Ibet a lot of you have heard of Lauren Singer by now, or perhaps you know her as the young New Yorker who can fit all of the trash she has produced over the last two years in a mason jar. I’ve been eagerly following her and her site, Trash is for Tossers, over the last months as Miss Singer has taken the webosphere by storm.
Lauren’s obsession with trash, or rather the lack thereof, started while studying environmental studies and has become, not only her lifestyle, but her full time occupation. Apart from her work with Trash is for Tossers, she is also the CEO of her newly founded, The Simply Co., a non toxic, sustainable cleaning products company that just experienced immense success with Kickstarter, raising over four times their goal.
I was lucky to be put in touch with this busy revolutionary via a common friend, and we had a great Skype talk. While I had decided to play devil’s advocate and ask some critical questions, Singer was no easy nut to crack and served one well considered and articulated response after the next. Here it goes:Lauren Singer with her Mason Jar of trash from the last two years. Photo by Sonja Georgevich.
I have discussed you and your work with several friends here in Berlin, and while everyone is admiring and celebrating what you do, there are always the skeptics. Many are full of questions and wonder how you deal with various daily scenarios, time constraints, availability of certain products and so on.
Some might say that living a trash-free lifestyle is easy for you, being a young, unattached woman, living in a metropolis like New York — and especially since this lifestyle has now become your job — as opposed to someone who is living outside of a city, with kids and a demanding job. What is your response to that?
I started living like this when I was in college and also had a full-time job and a full-time relationship, so I was definitely busy when I committed to this lifestyle. On the contrary I found that I saved a lot of time when I started living this way, because it forced me to plan everything better. Using my time more wisely, I realized how much time I had been wasting before. Planning my meals and my grocery lists gave me more time. It’s also a matter of priorities. Instead of taking two hours out of the day to watch TV, I’ll get some exercise or go to the farmers market.
Once I graduated, I had a full time job and was out of the house between 7am and 9pm every day, but I managed to keep up the lifestyle because I made sure I was prepared. I knew I would be in the office all day, so I would always prepare all my snacks and lunches. This would not just save the time it takes to walk out of the office and grab food, it also made me eat healthier because I didn’t opt for trashy fast-food, and on top of that, it saved me lots of money. When you get food to go, you easily spend at least $8 to $15. Now I can buy almost a week’s worth of food at the farmer’s market for that.
So while many may think that not producing trash is time consuming and expensive, I find it to be the opposite.
While many may think that not producing trash is time consuming and expensive, I find it to be the opposite.
It’s a very interesting point. Food often becomes and issue or class and status. The biggest argument against making healthy food choices seems to be that it gets a lot more expensive as opposed to lesser quality, processed foods.
But when you eat processed food, it’s not real food. Your body doesn’t get the nutrients that it needs when you only eat empty calories. That way you’ll end up eating more food, more frequently, resulting in a higher food budget.
Where are some good places to start for someone who would like to get on the path to producing less trash?
The best place to start is by looking through your garbage to examine where the trash is coming from. You can’t start solving the problem of trash until you know what is causing it. For me, most of my trash consisted of food packaging, product packaging and food waste. To deal with it, I learned how to compost, and by that I eliminated my food waste. I started shopping all of my groceries in bulk or packaging free at the farmer’s market, and that way eliminated my food packaging. Lastly, I learned to make my own body and cleaning products and through that eliminated most of my product packaging waste. By doing these three things, I eliminated essentially all of the trash I made.
The second thing I suggest is picking up the low hanging fruit, so doing little, one-time changes, such as getting reusable cloth bags instead of using disposable plastic or paper bags. Also, bringing a refillable bottle with you instead of buying water in plastic bottles, keeping a reusable coffee mug in your bag instead of getting take-away cups, and packing your lunch instead of buying take-away. All these things are easy to do and make a difference.
I also really recommend learning to make some of your own products, such as your own toothpaste and deodorant. I started a Youtube channel because a lot of people would argue that they didn’t have time. I would argue against, but now I can show them with my video that you can make toothpaste in under a minute, which is a lot quicker than going to the store, getting it and coming back.
You can’t start solving the problem of trash until you know what is causing it.
Lauren Singer’s trash from the last two years. Photo by Erwin Caluya.
I know a couple of naysayers who whenever I try to encourage reusable options, such as taking cloth bags to the store, will tell me that “it doesn’t matter what they do, because one person can’t make a difference”. You are definitely proof that this is far from the truth. What do you have to say to people with that kind of attitude?
I have the complete opposite attitude! I’ve experienced the same thing though. When I studied environmental studies, I would go home to my mom and lecture her. “Mom, you can’t drink non organic apple juice” or “you have to stop eating red meat” or something like that. This would only make her combat me on purpose to spite me, because no one likes being told what to do. I realized that the only person I can control is myself, so if I live my own life in a way that align with how I want to see the world, then I am doing enough. By consistently living this way and writing about it, some people have started doing things differently. People can change, you just can’t make them, but you can show them that it’s possible.
You also believe that every little thing makes a difference, down to the straw that is used in your drinks. When you go to a bar, you ask for your drinks without a straw. Isn’t that a bit extreme?
No I don’t think it’s extreme at all. Besides, I don’t particularly like straws. It’s just like asking for no limes in your drink, if you don’t like lime. As a paying customer, you deserve to get things the way you want them.
A lot of people have been responding very positively and it often sparks conversations. When I say that I don’t want a straw or a coaster because I am trying to reduce the amount of trash I’m producing, bartenders will think it is really awesome, and will tell me how much they hate straws as well. It turns out that most people are really on board with this, and when they try it out, they discover that it’s actually really easy to make some changes.
I realized that the only person I can control is myself, so if I live my own life in a way that align with how I want to see the world, then I am doing enough.
You recommend some good everyday products on your website to replace more wasteful ones. What are the top products to start with?
One of the easiest switches would be to start using reusable wash cloths instead of paper towels in your kitchen. Secondly, using wooden dish brushes that can go in the compost instead of plastic sponges. I’ve mentioned it before, saying no to plastic and carrying a reusable water bottle, saves so much trash. Toothbrushes are also a big thing. Using compostable bamboo toothbrushes instead of plastic ones that go straight to the landfill. It may seem like a small thing, but we’re supposed to change our toothbrushes every two to three months, so in the end, it accounts for a lot.
You cover a lot of ground on your site, and sometimes you get quite close and personal with your readers. Through Trash is for Tossers, you share your enthusiasm for the use of the menstrual cups and give advise for a zero waste sex life. A few people I’ve mentioned you to, have asked about toilet paper, which you explain on your site is biodegradable. But what do you do if you walk into a public place and they only have the bleached, dyed and/or colored toilet paper. Is this still biodegradable?
All toilet paper is biodegradable. The difference is whether or not it’s recycled. The cheapest options usually are, but some of the expensive brands that are thick and really white, come from a virgin source and have been bleached and heavily processed. The way the wastewater system works, it breaks down all toilet paper, so it’s a matter of sustainability, not biodegradability.
You wrote on your blog about how you sustain from buying Christmas presents, for various reasons. What if you are invited to a birthday party where it is expected that guests bring gifts? What will you typically bring and how will you wrap it?
Sometimes I get my friends something to do instead of a thing. I will either take them out for dinner or cook them a nice meal at home. Other times, I will get a potted plant or a home made product, such as a face scrub or lotion. I’ll give it to them in a reusable bag or wrap it in some upcycled paper.
People can change, you just can’t make them, but you can show them that it’s possible.
You’re on your way home from a party and you’re really craving a night snack before hitting the sack. Bodegas and fast-food restaurants are full of packaging. Where do you go for a treat?
I always have some kind of junk food at home that I can snack on, popcorn being a favorite. I also usually have peanut butter, bread and dried fruits. Otherwise, New York is also full of pizza that is open all night, and once in a while I’ll get a slice, and ask for it straight in the hand. Or if they serve it on a paper plate, I take the plate home and compost it.
Are there any products that you have ruled out since switching to a zero waste lifestyle, that you really miss?
No, not really… On the contrary, I’ve been surprised at how little I really need. I used to buy so many different types of products in the store, from face creams to hair products. Because I now make so many things myself, there’s basically five ingredients that I use in almost everything, and they are all natural and inexpensive. It’s been the opposite of difficult, because I had no idea just how simple things could be. Instead you save money and feel less cluttered — less claustrophobic.
On your site you show how to make toothpaste. Which other beauty products do you use or make, and will you share them online as well?
I also make deodorant, face moisturizer and body lotion. For shampoo, I use bulk, organic castile soap, and for body and face wash, I use an organic, unpackaged soap bar. For make up, I use only two separate products from a company called RMS. I have a jar of french green clay for masks, baking soda for exfoliation and corn starch as dry shampoo.
The next product I’m adding to the site is home made body moisturizer. We just filmed it and it will be up shortly.
Lauren Singer with her Mason Jar of trash from the last two years. Photo by Sonja Georgevich.
You mentioned before, that as a paying customer you should be able to have things served how you want them. Are your special requests usually granted with a smile, or do you find that some people get irritated?
The things I mainly buy out are coffee and drinks at a bar. When I ask to have my coffee made in a mason jar, people usually never have a problem with it. I recently went to a café where they refused, and do I opted for a neighboring café instead. I’m sending them a letter to ask why they won’t serve in personal cups, since it makes no sense.
It’s been the opposite of difficult, because I had no idea just how simple things could be.
What about when you travel by plane? How do you avoid being wasteful?
Most airlines don’t offer any complimentary snacks or drinks anymore, and if they do, airplane food is crap, so I will bring my own anyway. I will for example take a sandwich wrapped in a napkin or a salad in a mason jar and a small snack — as well as my jar for water and drinks.
My attempt to play Devil’s advocate seems futile and I give up! Lauren, you are truly admirable and there seems to me no situation you haven’t thought about. Instead, I’d like to say thank you for being such a great example and fantastic spokesperson for this cause!
If we weren’t fans before, we definitely are now, and we’re stoked to follow Lauren’s next moves, as we research where to find our own bamboo toothbrushes and make the best tasting home-made toothpaste.
Thank you for your time and all the best!