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Is It Possible To Live Trash-free?

The planet is in peril, and plastics are a major problem. Now there’s an entire movement dedicated to changing our habits before it’s too late. But how much good can an individual really do? Marie Claire investigates.

Cady Drell

There’s a scene in The Graduate when Mr. McGuire tells Benjamin, “I want to say one word to you…plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.” I’ve been thinking about that line a lot lately because even though the film came out in 1967 and much about it doesn’t exactly hold up in 2019, nearly all of the plastics made that year (and, in fact, since 1950) are still hanging out in landfills. They’ll potentially be there for another several hundred years. Plastic was supposed to make our lives easier, but now it’s clogging our oceans (one study says that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the water than fish) and littering our streets and parks. The production of it is increasing carbon emissions by the ratio of about one ounce of CO 2 to one ounce of plastic. Annually, emissions from plastic production alone can equal close to half of the emissions generated by the approximately 200 million licensed drivers in the U.S. You can try to recycle it, but 91 percent of all plastics aren’t recycled, instead of getting either trashed or incinerated, according to a 2016 study. And, perhaps because they’re made from fossil fuels, they receive huge government subsidies, which might explain why plastic production is expected to account for 20 percent of global oil consumption by 2050. Plastic bags have even been found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, the deepest point on Earth. More than literature or language or art, it seems that the human race’s legacy will be plastic—and it’ll carry on long after we’re gone.

The timing of all of this isn’t great for the U.S. in particular, since we have one of the biggest carbon footprints per capita of any nation, rivaling those of India and China, those oft-blamed carbon boogeymen. A 2018 U.N. report gave the planet’s inhabitants a little over a decade to decrease our carbon emissions before the catastrophic effects of climate change will become irreversible. While the report seems to have created an uptick in concern for the environment (Democratic voters now say climate change is one of their top concerns for the future), the Trump administration doesn’t seem to care: It announced plans to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord, it’s rolling back protections on national parks to open them up for drilling, and it even struck the phrase “climate change” from several federal websites.

Plastic is just the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg that is our climate-change problem, with deforestation, coal and gas burning, and wides calefactory farming adding to the buffet of horrors. But tackling our reliance on plastic could be a way to gain some individual control at a time when expecting the government to provide guidance seems like a nonstarter.

Enter the zero-waste lifestyle movement, which is steadily gaining momentum. Though it’s not new—the 2009 documentary No Impact Man followed writer Colin Beavan in his attempt to give up practically all electricity and forgo single-use plastics for a year—it’s now attracting a new wave of acolytes who tout the benefits of their lifestyle on Instagram.

Its goal is straightforward: reduce the items in your life so you can either reuse or compost everything without creating excess trash. Most of this is accomplished by toting reusable containers, buying clothing secondhand, growing a garden and buying food in bulk, avoiding unnecessary purchases or ones that come with excess packaging (especially if it’s plastic), and using leftover organic waste for gardening. Some of the best-known practitioners don’t even count recycling as zero waste because it’s not always clear where those plastics are going (and the countries we used to send our plastics to, like China and Malaysia, are increasingly turning them away). Perhaps you’ve seen stories about people who can fit all of their trash for a year into a single mason jar? That’s zero waste in its purest, most visually pleasing form. And some of the stars of the movement—like Lauren Singer, of the Instagram account @trashisfortossers, and Bea Johnson, the author of Zero Waste Home—have garnered hundreds of thousands of social media followers, all seeking to learn from their chic, clean, environmentally friendly lifestyle.

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August 2019