Navigating a Near-Zero-Waste Lifestyle

At week one of world lockdown, I overheard my neighbor expressing concern on when the waste collector might come around because their trash bin is filled up. At pre-quarantine panic in California, a friend of mine shared that sanitary napkins were quickly wiped out from supermarket stalls.  A lot of memes have made fun of people’s loss of control and having to overeat junk because of being quarantined for a month and lying in the couch Netflixing all day.

I have had to deal with none of these problems, and I owe it to my very slow transition into a near-zero-waste lifestyle starting over a year ago. Since I moved out last November, I have aimed for only a fist-size of waste per month, if any at all. I have been using a menstrual cup for nearly a year now. Junk food was first to go years ago when I was just starting to lessen plastic consumption. It’s almost as if I have been preparing all these last few years for this quarantine cutdown.

Going over the edge

My journey at the onset of attempting a zero-waste lifestyle was not easy.

In 2015, I wrote a children’s book about a Filipino sea turtle because of my love for the oceans and the Philippine islands and, turning it into a cause, got connected to environmental organizations and causes and became so aware of climate change and plastic pollution that it stressed me the corals out.

Awareness is what environmental organizations rally for. So much of today’s problems could be addressed more easily if people wouldn’t turn a blind eye on the effects of our collective and individual actions. Obviously, if we saw (or rather, looked at) and understood how harmful we have become, not only to others but mainly to ourselves, we would be forced to act on change.

I, however, had hyperawareness. And it soon gave me anxiety. I think whenever you cross a border in the maps that you have already neatly laid out in your unique way of life and thinking, you will always be faced with the challenge of self-acclimatizating and it’s something you have to figure out on your own.  

I got so depressed and felt overwhelmed about so many things I couldn’t control, specifically: tons of Other-People’s-Garbage.  And it didn’t take a lot more information for me to feel that I had to fight the world to save to world.

Fast forward to today, it looks like the world – all sides of it – is now figuring it out for itself.  The need to slow down, reconsider all our steps and deranged footprints, make do with only what is essential and be a more mindful mover in the elaborate system are messages that have now come across loud and clear.  All thanks to an invisible player that we can’t even pick up with our most skilled senses.  We humans think our intellect makes us superior to everything and that our talents are essential for the world to go round.  But this Earth, our million-year old matriarchal hostess that have put up with our stupid addictions and overall sloppiness for a couple thousand years now, obviously knows better.  And we’d all be smart to just listen, shut it, and finally get started on cleaning our damn rooms.

How to begin

Pay attention. Make yourself aware. Consume consciously. Make mindful decisions. Care. Consider. Be present. Begin. Fail. Begin again. Practice.

Facing our world today, we are learning that our actions, our state of being, our cleanliness and our awareness directly affect others’ lives and an entire living, breathing planet. Let’s take this opportunity to reflect on the message being delivered to our doorsteps and learn how to begin anew and take steps towards a new direction and discovering new routes. We are all now learning to walk again, and we are all being reminded to tread carefully.

Step #1: Tip the trash bin

To find out what you must change, you must take a look first. Again, awareness.  It’s like when you are asked for your urine and stool samples at the annual check-up.  What kind of shit exactly are you coming up with? What are your essentials and what unnecessary waste could you be doing without? You will see how often you produce it – once a month, once a year, every day? Right away, from this “looking,” you can make a decision on what you can completely eliminate and what would take more time, creativity and resourcefulness.

Maybe you could scale down to a smaller trash bin, then you would put more thought into what you could recycle, what you’d take time to reconsider before purchasing, or what you’d actually be eager to give up today, so that you wouldn’t be bothered with a bin that fills up so frequently.

Suddenly, you are aware of your habits and consumption.

Suddenly, you are more mindful.

This is your first step and it is a step that you’d do best to keep taking to guide you all along the way.

Step #2: Tame the toiletries

Creams, meds, vitamins, shampoo sachets, deodorants, sprays, moisturizers, balms, make-up mayhem, sanitizers by-the-gallon now, scented this and scented that, beautifying feminine wash and pheromone-inducing mayonnaise.  The last one might be a myth that I am inventing, but hey, I will not be surprised.

Two magic words: baking soda.

Baking soda for everything, seriously.

That scruffy little orange thing you’d curiously wonder at as a child, sitting timidly in the corner of your fridge doing humble work, is holding sorcery in a box. It gets rid of odor and germs from your armpits to your dog yard. It has been my deodorant and all-around cleaning agent for years now. And since I can easily store baking soda in a tiny container and have it in my pouch when I travel, it also serves as emergency soap and mouth cleaner.  

I have mixed it with coconut oil and peppermint drops to make myself toothpaste, too. But nowadays, I have been using this local product and it has lasted me over three months now. It’s delicious and available online.

For shampoos, you may switch to shampoo bars. The same goes with soap. Instead of the fancy bottled ones, you could just stick to the traditional bars in paper boxes. They’re cheaper and will do the work.

Of course, organic products in 100% recycled packaging are also there for options.

My mom got this brand’s body wash for me from the local grocery and it smells wonderful and has a most impressive CV.

I think there are all kinds of options when you want to start caring for the environment and you can go low-budget and basic, or stay fancy, but mindful fancy. 💚

Toilet paper? Go for paper-wrapped. Cotton buds? Go for the sticks made of paper or bamboo or wood. Facial wipes? Go for reusables. Need to sanitize? Let’s say this altogether now: wash your hands!

Now for the ladies here: sanitary napkins and diapers for the babies are big things to give up. They are also probably our biggest contribution to creating waste in the world. Our gift of femininity doesn’t have to come with this price and sacrifice.

Reusable cloths and liners, the menstrual diva cup, plastic-free tampons, absorbent bamboo underwear… options are growing and flowing.

Trust me, I understand your unease. I tried the tampon for the first time when I was already over thirty, and only because I had my period unexpectedly at a beach in Hawai’i and my best friend who had unsuccessfully been convincing me to switch for so long was the only one who had something to the rescue at the time. She taught me how to slip it in from outside a cubicle at the public restrooms.

I eventually switched permanently because only tampons had the plastic-free option until reusable napkins and pantyliners became a thing. But let me tell you – the menstrual cup changed my life. I own a reusable napkin now for when I expect to have my period outside my house on the first day, but I happily have switched over completely to the cup for a year now. And it has changed the whole experience and convenience of my cycle.

No guilt, no more bulk buying, no trash bins necessary, no activity restriction, infrequent changing, no smell, no chemicals and a more personal relationship with my monthly visitor.

Step #3: Skip from the heart

When all this talk about the plastic straw started, I know, we were all saying that you could do at least one thing and you’ll be a hero. I guess we were trying to be symbolic and hoping that this one small step would transform you from within and you would actually do more. Because contrary to urban coffee shop myth, fighting plastic pollution is not just about skipping the straw.

If you are only skipping the straw because commercial establishments tell you to, but then you don’t stop to think about your other choices, then you continue to be an unconscious consumer. That high plastic container for your ultra grande frappucino pretty much pales the heroism of your steel straw gadget.

I do not wish to devalue any efforts. But this is a reminder of the difference between doing what you are told to do and finding inspired movement and action in awareness that is cultivated, enduring and growing.

The reason why mass destruction comes around so quickly in humanity is because of our natural instincts for herd mentality. This is what makes commercialism and indifference so rampant. Try going the other way. Once you learn to skip the straw, why not skip some more? Bring your own containers, reusable bags and refillable tumblers, ask for the paper cup or the house mug…

If you have started becoming more aware, this is also your opportunity to raise awareness in others, to create a conversation. If it weren’t for the first wave of ocean enthusiasts demanding for options and simply saying no to a straw, a #skipthestraw movement wouldn’t have come to be in the establishments at all.

If you change the demand, you change to supply. We are all co-creators of what this world is churning out. 

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Step #4:  Be a healthier, friendlier human and support local

Junk food was the hardest for me. It was also one of the first real sacrifices I made. I also had to give up the frappucino drinks, chips, anything I used to consume en masse that had no other packaging options.

You do not have to go cold turkey. If it is something that has become a staple in your life, just cutting your consumption in half makes the biggest difference, doesn’t it?

But for me, as I persisted, as a result, I started forcing myself to get enthusiastic about fresh snacks, eat fruits, buy from the market and buy fresh. And just because I was desperate to be as plastic-free as humanly possible, I ended up becoming much healthier than I had ever been in my life. I gave up fast food, I started planting, I buy local produce and from small sellers so as to contribute less to carbon footprints. And in the end, I am actually the happiest for it.

Who wins in these small steps towards change? You do. You definitely do.

Don’t forget your reusable bags! 🙂

Step #5: Practice, don’t be perfect.

Be a flawed human being and try.

You make the rules. Write them down, cross them out, draw insipring pictures – a dirty list is much better than a dirty Earth.

Get your hands and feet dirty. Don’t be scared, life is here to guide you.

Today is the day to begin, and always. Happy Earth Day and let’s keep this world going round!

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