The only time I really think about how much trash I produce is when I clean out my car. When the shame builds up enough after commuting for a month, I make the regular trip to throw away the old, moldy food containers and vacuum up the french fries left behind.
I like to think I'm a pretty good friend to the environment. I recycle, I compost, I avoid using chemicals as much as possible and I eat a mostly plant-based diet. But everything I do to keep myself from thinking about those videos of drowning polar bears on melting ice caps is thrown out the window during this monthly trip to the car wash.
Throwing out the old plastic water bottles, shopping bags and a dozen hummus containers is an unfriendly reminder of how much money I spend on processed food and other plastic-covered products I don't need, plus how much trash I'm putting into the landfill each week.
Finally, I made an attempt at doing something about it. I spent one week taking the zero-waste challenge, attempting to generate as little trash as possible. That meant no coffee cups, no pre-packaged snacks, no take-out: This was going to be difficult.
For the past couple of months I've been talking with financial advisers and other experts to try to get a better handle on my finances. So far, I've mostly challenged myself to stick to a tighter budget and cut down on needless spending.
But for this challenge, I knew I'd be spending money, and there was definitely an up-front investment. I prepared by buying reusable produce bags and extra glass containers, and I knew I might spend a little more trying to only buy whole foods.
There were times I questioned the extra money I was spending to rid my week of plastic and Styrofoam. But, I also try to make use of the power I have as a consumer. What we spend our money on can shape what products are out there, and maybe even how toxic they are. As I'm writing this, scenes from "Mad Max: Fury Road" play through my head; maybe I'm being overly optimistic.
But, studies show more 20- and 30-somethings prefer to buy environmentally-conscious products than generations before us. And companies are taking notice. Just this year, Starbucks, McDonald's and Disney announced they were banning plastic straws, in an effort to save the world's beaches from thousands of tons of plastic.
The recent news made my week-long challenge a little more meaningful. But it didn't make it any easier.
I'll admit I gave myself a bit of a cheat and attempted to go waste-free during a week I was mostly off work. That meant I wasn't nearly as tempted to go for my daily coffee run or get take-out for lunch, both of which make up the bulk of the trash left in my car on a regular basis.
I started in the kitchen, where I generate the most trash each day. My head starting spinning as I thought about all of the chocolate and packaged food I couldn't buy. But with reusable bags in hand, I went out to the farmers market where I knew I'd be less tempted by processed foods.
And I stuck to the produce and bulk sections at the grocery store, escaping with the items to make enough variations of stir fry to make it through the week. As I went through the produce, I pulled off stickers to keep in my small trash bag for the week. The rest went in the compost bin, which was about three times as full as usual by the end.
But being off work, I had a lot of plans to go out. And I didn't realize my week would also include making a lot of requests of other people. I had to ask waiters to not put a straw in my drink or give me paper napkins. I got eye rolls and weird looks, and every request pushed me out of my comfort zone.
It was the fourth day when I broke. I had been out running errands all day and my energy was running low. I grabbed a chocolate protein drink and a bag of chips, which I greedily ate in my car like a raccoon rejoicing over dumpster trash.
But the hardest part of my week wasn't about food. It was about breaking habits. I lost track of how many times I reached for a paper towel or plastic fork. I stopped myself from throwing out an empty soap bottle, and decided to refill it with homemade shampoo.
There were times I failed, and ordered to-go coffee despite forgetting my reusable cup. But the act of simply taking a step back and thinking about what I was buying and where it'd end up was oddly comforting.
The week took constant planning and thought. But it wasn't impossible. I spent more to get started, but ended up saving money by not buying processed food and paper products. And by the last day, I felt that I had put my money to better use, rather than throwing it in the landfill.
Here's what I ended up with: one paper coffee cup and lid, two receipts, a drink bottle, a plastic chip bag, produce stickers, a few post-it notes and some wax paper.