My 30-Day Jar Challenge
Updated: May 8, 2019
Let me preface this by saying you do not have to fit all of your trash into a jar in order to be zero-waste. Getting caught up fussing over who has a smaller jar of waste and obsessing over perfection is how zero-waste can become intimidating and personally unsustainable. You may want to track your trash in a jar, or maybe not track it at all, it's totally up to you!
Zero-waste, at first, can seem very intimidating and unattainable. When I first embarked on this endeavor, just about everyone in my life thought I'd gone overboard and felt, as I once did, that it was impossible. My aunt was one of those people... but she was intrigued and wanted to know more. After a while, she invited me to come to the elementary school where she teaches to give a presentation about zero-waste living and the environment. Upon agreeing, I decided to give it my all for 30 days and set a goal to fit all of my waste for one month into a jar. In my case, the jar is a tool, something tangible to show my audience what is possible.
I do not generally track my trash, aside from a month here and there to see where I've progressed and where I could improve. Alex and I produce far more than a jar's worth of trash each month now that we have our own place, but still significantly less than the average person: the average person creates approximately 4lbs of trash per day; we create about 3-4lbs of trash in one month. I was shocked, to be honest; I set a realistic goal of one full bag a month and in the first month, we surpassed that goal with a mere half-bag of trash.
At the time of this challenge, I was still living with my grandparents and staying at Alex's on weekends. Neither of our families are really on board with zero-waste, but luckily my grandparents were cool with composting and both houses do basic recycling - two huge components without which I don't think I could achieve much in terms of reducing waste.
As I did not have the authority in either home to make purchasing and household decisions, I had to set certain exceptions in order to reach my goal. Basically, if I knew that a reusable or zero-waste alternative existed for something, I would just use what was provided and not count it toward my waste. For example, I would use whatever toilet paper our families bought, but knew full well that I would purchase toilet paper made from recycled paper for my own home. I did my own food shopping at my grandparents', and the only food I would eat at Alex's house would be things I knew I could find sustainably packaged or unpackaged if I were making that purchasing decision. Recyclable and compostable items were not counted as waste.
CHOICES & TEMPTATION
This challenge was not without sacrifice and willpower, but it wasn't necessarily difficult either. I had made many changes and switches prior to this challenge that were really easy, but once I told myself that I wasn't allowed things (not just that I wouldn't buy them), they suddenly seemed much more tempting! For instance, I suddenly became intensely aware of and tempted by the individually-wrapped goodies that other people bought.
At home, I was constantly hit with temptation to make a grilled cheese with the individually wrapped Velveeta slices grandma kept in the house. At Alex's, I was taunted by single-portioned Entenmann's crumb cakes. At my aunt's, I heard the kids' junk food and candy calling my name. It was a true test of my willpower. I had to constantly reminding myself that these things were not only bad for the environment, but also bad for my health.
When eating out during this challenge, I selected restaurants that served on real plates with real cutlery and cloth napkins. When I stopped for coffee, I used my own mug. There was one instance in which I unexpectedly was given a disposable item at a restaurant this month, a disposable plastic ramekin. I wiped it clean and brought it home, and as it was made of #5 plastic, I dropped it in the Preserve collection box at my local Whole Foods Market.
WHAT'S IN MY JAR?
When I started this challenge with a small 15oz Tostito's dip jar, I thought for sure it was just a starter jar and that I would have to upgrade to a larger one halfway through the month. I ended up actually sticking to that small jar, surprising even myself! So what exactly was in my jar?
Kind bar wrapper
Planters nut mix wrapper
Lindt Truffle wrapper
Hershey kiss tag-things
Stickers from new clothes, produce, etc.
Wrappers from glass jars & bottles
Pill blister-pack packaging
Plastic film from a few recyclable plastic meat trays
Plastic cheese wrapper
Empty tea bag (the contents were composted)
Wipes from the gym (to clean the machines)
Broken zipper pull
This challenge made me even more aware of my waste than I had been before it. It highlighted areas in which I could do better (like shopping), but also made me feel amazing about how far I'd come. This would not have been possible had I not formed so many habits over time that made it much easier.
My biggest advice to anyone wishing to reduce their waste is to take it slow. Just take on one change at a time, and then, no matter how busy or crazy life may be, you will form new habits that just become second-nature. Remember, you do not have to go the extreme - any effort is better than no effort! Do what you can. If you can cut your family's waste down by one bag of trash per week, excellent! If you can manage to bring your household trash down to one bag per week, fantastic! If you really want to be ambitious and do the jar-thing, go for it! If there's a change you think you and your family can fit into your current lifestyle, set a goal and give it a go!
What changes do you think you and your family can make in an effort to reduce waste?