all gone on cruise control and I just with that people would stir themselves from this sleep and start making decisions for themselves that make sense, not just what their neighbors are doing.’