April’s Trash Jar Challenge

In April, I decided to embark on a Trash Jar Challenge to make my landfill-destined rubbish more visible. After all, the stuff I put in the bin doesn’t ever disappear, it’s just out of sight, thrown ‘away’. I took the Beginner’s route: not including anything we would usually put in our food waste or recycling bins, just the black bag landfill stuff. Two months later, and I suppose I’ve been putting off writing about it because it seems a little bit frivolous. Even though it made me aware of a number of areas where I was producing the most rubbish (kitchen roll!), and I am slowly making changes and doing research into the products which would reduce our lives’ landfill impact, I haven’t made as many changes as I know I need to. But, doing the Trash Jar Challenge in the first place was part of a huge shift away from plastic consumption and looking for eco solutions.

I’ve been taking slow and steady baby steps towards reducing our household’s ecological footprint. This change began during a hypothetical conversation with my partner, Adam, about our eco house dream and investigating water re-use tanks we might be able to install: water is used four times over. I suddenly realized that this would not be possible because we had so many chemicals in our house going down the plughole that I wouldn’t be happy reusing or that would kill the plants in our imaginary vegetable garden. As well as that, the horrible images that have finally emerged in the mainstream press of seagulls full of ingested plastic and news of the ecological horror being inflicted on the oceans have also impacted this need to change. While I doubt we will ever get to a very low footprint through small choices alone, baby steps like changing our individual consumption habits are still important. I can get myself into a dark place if I think too much about the larger impact we are having on the grand scheme of things (changing our washing up liquid won’t reverse ecological destruction!), but if I can avoid dumping chemicals back down the plughole, I will try my best.

One place where we haven’t taken any baby steps is our rubbish. I’m still troubled by how much rubbish we throw out every week and how much plastic we have in our lives. It passes through our ownership for a few days, covering some spring greens I’m going to wash anyway, and then it’s straight in the bin. So, here’s the diary I kept during that week in April.

Day One: This is as I expected: mostly food packaging and one piece of kitchen roll I used to wipe the surfaces. Why didn’t I just use a tea towel I could wash and re-use? I don’t feel too bad today – I’m using up the last of the food in our fridge so the packaging use is probably higher than it will be most days. Also, a make up removal wipe and a piece of cotton wool. Can cotton wool be recycled? Could I revamp my make up removal process so I’m not producing a daily bit of rubbish?

 The Trash Jar: Day One
The Trash Jar: Day One

Day Two: Food shopping delivery day. I was dreading the sight of my jar after decanting things like rice and oats into our cupboard’s containers. It is much worse than I expected, especially as I decide to clear out the cupboards of packaging remnants. Unless I push the trash down in the jar, it takes up the entire space. And this is a BIG mason jar. This is how much is going into landfill after two days, just from my house where we try to be as ‘eco’ as we can. It’s not enough to take the easy route – we have to make better choices. Maybe we could shop at bulk stores for things like grains, using my own cotton bags and buying fresh from local markets, which would at least avoid this household production of plastic. Unfortunately, the nearest bulk store to us is over half an hour’s walk each way, so would exhaust me especially when I’m walking home with a few kilos. It is also expensive. We could probably visit a local market every Sunday to get our fresh produce, but I suppose I’ve always been putting the convenience of buying everything at once before that (we used to drive to a supermarket but it exhausted both of us to have to do that and we went horribly over budget every single time). And I do worry about the cost of that kind of shopping, too. How much easier it would be if convenience and affordability could be combined with sustainable choices. Again, I ask the question that isn’t new to anyone: why are supermarkets putting all their vegetables and grains into these single use plastic bags? A change at that level would make a huge impact to the majority of people’s landfill contributions. I am feeling panicked looking at mine in my trash jar, and actually quite ashamed that this isn’t out of the ordinary. I know I should post a photo on Instagram later to keep track of the challenge, and I’m wondering whether I could get something heavy to weigh the plastic down – ridiculously, I’m trying to perform and pretend it’s not as bad as it is. For who?

Day Three: All that was added to the trash jar was a plastic yoghurt lid.

 The Trash Jar: Day Three
The Trash Jar: Day Three

Day Four: More food packaging and a make-up wipe. It’s the weekend so I forget to post photos of Instagram, and no longer feel very excited to do so. I’m a little bit ashamed of my trash jar. The jump between day two and day four is a lot. This whole challenge has been a lot.

Day Five: The jar is completely stuffed full with a compressed plastic monster. Will the jar explode when I open it next time and spring out, jack in the box style?

Day Six: Trash Jar is sitting on the windowsill opposite my work desk. Layers of clear and colourful packaging – it almost reminds me of those sand decorations you buy from the seaside or an educational diagram about the layers of rocks. I wonder about all the layers of trash from our lives and how they build up to form consumption archaeology, endless layers of stuff. Some important and memorable, like a broken plastic toy that was used for years. But most of it mindless and stupidly irresponsible, like all this food packaging that sits in my jar. I dyed my hair today and will make a special effort to rinse out of all the plastic and recycle the bits I can, rather than think ‘oh I can’t be bothered’ and shoving it all in the bin so it will go ‘away’. This way, I only end up with a few odds and ends and a plastic glove packet. Trash Jar cannot take much more. Trash Jar has become a little monstrous creature.

 The Trash Jar: Day Six
The Trash Jar: Day Six

Day Seven: I hide the Trash Jar from sight and don’t take a photo of it. I thought I would have done a little bit better than this.

It’s June now and the Trash Jar is still sitting, full up, on my windowsill. I haven’t had the heart to empty all that rubbish into a black bag and send it ‘away’, even though I’ve produced this amount of trash many times over in the week since I finished this challenge. But this has to stop. As time goes by, the urgency of ditching plastic (even the recyclable stuff) grows and grows. We hope we will be moving house in a few months and that’s when we have a chance to make a lot of big changes all at once and form new habits in a new space.

 The Trash Jar in June: Still full up of trash, struggling to close a little bit, and yet I can't bring myself to empty it into the bin.
The Trash Jar in June: Still full up of trash, struggling to close a little bit, and yet I can’t bring myself to empty it into the bin.

Conclusions and changes

Reducing the amount of food packaging in my life would be the biggest change I could make to reduce Trash Jar’s contents. How can I go about manifesting that change?

1)      Changing our food shopping habits – fewer food deliveries and fewer supermarket visits. Bulk food stores would be an ideal way for me to get things like rice, barley, and so on. Although this wouldn’t be a totally ‘zero waste’ solution as the foods are inevitably shipped in plastic before they reach the stores, it’s still a way to try and reduce that black bag impact of empty packaging. The same goes for buying vegetables – avoid any wrapped in plastic. We hope to also start growing some of our own food, too. This will take effort and planning, but it will be fine and it will make such a difference. That has to be the priority.

2)      Avoid buying snacks while out because they all seem to have plastic on them. Make snacks at home and carry them with you, just in case. Take your own water with you in a stainless steel water bottle. Take a KeepCup with you for takeaway coffees, even if the coffee place you’re visiting has compostable cups.

3)      Stop using kitchen roll and get some reusable kitchen cloths that can biodegrade easily. Replace make up wipes with the same kind of thing, or use cotton flannels and nice-to-the-earth cream or oil cleansers.

4)      Tote bags! With you! All the time!

It’s too much for me to attempt a zero waste lifestyle because my mind boggles at the globally interconnected networks of capitalist production and consumption. There is a part of me which thinks ‘what’s the point?’ as a result of that kind of critical thinking. But I have to try a little bit and do the best I can. I think that’s all any of us can do. It’s too much to expect purity and perfection from ourselves. I also recognize the privileged position I’m in to be able to change my consumption habits in the first place: plant based cleaning products are not cheap. Choosing to buy from bulk food stores or health food stores is not an option for people in food deserts where fresh produce is difficult to source. But, even while doing this challenge, I began to avoid using one time options that would end up in the trash jar – instead of using kitchen roll to clean surfaces, I used cloths that could be washed at the end of the week and reused. This was a simple and obvious switch.

I plan to do this again in the future. The trash jar next time won’t be a compressed plastic monster of food packaging bursting to get out next time – I will commit to that.

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