In 2012, Lauren Singer, then an environmental studies major at NYU, began documenting her journey towards a "zero-waste" lifestyle on her blog, Trash Is For Tossers. Part of her master plan: keeping track of every tiny bit of trash she accumulated in a single mason jar as way to keep track of her garbage footprint. "I was a die-hard activist," Lauren said. "I had been telling people how to live sustainably, but I wasn't living in a way that aligned with what I cared about. I felt like a hypocrite, so I decided to stop using plastic."
Over five years later, Lauren is still packing that same mason jar with clothing tags, produce stickers, plastic straws, and other non-recyclable, non-compostable items. She's also founded the Package Free Shop in Brooklyn, New York (with an equally robust online store), that provides sustainable alternatives to household items.
Lauren spoke with Cosmopolitan.com to share her best "zero trash" tips, from wearing sustainable makeup to having a waste-free period.
On Buying Food:
Buying food in bulk allows you to purchase food completely package- and plastic-free, which reduces your waste. Not to mention, it's cheaper: when you buy things in bulk, you’re not paying for the price of individual packaging.
Most communities have some kind of co-ops, where you can get a significant discount by volunteering. If your community doesn't have a co-op or natural food store, find an international food market – they often sell food in bulk. Algerian markets are particularly amazing for staple bulk foods.
I’m not vegan, but I make sure to eat local, sustainable food, and I try really hard to know exactly where it comes from. That’s why I think farmers' markets are also a great place to get my food from – I can talk to the farmers and get better acquainted with their business practices.
Beyond eliminating waste, when you eliminate packaging as a parameter of your consumption, you eat better. Packaged food is often processed and has preservatives to ensure it has a long shelf life – since eliminating packaged food, I’ve lost weight and I have more energy.
Read more about Lauren's zero-waste guide to purchasing food here.
On Eating Out:
I generally try to avoid buying takeout. It's really expensive, and it involves so much waste. I try to plan meals ahead of time and make sure my fridge is properly stocked.
If I do want to eat out, I'll go to a restaurant and actually sit down to eat. I can’t change that restaurant, but I can control my choice thereof. I make sure the restaurants I patronize reflect my values, and have an sustainable, ethical ethos.
I also make sure to bring my own containers and reusable straws from home with me in case I want to grab food or a drink. While attending NYU, [my local coffee shop] gave a discount if you brought your own cup – your local coffee shop or restaurant might do the same.
When I was researching ways to transition away from plastic, one of the first pieces of information I found was how to replace store-bought toothpaste. I began testing recipes and eventually settled on one that takes 30 seconds to make – and it's a lot cheaper to make than purchasing toothpaste from the store.
I mix coconut oil, baking soda, and peppermint essential oil together (and I purchase all of those ingredients in compostable packaging or bulk). The recipe lasts me up to a year.
I'm frequently asked about replacing toilet paper for a more sustainable option. Toilet paper biodegrades and breaks down in the waste-water treatment process, so I’m less concerned about it. I just make sure I buy paper-wrapped toilet paper that comes in a cardboard box. There are also products like Tushy, which is basically an affordable bidet that you can use in place of toilet paper.
Read more about Lauren's zero-waste swaps for toiletries here.
On Beauty and Makeup:
My biggest obstacle to zero-waste lifestyle was actually beauty products – everything is packaged in plastic. So I try not to wear makeup unless I’m going out or doing something on camera, but when I do, I use Vapour Organic Beauty foundation, which comes in totally recyclable packaging – the box is compostable and the pump is recyclable. The product itself is organic and not tested on animals.
I also use blush from Kjaer Weis, which is a refillable makeup brand. It's a more expensive buy upfront because you're buying not only the blush, but also the pallet. When I’ve finished with the blush, though, I recycle its metal casing and refill the pallet with a new blush, which comes in a little paper box you can compost.
Lastly, I used lip balm we sell at Package Free Shop on my lips, cheekbones, brow bones, and the inner corners of my eyes as a highlighter. It comes in a compostable tube.
On Clothes Shopping:
I love going to secondhand stores – they save me thousands of dollars. For a good pair of jeans at a regular retailer, you’ll pay as much as $150 to $200. I can get the same pair of jeans secondhand for less than $20. You should also figure out your budget before you shop. I often go to the store with items to resell, so if I get back $50 from what I resell, that'll serve as my budget. That way, I'll be more mindful of my purchases.
Vintage and thrift shopping can be very overwhelming because there's often a lot of people, loud music, and large amounts of products to sift through. So go in with a plan. And bringing an honest friend who's a seasoned secondhand shopper can also help you make smart purchases. My suggestion is to identify gaps in your wardrobe. Create a list on your phone of items you want and mark them with an X every time they cross your mind – that way, you can prioritize.
Also keep in mind traps – items that you always buy but never end up wearing. For me, that's stripes. I have a fantasy of me looking like a cute French sailor, so I always buy stripe shirts, but they never look cute on me, and I always end up reselling them. I also want to make sure everything I buy can be worn with multiple outfits, so I won’t buy things that are really graphic or have a lot of color. I stick to denim, black, beige, gray, and hunter green materials that are easy-wash and air-dry.
And if secondhand shopping intimidates you, online shops like Poshmark make it much more approachable. Because you buy directly from the seller, you can let them know that you want them to send your items in a 100 percent paper envelope without tissues or wrapping.
Read more of Lauren's secondhand shopping tips here.
On Apartment Decorating:
I practice minimalism for sustainability purposes as well as for keeping my home decluttered. But there was nothing minimalist about the way I grew up – my mom's from the South, where there's a tradition of keeping the home big and full. We moved around a lot, so my mom would hold on to her staples when we moved, but often end up having a massive garage sale to sell everything else. She'd then buy replacements for our new home secondhand because it was affordable.
I feel like there’s no need to buy new furniture or household items. I found so much stuff for my apartment on CraigsList. And if I do want to buy furniture, I try to save up to purchase something that’s sustainably handmade.
On Cleaning Supplies:
The cleaning product industry has very little regulation. It's really toxic. My suggestion for eliminating toxins in your cleaning routine and reducing waste is to simply make all of your products yourself – and that's not as daunting as it seems. I use basically three items to clean my entire home. I put white vinegar in a spray bottle with about 20 drops of citrus essential oils, like grape fruit or lime, to mask the vinegar smell. I use that to clean my glass, counters, and steel surfaces. I use an old toothbrush and baking soda to clean tiles in my shower, the base of my skin, my faucet, etc. And then I use Castile soap to clean everything else. For instance, I'll pour Castile soap in my toilet and use a wooden toilet brush to clean it.
I'm also the founder of The Simply Co., which sells a three-ingredient organic, vegan laundry detergent in sustainable packaging. I find that if you're diligent about cleaning regularly, you generally won't need any of the intense bleach and cleaning supplies. Those three items are a cheap and easy way to keep your home clean.
Read more about Lauren's three-ingredient non-toxic home cleaner here.
On sex and periods:
You can purchase condoms from sustainable brands that remove chemicals like nitrosamines, and use natural lubricants and rubber – we carry Sustain Natural Condoms at Package Free.
For periods, there's the Lunette silicone menstrual cup, which is my favorite alternative to disposable tampons. The cups are about $40 and they last up to 10 years. The cup itself, which is made of silicone, will biodegrade naturally when burned, and the packaging it comes in is completely compostable. For those who don’t want to insert a cup, washable pads are also a really great option.
So many technology purchases are made out of impulse – ask yourself whether you actually need that item. If you're looking to replace something that's broken, see if you can get it fixed instead. If you it turns out you do need to make a purchase, see if you can get it secondhand and recycle the item you're replacing. You can often make money by selling parts from the item you're recycling too; a lot of stores, including Apple, have take-back programs for your old phones, tablets, and other tech items.
On Spreading the Message:
Nobody wants to be told that the way they’re living is wrong or harmful. I've found that through focusing on myself and my waste output, I’ve enticed more people to participate in sustainability, as opposed to when I was just yelling at them.
I didn’t go into [zero-waste living] like, Oh my god, this going to be so hard, I can’t believe I have to do this. I was thinking that I wouldn't have to use shitty products anymore; that I could avoid toxic chemicals and better the environment. Sure, it’s really time-intensive to do all the research, but I love being informed before I make choices. I fuel myself through my little successes and really enjoy the fact that I'm living by my values. And I’m excited about how much bigger the sustainable lifestyle movement is getting. I really feel like the more people get involved, the more we'll drive innovation in zero-waste alternatives and products.