Apr 4, 2016
The Plastic Dilemma: Living a Waste-Free Life in a Garbage-Filled City
There’s something singularly magnetic about Lauren Singer, the 24-year-old who considers herself to be the world’s “worst entrepreneur” due to her philosophy that encourages individuals to make their own goods, instead of relying on the toxic and single-use products found in commercial brands, or even on sustainable cleaning lines, like her own, the Simply Co. And yet, talking with her will spark a revelation that there is power in the individual, in a very It’s A Wonderful Life kind of a way, where the existence and actions of just one person have a rippling effect on the world around them. Between her unwavering tenacity and her insistence that it’s not too late to preserve our environment, it’s not hard to see how Singer as a key player in the continuing creation of an environmentally conscientious New York, who is leading by example.
All of Singer’s trash from the past three years can fit into a mason jar. Unlike the sundry things that most of us toss away, her waste consists simply of clothing-tag ties, produce stickers, and other plastics not recyclable by New York City’s recycling infrastructure. Singer’s ability to create so little trash, when on average Americans produce 4.4 pounds of trash per day, is owed to her zero waste lifestyle, which she documents in her blog, Trash is for Tossers. Like the name suggests, the zero waste lifestyle requires the individual to live sustainable, which for Singer, means buying secondhand and repairing any tears and rips; going strawless when ordering drinks; opting for reusable bags and bottles instead of single-use plastics; buying in bulk at farmers markets; making her own products; composting and recycling, and eradicating the use of plastic in everyday life.
Cheap, convenient, and disposable plastic products have transformed the way we live. Every facet of our lives from our morning routines to an evening out with friends incorporates this indestructible material that’s designed to live forever but only used once, potentially making it one of the greatest hiccups implemented into everyday living. The impact of this blunder has already been felt in the world’s oceans with floating garbage patches circulating the Pacific before washing up on the shorelines of beaches and remote islands, if not already ingested by marine life. The overconsumption of this material costs $13 billion a year in damages to marine ecosystems, based on two reports issued at the inaugural meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly back in 2014. The reports would lead to the banning of microbeads, tiny polymer micro-plastics in toothpaste, gels, and facial and body cleansers, with the Microbead–Free Waters Act of 2015. And yet, our continuous pumping and improper disposal of plastic products and plastic packaging could lead to plastics outweighing the number of fish in the world’s ocean by 2050.
“We’re going to be the plastic era,” Singer, whose previous job was the Sustainability Energy Manager at New York City Department for Environmental Protection. “You know when you drill down in ice and see the layers of time? Our layer is going to be plastic.” She referencing the discovery by researchers at Dartmouth College who found high concentrations of micro-plastics in Arctic Sea ice core samples collected in 2005 and 2010. “A hundred years ago, people were not using it. We did it before, we can live without it.”
Though Singer acknowledges that plastic does serve a role in some industries, like when it comes to creating artificial organs, she insists that by choosing convenience over practicality, consumers lose their power by entrusting companies who profit off their indolence.
“I was your stereotypical activist against the oil and gas industry [during college]. I was doing the activist thing but I noticed that especially for me, a lot of my action was all talk. I really cared about the environment and about sustainability. I was talking about, writing about, and studying about it but I wasn’t actually incorporating any of those feelings in my day-to-day life. So I felt very hypocritical. All this was brought to my attention by a girl in my [environmental studies] class.”
When Singer was a senior at NYU, she had a class with a fellow environmental studies major who would routinely bring dinner in a plastic bag, with a plastic drink, plastic utensils, and a bag of chips, and throw everything in the trash at the end, which frustrated Singer, who then started dissecting her own wasteful practices.
“I’ve been supporting all of these industries and policies that I hated, and I was learning how to fix, I was supporting them doing things like using plastic, buying genetically modified food. Doing all of these things everyday, so even though I hated these industries, I was still giving them my money. Therefore, giving them my power,” Singer said. “That’s when I decided to stop judging what corporations were doing and what other people were doing, and just focused on what I was doing. I realized that I could start chipping away those connections by supporting people who I believed in.”
Singer would go on to make the switch to the zero waste lifestyle and start her blog Trash is for Tossers after reading about the family in California who are credited with starting the zero waste movement.
In her blog, she provides practical and simple tips and recipes to ease those into the transition, like a homemade toothpaste recipe that takes 30 seconds to make and only uses three basic ingredients. The outcome: sustainable toothpaste without the non-recyclable tubing or the list of chemicals and other ingredients that the consumer isn’t aware of. Or advising readers to switch their plastic toothbrushes to bamboo compostable alternatives or using a menstrual cup over tampons with the plastic applicator and non-organic tampons since “conventional cotton is pesticide laden and I don’t want plastic in my life, especially near my…”, she writes in her blog.
She also provides a laundry detergent alternative, which she sells as a part of her cleaning line that minimizes the 45 ingredients found in leading detergent brands down to three safe ingredients.
“I had my blog at the same time I was running the running sustainability program and was getting emails from people saying that they really like the products I was making but that I clearly didn’t have a life because I have time to make products. That’s definitely not true,” Singer said. “‘But they were like, ‘what can I use instead or buy that’s the cleanest product that I can make myself.’ So I started going to stores and looking at what was being sold in the natural food stores. I actually did find that there’s some skin care companies that are doing a really good job at doing some super natural stuff and a lot of them are based in Brooklyn, but I didn’t find the same thing for cleaning products.
Companies, specifically in the cleaning product industry, are not legally required to disclose their list of ingredients on their packaging for proprietary reasons. So the vagueness of “fragrance” on the label can be anything of “2,000 different chemicals.”
Singer’s solution to all the secrecy is to visit Environmental Working Groups who list the ingredients and scores the product on a low to high hazard scale. Or, you could just make the products yourself, which in most cases end up costing much less money since a lot of the ingredients carry over to other products.
“I live a zero waste lifestyle because it aligns with what I believe in and what I want to do. Not everyone has to live this lifestyle. I believe that everyone though can reduce the amount of trash they are producing, that we can all take tiny little steps towards making less trash. It’s not hard. It’s not inconvenient; it’s just making tiny little changes,” she said. “So anyone, regardless of who they are, where they live, how much they make or how busy they are can do tiny little things. Even if it’s saying no to a plastic straw at a bar or using a reusable bag, two simple things that really do make a really big difference. You don’t have to change who you are to lower your impact.”
Follow Trash Is for Tossers to learn more about living a zero waste lifestyle.
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